Farmers at a market in Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo by: CIAT / CC BY

Once, we grew or farmed enough to feed our families. Today, almost all of us are net buyers of food. Even most smallholder farmers — the majority of agriculturalists in many developing regions — spend more on food than they earn selling it.

As the young turn their backs on farm labor and move to cities, our food systems lag behind. The logistics of getting seed and fertilizer to farms or produce to marketplaces is fraught with barriers: Poor storage exposes food to rot, rains and vermin. Bad roads delay delivery. Sellers miss out on deals.

Supply chains — the networks of people, resources and activities that link food sources to 7 billion mouths on Earth today — must work better to meet growing demand, both for staple foodstuffs and, as habits evolve, for more protein, fat and sugar. And they must become more efficient. One third of total food production is wasted; while fussy consumers are the main culprits in rich countries, up to half of waste in developing nations happens right after harvesting.

But food security is not just about producing more food more efficiently: Food should be affordable and nutritious — and part of a system that’s sustainable.

Food price spikes have sparked revolutions; intensive agriculture can dry up natural resource wealth. Governments, consumers and corporations are waking up to the need for a “triple bottom line” that allows social and environmental gains alongside financial profit; new technologies add value as systems evolve. But is it enough?

Small farmers, big responsibility

Small-scale farmers are an economic force — and as both producers and consumers, they’re at the heart of efforts to create a food-secure world. In most African countries, 70 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods; most farming is done on small family farms, which produce up to 80 percent of food there.

African leaders know this and in 2003 they promised to spend 10 percent of national budgets on agriculture through the African Union’s Maputo Declaration, including on efforts to help farmers access markets.

Yet the integration of smallholder farmers in policy and practice has often been lacking. By neglecting transport links to smaller markets, for example, agricultural corridors in Mozambique and Tanzania risk becoming “corridors of power,” according to Francesco Rampa, a researcher at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, a think tank based in The Netherlands. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched at a meeting of the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations in 2012, has been attacked by some skeptics as favoring private investors over small farmers.

The odds are stacked against smallholders: unequal access to resources, underdeveloped markets, volatile climate — and low incomes. Cocoa growers today receive as little as 3.5 percent of the average retail value of a chocolate bar, compared to 18 percent in the 1980s. Agricultural workers are also losing out. Certification schemes may have improved conditions for some, but decent wages remain the “Achilles’ heel,” said Erinch Sahan, private sector adviser at Oxfam Great Britain. In some tea-growing regions, basic wages are below the national poverty line, even on certified estates.

Some of the world’s most influential political leaders and investors are trying to redress that balance. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $2 billion to agriculture, including through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which develops and disseminates new seeds and financing. The multibillion-dollar U.S. Feed the Future initiative aims, among other things, to boost the harvests and incomes of rural smallholder farmers. The World Food Program now sources the bulk of its supplies from low- and middle-income countries; of the food it buys from the Tanzanian government, for instance, 20 percent comes directly from smallholders.

It’s not just a development story. Consumers from London to Nairobi to Beijing increasingly want to know how their food is produced, and powerful brands are responding. An Oxfam-led campaign prompted commitments this year from the three largest chocolate companies to ensure better conditions for women in supply chains. Unilever is examining how its sourcing practices impact farmers, for instance. Nestlé has provided pulping machinery to Ethiopian coffee growers and taught responsible farming practices in Thailand.

Connecting the dots

Typically, food security programs have sought to raise household incomes of the most vulnerable — perhaps by maximizing the productivity of low-value crops to free up land for higher-value produce, or through off-farm income-generating activities. Economic development programs, on the other hand, have tended to work with producers of higher-value cash crops, aiming to improve competitiveness.

Over the past few years, though, governments and their partners have begun to explore ways of integrating the two, and the focus has shifted to a broader understanding of creating value, according to Bronwyn Irwin, senior technical director at ACDI/VOCA. That may involve, for instance, finding a honey buyer in Kampala willing and able to invest in a buying point in Karamoja, a food-insecure part of Uganda, while helping to increase the supply of honey by supporting local hive producers and training beekeepers.

