Adapting to climate change: Smallholder farmers feeding the world

By Simon Winter 16 February 2016

A group of maize farmers in the Mbozi district of the Mbeya region in Tanzania participate in training about farming techniques, proper storage and how to reduce post-harvest loss. Photo by: Nile Sprague / TechnoServe

One of the scariest aspects of climate change is the risk it presents to global food supply and millions of farmers’ and workers’ livelihoods. In some parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural productivity for certain crops is forecast to decline by more than one-third.

The 450 million people around the world who rely on small-scale farming for their primary income — and who supply developing countries with most of their food — are the most vulnerable to changes in growing conditions and resulting declines in productivity.

To protect their livelihoods and the world’s food supply in the face of climate change, these farmers must be able to access and utilize the new information, capital and tools necessary to make their farms more resilient. But this represents an enormous cost; in an era of austerity, in which official development assistance and host government budgets are unlikely to dramatically increase, how can these services be provided?

Part of the answer is to encourage the private sector to invest more — and more efficiently — in extension services for farmers in their supply chains. Such investments would benefit not only the farmers, but also the companies that rely on a stable supply of agricultural products, creating true shared value. A recently published Root Capital issue brief provides insights into the role that small and medium-sized agricultural companies can play in this effort. The report’s research indicates that the provision of extension services by such companies is already benefiting farmers in many cases, and that it provides a promising channel for supporting farmers in the face of climate change.

That said, there are important questions about when and how companies should deliver extension services to suppliers, and as we look to promote such investments, close attention must be paid to the business model for each individual firm.

Reinforce existing structures

There are cases where it doesn’t make sense for private firms to invest in extension for suppliers. The brief cites instances in which side-selling by farmers makes it difficult for companies to recoup their investments. But that’s just one factor that would make such an investment unwise. In some communities, the local government provides sound extension, and the private sector should simply reinforce what is already in place, rather than create a parallel structure.

It is also important that the provision of extension services is affordable for the company. While there is a role for philanthropic funding from donors to adapt extension services to local contexts, we should not design a system that would depend on such volatile funding streams in the long-term.

There may be markets and sectors with high requirements for quality, traceability and assurance around sustainability — or those where climate risks are especially high — in which the costs of providing highly technical extension trainings are simply beyond the means of small and medium-sized firms. And there are also cases in which such firms can take more ownership over maintenance extension — which reinforces improved practices — rather than the initial upgrading extension that can transform a value chain by introducing new practices but requires more resources.

Innovative extension programs

In the many cases when it does make sense for a company to provide training for farmers in its supply chain, there still remains the question of how best to do it. Companies often struggle to determine what information farmers need to adapt to climate change, and how best to transmit that information.

That is where catalytic capacity-building intermediaries can play an important role. Organizations such as TechnoServe can work to test, develop and promote approaches to extension that can then be adopted by firms. With the support of John Deere, for example, TechnoServe has rolled out an innovative extension program in Kenya using mobile training units: modified trucks used to screen informational videos and host workshops. Coupled with hands-on instruction at demonstration plots, this approach has helped us provide training to more than 15,000 maize and dairy farmers who have exceeded the target adoption rate for improved agricultural practices.

Also in Kenya, the nonprofit organization AGROMARK and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center have developed a successful model in which agro-dealers provide information to their farmer customers about climate-smart agricultural techniques. Developing and proving such models would likely be too risky for a small enterprise, which is where donor support for organizations working across sectors and with access to global expertise makes sense.

Extension programs, especially innovative ones to promote adaptation, must also be designed with their own sustainability and continuous improvement in mind. Businesses need to introduce feedback loops with the producers to understand if the extension services are really meeting the evolving needs of their suppliers.

Finally, it is important to understand that training is just one part of the package that farmers need to adapt to climate change. For farmers to adopt many of the agricultural techniques they learn, they also need access to improved inputs and services, as well as the capital to pay for them. Extension services need to be complemented by expanded access to finance and insurance.

Taking action

Because the challenges presented by climate change will evolve continuously, and we don’t understand all of the risks that lie ahead, it is important that we design programs that can adapt to changing circumstances and new information. To support farmers, there must be collaboration between farmers, businesses, the development community, governments and scientists.

For example, the partnership with Root Capital, U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the Sustainable Food Lab will link scientific evidence, business models and local adaptive processes that bring all relevant stakeholders together to develop lasting, business-focused solutions.

By following such models of cooperation, we can help to arm smallholder farmers with the knowledge and tools they need to adapt to climate change, improve their livelihoods and ensure that the world has enough food.

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About the author

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Simon Winter

Simon Winter is the senior vice president of development at TechnoServe, where he leads and manages strategy and strategic planning, knowledge management, thought leadership and program development. He is currently a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School, where he is researching how we can change the global food system so that it feeds a growing population and benefits farmers in the face of climate change.


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