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Smallholders, rural poverty and Covid-19. Collective action to create durable supply chains: our new research initiative

In the below article, Dr Peter Stanbury and Tobias Webb outline how Innovation Forum , through our Innovation Accelerator initiative, has developed a research coalition to tackle one element of the challenge, that of smallholders. 

As we wrote recently, a key driver of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the persistence of rural poverty in developing countries, and the behaviours to which that poverty drives smallholder farmers.

Yet these are the same communities with which many in the corporate sector have been working for many years to address issues such as rural incomes and environmental degradation.

Though much has been achieved, it is clear that more needs to be done, and that ‘more’ needs to be based on greater collaboration between companies operating in different commodity supply chains.

Moreover, the debates remain blind-sided on key issues such as the political and sociological factors which govern communities in which supply chains operate. This too needs to change.

This piece sets out what a ‘more’ which addresses these issues might look like. What is proposed here is not intended to step on the toes of existing activities, membership organisations and initiatives.

Rather, what we propose is a process to share, and fill gaps in our knowledge about smallholder farmers around the world, so that interventions on the ground can be as well-informed as possible.

What is the problem?

Covid-19 has demonstrated how rapidly a zoonotic disease can spread, and how devastating that spread can be. Yet the risks of future pandemics are very real, and rural poverty is a significant driver of this.

Poor productivity and the need to increase incomes lead smallholders to cut down forests, leading to increased deforestation; low household incomes mean that rural communities sometimes resort to hunting bushmeat, which contributes to the trade in endangered species.

Yet agribusinesses have long recognised that small scale farmers are central to the creation of genuinely durable supply chains around the world.

Considerable efforts have been made to improve the incomes and welfare of smallholder communities, and to engage these farmers to help address the fact that farmers’ behaviours are significant drivers of environmental challenges such as deforestation and habitat degradation.

Yet these efforts have yet to yield durable solutions. We think there are three central explanations for this:

  1. Those involved have often shied away from looking at some of the really difficult but fundamental issues because they are regarded as too complicated or scary. Key challenges such as a host government capacity, inadequate enforcement of laws, and implications of land tenure arrangements remain poorly understood. As a result, solutions for them have not really been explored properly.
  2. Work on sustainable supply chains has typically been done in commodity-specific silos. Yet most commodities do not exist alone – they are grown alongside other crops, and within social settings which have a fundamental impact on what is possible. These contextual issues – the political economy in which supply chains exist – do not really figure in existing efforts to create sustainable supply chains.
  3. Commodity-specific approaches mean that lessons learned by companies operating in different silos are rarely shared. Membership organisations mean that lessons may be shared between companies operating in the same commodity chain, yet few structures exist to share learning between These different sets of lessons need to be better shared both to deepen our understanding of the problems, and to identify better where the gaps are in that understanding.

What we are doing

We have created a process to bring together leading companies, and others including development agencies and NGOs, operating in a range of commodities to share learning and differences in smallholder transformation towards resilience and durability.

Instead of working on a commodity-by-commodity basis, the work will focus on different geographies, seeking to explore the way in which different companies and other stakeholders need to collaborate to effect durable change.

Responses to our recent writings have demonstrated that there is a genuine appetite to do just this. People want to be frank about these issues, and find ways of addressing them. Ways which will actually work.

Much good work is already underway, and our new initiative is intended to support, not conflict with, for example existing membership organisations and other initiatives. What we believe makes our work different from that done by others is as follows:

  1. It will focus on sharing knowledge across commodities, from cotton to palm to cocoa: At present, insights into developing durable supply chains exist in silos, with different companies having different pieces of the jigsaw. Our process will begin by bringing the silos together so that companies in these different commodities, and others, can share their learnings about what works, what does not and what issues remain unclear and unknown.
  2. It will bring in new insight and analysis about what post Covid-19 business looks like: What is noteworthy about current discussions about building durable supply chains is that insights into a number of significant issues are almost entirely lacking. For example, we know little about the societal dynamics of communities in which supply chains exist, and rarely are senior figures from host governments and their domestic institutions engaged in what companies are doing. This research will consider the politics of real change for smallholders.We therefore intend to address these gaps by including specialists in fields such as:Political science: To provide insights into issues such as how governmental structures in host countries operate.Development economics: So that this work can build on existing knowledge about how economic development happens in rural communities.Ethnography: So that we can understand issues like how communities operate, and how to effect lasting change within long-established social structures.
  3. It will be action focused: We are not looking to undertake research and analysis for its own sake, but rather to inform concrete actions on the ground. Our work will therefore aim to derive specific recommendations for action in key geographies where commodity supply chains operate. Moreover, we have no academic or ideological bias – we just want to support companies find out what works.