It’s often easier said than done. Supply chains are characterized by “tenuous relationships and low levels of trust,” said Neal Donahue, economic growth and trade specialist at Chemonics, “so we look for ‘anchor’ buyers that offer consistent demand to help build a sustainable system.”

Add food insecurity, and you complicate the picture — inconsistent demand often results in similarly inconsistent ability to pay and increased likelihood of reneging on contracts.

“Those issues don’t go away when food insecurity is out of the picture”, said Donahue, “but without it, we can focus on getting functioning market systems working first.”

Innovations for value

Some new developments are helping the marginalized capture more value.

Agricultural commodity exchanges, now in a handful of African countries, can give farmers access to real-time market information. Mobile technology puts that information directly into their hands — also offering services like planting advice, or the facility to receive fertilizer vouchers, or opportunities to connect to other farmers to collectively buy inputs. It’s still a big leap for a buyer to pay a stranger upfront in a mobile marketplace, but the potential to better connect small farmers with the rest of the chain is significant. Many institutions already communicate directly with farmers via text messages; Nestlé, for instance, is currently piloting the use of SMS in the Philippines.

Counterfeit seeds and agrochemicals affect production levels — and can destroy entire crops. Though it’ll be difficult to keep one step ahead of fraudsters, solutions are emerging — from scratch-off authenticity codes verified via SMS, to the introduction of smaller packs to discourage sellers from mixing in lower-quality seed once a large sack has been opened.

High-end research can address the everyday challenges small farmers face. AGRA has generated 464 new improved varieties of 15 crop species, more than 300 of which are available for sale to farmers across Africa. And a Ghanaian scientist just developed a breed of chicken that can better withstand high temperatures.

But low-tech solutions can also have a big impact. In many cases, labor is the biggest direct cost of production — so labor-saving devices such as small equipment for chopping maize stalks, or herbicides to eliminate weeding by hand, can help to increase a farm’s competitiveness, said Steve New, regional Africa director at Fintrac.

And while innovations like customized fertilizer mixes based on soil fertility testing may be accessible only to large commercial farms, others, like microdosing — applying small, affordable quantities of fertilizer using a bottle cap — can work for small plots.

Beyond technology: systems, too

Such innovations are cause for optimism that food production systems can work for the poor. But they have their limitations.

Convincing farmers to invest in the adoption of new products and techniques — especially through on-site demonstrations — can be costly and time-consuming. Small metal silos for grain or cooling facilities for dairy may give households or cooperatives the option to sell later, but someone has to pay upfront.

The process of rolling out innovative ideas can be painfully slow. Promising products like solar-driven irrigation or hermetic grain storage bags are only just becoming commercially available. Scaling up or adapting successful technologies means tackling intellectual property issues. And while continued investment in developing improved variety seed is vital to better adapt to climate change, “research and development efforts will need to be much more closely linked to agricultural extension services to overcome the currently long — up to 10 year — gap between developing a great variety and putting it in farmers’ hands,” said Claudia LaLumia, senior associate for agriculture and economic growth at Tetra Tech.

Those most in need of tools to increase productivity are also least likely to have the surplus cash to invest themselves. Yet, New said, innovation funds tend to overlook the “first mile,” that crucial link between producer and first buyer, not least by setting minimum levels of funding too high.

Innovation, then, needs to be combined with efforts to address broader power structures. That seems to be one takeaway from the recent entries to an innovation fund at the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation. Many of the applicants proposed mechanisms to empower farmers, according to CTA’s Judith Francis.

Significant impact may come from things that aren’t actually new. For instance, cooperatives may encourage smallholders to farm continuous plots, making tractor or thresher or even animal traction services cheaper.

“There are so many old practices not yet mastered by most farmers that could be extremely helpful if shared more broadly,” said LaLumia, pointing to traditional farming methods that are being revived around the globe, like the use of “zai holes,” a planting technique that improves soil fertility and humidity, in Mali.

Basic needs

New approaches or technology will only work if they meet persistent needs. Mobile banking may have transformed how people move money, but people also need access to credit. Warehouse receipt systems, under which producers get a receipt on depositing produce which they can use as collateral on a commercial loan, are one recent innovation.

Any business, regardless of its size, needs skilled labor to succeed. Nestlé, which trained 300,000 farmers last year, has seen a “clear demand” for more training, according to Duncan Pollard, head of stakeholder engagement in sustainability.

“Improving productivity only goes so far,” Pollard said. “People need basic skills like accounting, too.”

They also need decent infrastructure, which requires investment. African governments have begun to reverse a three-decade decline in public investment in agriculture — but only seven countries have consistently met the 10 percent spending target 11 years later.

To some extent, the private sector is stepping in. Not only through partnerships like Grow Africa, under which international firms have pledged more than $7.2 billion in agricultural investment, but on a smaller scale, too.

As value chains become more integrated, said Olaf Kula, West Africa program manager at ACDI/VOCA, large buyers are better able to support their suppliers’ secondary produce, preventing them from diverting critical inputs from the main crop. For example, British American Tobacco in Mozambique and Ivoire Coton, Cote d’Ivoire’s largest cotton company, both prefinance inputs for their member farmers’ secondary crops. Large dairy firms in Kenya have for many years invested in cooling facilities for their producers. Companies in Zimbabwe are providing banana farmers with irrigation services, training and infrastructure under an initiative supported by Fintrac.

Partnerships like the latter — which required negotiation with banks and other private sector partners, plus strong market demand — are still few and far between. But they’re growing in number, and foreign aid donors and their partners are increasingly aware of the need to identify market actors and their potential incentives to share risk and invest.

The development factor

To some observers, that shift has been too slow.

“There is still too much emphasis on production,” said Christophe Pelletier, an agriculture expert. “Farmers need a strategy, and to spend more time finding the right partners, getting to know their customers.”

The development community, he suggested, could help with strategy, negotiation and marketing.

It could also help to navigate conflicting objectives. A recent value chain assessment in Mali, for instance, showed that in 2012, NGOs purchased all the improved millet seed on the market for distribution in other food-insecure regions, leaving none for local buyers. In northern Kenya, aid groups have repeatedly offered free vaccinations for livestock during periods of drought. That might save a poor farmer’s livelihood, but it does no favors to the nascent private sector veterinary services at the one time when business should be booming.

With the ever-present pressure to demonstrate results, it can be tempting to just find 5,000 vulnerable farmers and dish out new tools rather than prove the impact of more indirect, facilitative support. Some donors acknowledge this: Both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.K. Department for International Development are looking into more flexible ways of monitoring and evaluating market systems programs.

Donors can leverage positive change. WFP Tanzania, a big buyer of food from both government and commercial sources, has been encouraging partners in both spheres to offer small suppliers a better price. An indirect result has been that some farmers who had viewed the U.N. program as their only fair market defaulted on WFP contracts because they had received better offers — a sign, in some ways, that they were “starting to realize they have options,” said Country Director Richard Ragan.

Much work remains to be done. Raising incomes alone will never solve food insecurity; increased earnings don’t translate into better nutrition, as people tend to eat more of the same staple food. And development programs still need to be more inclusive. Where beneficiaries are self-selected, men tend to come forward, said Irwin. Reaching women, who comprise half of Africa’s farm workers, therefore requires “an active strategy.”

They might also address what Kula called a persisting “cultural bias” against working with middlemen (in some regions, more often women), one that “flares up in times of scarcity.” Small traders are a crucial link, often the only ones going all the way to the farm gate, and addressing their constraints could improve efficiencies along the chain, said Irwin. A study in Zimbabwe, for instance, found that limited transport options restricted the quantities these traders bought, while an overreliance on personal contacts meant missing opportunities to sell in food-deficient areas.

And of course, advancing food security means engaging a whole new set of actors.

Previously, said Donahue, it was clear that “to help farmers, we put on our boots and go work with the farmers. That’s still important, but now we also need to put on our suits and go meet with the global buyers.”

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

  • Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.