DuPont: Partnering to help small holder farmers is good for business

Lystra Antoine, director for agriculture development at DuPont Pioneer. Photo by: IFPRI / CC BY-NC-ND

Interest in food security goes beyond the purview of development professionals — increasingly agriculture companies are seeing a business case for getting involved.

Chemical giant DuPont has recognized the importance of smallholder farmer and is investing, in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development and others, to help support farmers. They are developing new seeds and products and working on training and distribution challenges.

Devex Impact recently spoke with Lystra Antoine, DuPont Pioneer’s director for agriculture development, to find out more about their work on food security and some of the lessons they have learned along the way.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

DuPont is working on addressing food security in partnership with USAID and others. What have you learned from your work in this area, particularly through the Advanced Maize Seed Adoption Program in Ethiopia?

One of the key learnings for us particularly in the AMSAP was the importance to embed the program, or to ensure the program addressed the concerns or the goals in the agriculture sector that the government held as priorities. The government has its own agriculture growth plan, in that plan maize was identified as one of the priority crops and it was identified that part of what the government wanted to do was make sure that productivity was increased.

I think one of the other points that we learned was that as we developed the program it was important to have stakeholder consultations that were not only in Addis Ababa; so we had regional consultations in the regions where the program is being implemented. As part of those regional stakeholder consultations we not only had cooperatives and farmer unions and government extension workers and government agencies but that we included the farmers themselves.

The other learning that we’ve had, given that we’ve designed this as a value chain program, is that as we implement we’ve got to be willing to make corrections along the way. So we designed it as a dynamic program. As we interact with other parties along the value chain we’ve learned and seen how we can partner with others.

How does this work, and these partnerships fit into DuPont’s plans in Africa?  

The continent is an important market for us and so is Ethiopia and these programs are critical to our own priorities in these countries and the reason for that is as we develop a more educated consumer base that also impacts our ability to expand our market share in these countries.

We also know that as part of our ethos we need to have customers that are well informed, that are economically viable. So as we increase the economic viability of communities then what we end up having are long-term customers who can afford to purchase seeds and other inputs and reap the benefits of doing that.

We’ve found as well that these smallholder farmers, once they are trained and experience the power of a hybrid seed, they’re able to change their lives beyond the farm. A lot of the smallholder farmers can send their children to school, they can create different dwelling places and that is important because the economic value accrues not only on the farm but to the communities. More prosperous communities are certainly much better equipped to participate in economic activities in their communities and spur and generate other economic activities. So as we see this, it’s a win for us.  

There is some concern about genetically-modified crops and in many African countries, GMOs are not allowed. Is DuPont providing or selling genetically-modified seeds?

The seeds that we use in Ethiopia and through much of Africa are hybrids that are conventional breeding so they’re not GMO or GM technology. Our approach is that what we provide, the options that we provide in country, is always guided by the regulatory framework in those countries. As DuPont Pioneer, what we do is provide products that are accepted by the countries and the projects that we serve. So nowhere in Ethiopia or most of Africa would you find us either promoting or providing gm seeds if the market does not, is not yet ready, or it’s not allowed to be in the country.

What products are you currently researching and developing? What areas are you exploring?

We are constantly looking to improve our product, whether it’s the sustainability of our product or whether it is ensuring that we have more drought tolerant varieties or varieties that withstand pests and diseases, or varieties that will stand and not fall over, but there are lots of different traits that we are using our research in order to strengthen or to make a product more effective as well. That is an ongoing constant investment that we make in science to improve not only the productivity meaning the yield of our crops but there are several other aspects of the crops that we focus on as well. One of the areas that I actually think will be an interesting area is the whole area around food security and nutrition. This is where fortification of crops that are now rich in just caloric value, but not necessarily rich in nutritional content, becomes important. And so we, for example, have been working on fortifying sorghum. I think we’re likely to see much more breakthroughs in terms of staples ensuring that they have much greater nutritional content than they currently do.

What is the role of the private sector in working with smallholder farmers?

The smallholder farmer in Africa is definitely an agent of change. One of the key impediments for smallholder farmers is access. Access to the productive resources, land, access to finance, access to technology, access to markets.  As a private company part of what we look at is how do we help smallholder farmers overcome the issues around access.

Africa has a very youthful population today and that youthful population is moving away from the farm into urban areas. Until and unless we create an enabling environment and an attractive environment in agriculture for young people we will continue to be plagued with some of the more socially negative issues around youth migrating to cities. So how do we encourage youth to return to the farm and to see farming as a livelihood? Not the type of livelihood that their parents and grandparents enjoyed, but one that could actually be economically viable.

As the private sector, I think its important as well that we also engage with policy makers to help them understand what the private sector needs. We are investing over $10 billion in research and development between now and 2020. That’s not an insignificant amount of money and so one of the things that also needs to be in place in a lot of these markets is the intellectual property protection and the intellect property stewardship that’s required to ensure that we can continue to invest in new products.  

We believe that we as the private sector can work more closely with the public sector, with NGOs and CSOs and with the farmers themselves to bring what are global science to these local environments and develop local solutions that build off the global science but are customized to the local environment.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.