Creating lasting impact with smallholder farmers

Smallholders form the backbone of the global Food & Agriculture production system.

Working with smallholder farmers in tropical regions means helping to ensure that farmers can eat and make a living from terra fertile in the coming years. And that is not an easy task, considering the consequences of climate change, growing population and volatile crop markets.

But these are just the big drivers – the daily challenges most smallholder farmers face (e.g. in Sub-Saharan Africa) are on a much smaller scale, is our experience. Many smallholder cooperatives lack tools, options to enhance soil fertility and options against pests & diseases – i.e. they lack knowledge, training and money. Working with them means recognizing this reality, considering it from the start and in any recommendations developed at a later stage.

Tools and techniques for lasting impact

Crucially, farmer coops must be able to profit from a project in a sustainable way – a way which does not deplete their natural resources. There must be a clear monetary benefit for the coop after the project period, for example by producing compost and saving money on chemical fertilizers.

To make sure of this, as Soil & More Impacts we apply a 3-step approach to our field work: Communication, Implementation, Flexibility (CIF). Our pragmatic CIF approach is based on a long history of working with smallholders. The approach can be shortly described as follows.

First, the financial benefit and the project’s activities must be clearly Communicated. Only then will smallholder farmer coops will start working and be less reluctant to change. Smallholders coops are often, deemed by circumstances, rather risk adverse.

Second, once the project has started, there will be an Implementation plan, e.g. for introducing a new option for enhancing soil fertility. However, great ideas are not always totally feasible. For example, we may try to introduce a new liquid fertilizer like compost tea – efficient, sustainable and cost-effective, but it cannot reach the majority of farmers. This may be due to limited transportation options, scarce water resources or poor access to application devices. Such challenges are not necessarily clear when a project starts, which is also a reality that confronts us. Therefore, next to good planning a project must also have the ability to change and react flexibly if things don’t work out as initially planned – and they hardly ever will. So, third, Flexibility of approach is important to making things happen.

Another upcoming element in projects is digitalization. The use of digital data collection devices is a route, more and more embraced by particularly the younger farmer generation. An efficient data collection, preferably via App solutions, can be beneficial for success in and upscaling of projects with smallholder coops. An example is our work for the FAO where we developed the SAFA Smallholders App.

Project and knowledge ownership at coop level

In this blog we can only scratch the surface of the complex reality of smallholder farmer livelihoods. To ensure long-term impact, at Soil & More Impacts we always work to transfer project ownership to the coops themselves, preferably embedded in a structure with value chain partners. We analyze soil fertility issues, bring technical expertise and help coops to start using new techniques professionally – but we train the trainers, not every single farmer. It is important that the coops are given full ownership of technical skills and knowledge, especially when upscaling a solution – such as producing and applying a sustainable fertilizer at scale.  Ultimately, the coop and its members are responsible for a project’s success and need the support of their off-takers.

Just one of many examples is our project for cocoa farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast, who produce the cocoa beans for the sustainable chocolate manufacturer Tony’s Chocolonely. Farmers are members of cooperatives, and we help both the individual farmers and the cooperative agronomists and lead farmers to detect soil fertility issues and understand how they can deal with them in an independent way. It is the farmers themselves who will take action to improve soil fertility in the long-term, making project ownership highly important to success. We train the cooperatives and ensure they know how to equip themselves with the necessary resources to support the farmers in their efforts.

The moment farmer coops assume a project is not theirs anymore, it loses its effectiveness. After each project phase we step back a little more – still offering support but learning and seeing how farmers manage the project activities more and more on their own.

For us, success means seeing the challenges for farmers decreasing and livelihoods improving to their benefit. Hence, achieving that their daily realities become a little less complex.