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Sustainable supply chains. Why new approaches are needed to smallholder farming

Here’s an update on our action research to drive effective action on smallholder resilience, food security and how procurement will be transformed by both sustainability needs and Covid-19

Innovation Forum is leading an action research project to address the need to build durable smallholder agricultural supply chains. The project brings together a range of organisations operating in different commodity supply chains and geographies.

Project members include the world’s largest food company, Nestle, one of the biggest palm oil companies, Golden Agri Resources, the German Development Agency GIZ, The Clinton Development Initiative and Cotton Connect, a social enterprise working in supply chains of significant cotton sourcing brands. Other members are set to join soon, and work has already begun.

Small scale farmers are central to the creation of genuinely durable supply chains in many parts of the world. Most obviously there is a need to improve the incomes and welfare of smallholder communities.

However, the actions of these farmers are key drivers of environmental challenges such as deforestation and habitat degradation. Efforts to address these challenges have yet to yield durable solutions.

We think that this is the result of a number of factors:

  • Work on smallholder supply chains to date 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.
  • Improvement efforts 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.
  • 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 commodities.

Our research initiative, which will be iterative over time, addresses these issues through three phases of work:

  1. Sharing experiences

We are conducting interviews with key people from each member organisation to understand their experience in working with smallholder farmers. This process is identifying:

  • Key areas of synergy in what members have learned, both in terms of what has worked, and what has not worked
  • Notable differences in the experiences of members, either by commodity, or by geography
  • Where are the most significant gaps in knowledge, and how might these be addressed.
  1. Seeking new insights:

We are then incorporating insights fields such as political science, development economics and ethnography. This work focuses on the situation in key selected places, and analyses:

  • Wider societal issues, and how these affect smallholder behaviours
  • Other activities which are underway (for example, work by host governments) which affect smallholder communities
  • How the lessons gathered from members’ experiences might be applied in practice.
  1. Evidence-based action

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.

One focus in particular will be on how the procurement function will need to change, and what it will look like post Covid-19 and towards 2025. Given that business objectives on the one hand, and smallholder transformation pressures on the other, are combining with traceability to offer more direct sourcing and relationships, we will be exploring what this means for companies.

We see this project as one which will develop and deepen over time. We therefore would  welcome additional members to the group, both to share their experience, and also to be able to learn more about what works in addressing challenges in smallholder supply chains, so that they can improve their impacts on the ground.

The outputs and findings, both interim and then initial project conclusions, will be reported back to our community and the wider media and business world through a series of mechanisms. These include articles, short interim papers, podcasts, webinars, workshops and conference communication, as well as blog posts, and academic papers.

The project lead, senior Innovation Forum associate Dr Peter Stanbury, is a highly experienced supply chains and rural economic development expert. He leads a team of researchers who bring a range of relevant skills and knowledge.

To get involved please contact our head of partnerships, Anita Thomson, at: