Reflections on engaging smallholder farmers, after our recent conference

Nick Kirby considers a recent conference on empowering smallholder farmers and how the lessons learned work on the ground

The challenge of sourcing sustainably from smallholder farmers is as great as the distance from Diageo’s London headquarters to the coffee farms of Amazonas, Peru.

Having recently made that trip after attending the Innovation Forum’s Sustainable Smallholder Development conference, I have been reflecting on a gap between sourcing models that emerged along the way.

A contrast took shape between large scale efforts focused on broadly defined mandates and compliance schedules and smaller scale efforts with a focus on collaboration and expressions of shared values. The divergence between what can roughly be considered ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to supply chain engagement suggests a critical, and as yet undefined, productive space between the two wherein a new concept of sustainable development can take root and scale.

While it is clear that the establishment and maintenance of functional supply chains is challenging enough given the cultural divides, vast distances, and geopolitical uncertainties involved, not to mention colonial legacies and less than ideal regulatory and natural working environments, it is unclear why smallholders are still so often overlooked as problem-solving partners, why they are not more commonly considered as capable solutions-oriented collaborators, not generally respected as contributors beyond the raw materials they supply, and infrequently engaged as advocates with meaningful ideas about long term solutions.

It is unclear why more efforts are not made to empower smallholders and listen to their concerns, not with mere passivity or even token empathy, but with active intent to address underlying information and resource asymmetries, to identify opportunities for strategic co-investment and collaboration.

One such opportunity was what took me to Peru. My thesis research is focused on a co-investment between a coffee roasting company and one its key smallholder producer partner associations, in the construction and operation of an organic fertilizer compost facility. I witnessed firsthand the impact of meaningful collaboration between market actors, not only in the design and conceptualization of the project and the way it drew on local professional networks, but most notably as we visited remote smallholders.

The operations manager of the farm belonging to the president of the association extolled the benefits of using the organic compost fertilizer and associated bio-fertilizer sprays with ease and fluency, making the case for the introduction of new products with confidence based on his own observations and training provided by the Peruvian firm who constructed the facility and provide ongoing educational and technical support.

It was not presented as a new program that would be forced upon association members, but flowed naturally as the extension of common values shared across stakeholders, and financed similarly. Given the nearly 90,000 certified organic hectares in Peru, making this country the global leader in organic coffee exports, and the prevalence of government funded higher yielding, lower quality, disease resistant varieties, this ‘last mile’ adoption of sustainable solutions takes on a special significance.

The precedent for viewing smallholders homogenously as passive recipients of aid and assistance is deeply imbedded in these supply chains, and presents a serious obstacle to the establishment of differentiated meaningful dialogues that facilitate the productive exchange of ideas; the stuff of real relationships. Simultaneously, the expense of building real relationships cannot be understated, nor can the challenge of measuring impact and tracking progress.

Still, the fact that such essential players in this process are rarely acknowledged as the diverse set of actors they are, each with their own unique concerns, objectives, shortcomings, and talents, but all with the potential to better guide and inform sustainability efforts, suggests that this site of underinvestment is long overdue.

The questions of how to effectively mitigate risk and promote resilience, how to best combat climate change and environmental degradation, and how to seriously address corruption and poverty have responses as complex as the issues themselves. No single issue outweighs the others. The simple fact remains that the base of the smallholder supply chain is populated by potential collaborators who live daily with these realities and have largely been historically disenfranchised and systematically excluded from the conversation concerning their very livelihoods.

The proliferation of technology and widening access to information has played a role in bringing producers and consumers closer together, but the speed with which that convergence has happened has perhaps outpaced the conceptual framework that orients each party to the other. The opportunities to meet in the middle, like the stakes involved, have never been greater.

Nick Kirby is graduating from the School of General Studies of Columbia University with a B.A. in Sustainable Development in 2017. He is an experienced business development and account manager, former elementary school teacher, and avid coffee drinker.

Follow his work at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicholas-kirby-7232b9120

Podcasts on smallholders and other agricultural sustainability issues at: https://innovation-forum.co.uk//analysis_podcasts.php

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