We see this project being a natural extension of what Innovation Forum has brought to the sustainability debate since our inception – information, analysis and debate.

How it will work

In its first year, the process will do the following:

Insight-sharing workshops

We will hold two online workshops, each lasting two to three hours which will bring together representatives of participating companies. The aim will be to share the insights and experiences of those operating in different geographies and commodity sectors – information which currently exists largely in silos.

These meetings will be held under the Chatham House Rule so that participants can be frank about what has not worked, as well as what has. Each workshop will also seek to identify ‘unknowns’ – factors which would be key to durable supply chains, but which remain insufficiently understood. The workshops will be on the following topics:

  • Farmers: This workshop will examine companies’ experiences in working with farmers on issues including:
    • Income diversification
    • Environmental issues, deforestation and habitat degradation (forest positive approaches)
    • Labour issues
  • Government and society: Companies’ experiences in dealing with the wider societies in which farming communities exist. Issues to explore will include:
  • What needs to change in how farming communities operate?
  • Engagement with government at different levels
  • Enforcement of laws and regulations

Each of these meetings will be written up to draw together the key themes and insights from the meeting. These write-ups will also include a clear assessment of where key gaps in knowledge exist. These documents will be circulated to all members of the group.

Seeking new insights

The next step will be to fill the gaps in knowledge identified in the workshops, and to add insights from other sources, with a particular focus on understanding the context in which supply chains operate.

This will include focusing on how best to engage government at all levels in host societies. We need to better understand their priorities and strategic objectives, and the capacity and other constraints that they face. We need approaches which will build trust so that, over time, governmental and corporate initiatives can work together in a complementary fashion.

To make this possible, it will be necessary to focus on a small number of specific geographies, perhaps one each in SE Asia, West Africa, and Latin America. We will work with participating companies to define these.

When the specific locations have been decided, we will then conduct detailed desk-based research. This will draw together lessons from the initial workshops, and adds insights from relevant experts – for example academics, political commentators, and country specialists. This research process will be drawn together into concise documents – effectively political economy analyses of the selected geographies.

The papers will also include an initial assessment about how work by different actors might best be linked – who is best placed to do what? Each analysis will include an appendix assessing the specific issues relevant for each company involved in the project.

Action-planning workshop

A further workshop will be convened after the analysis papers have been circulated. This meeting – again we anticipate them lasting about two to three hours – will be aimed at creating a collective view about how best to proceed in a co-operative fashion.

This may include, for example, seeking to align different companies’ actions on the ground, identifying further work with local communities, and establishing processes for joint engagement with government and other relevant stakeholders. The workshop will also consider the most appropriate vehicles for these actions.

We will then draw together the outputs from the process into a single document which will define a clear, collaborative course of action to create durable supply chains in the selected geographies. This will include defined processes for less risky engagement in issues like land reform, capacity building and collaboration with government.

Communicating what is being done

We anticipate that the work and the conclusions resulting from this work will be ground-breaking. It is important therefore that this work is disseminated effectively. The findings of the project will be presented at the IF November conference.

We would also anticipate sharing learning online through Innovation Forum’s extensive existing social media outlets. It may also be relevant to communicate findings to a wider media audience world-wide.

Developing the process into 2021

We intend that this process becomes an ongoing, iterative process to:

  • facilitate lesson learning between companies in different commodity sectors
  • build our collective understanding of the challenges to create durable supply chain
  • define and implement action to address these challenges effectively.

Join us

If this article and call to action has piqued your interest please contact us to discuss collaboration. We’re already working with a number of research partners on this programme and initial participation will be limited to six organisations/companies. Contact Tobias Webb to discuss.

Here below are some other recent relevant articles we’ve published. All suggest using a Political Economy Analysis to create a Collaborative Development Governance framework, then with practical actions underpinning them.

Long read: Palm Oil, biofuels, sustainability and the EU. The state of play and the way forward

Smallholder agriculture: From commodities to landscapes – towards sustainable improvements in supply chains

How to deliver real sustainability in the cocoa sector: Collaborative development governance

Sustainable cocoa: a manifesto for change

To see our approach to managing online and face to face working groups and coalitions take a look at our Innovation Accelerator offering here.

For more insight on Innovation Forum’s new deep digital engagement platform, take a look here.