Practical ways to progress for smallholders

By Paul Castle 20 October 2015

A researcher checks up on wheat seed stored in a climate-controlled warehouse in Bangladesh, where farmers are able to access improved seed that results in better yields. Photo by: S. Mojumder / Drik / CIMMYT / CC BY-NC-SA

I couldn’t believe my ears. A few years ago, our local rowing club wanted to buy a boat that mentally impaired youngsters could use on their own. For these children, it was a moment of huge pride. To my astonishment, however, several people from whom we tried to buy the boat said “it’s pointless, they’ll never learn.”

Fortunately, we knew they would. And fortunately, we found some partners whose faith in these youngsters was so strong that they contributed their own money towards a brand new boat. Today, it’s in regular use, and yet another class of the supposedly unteachable passed our sculling test this summer.

What’s this got to do with global development? Well, I’m often reminded of those oarsmen’s dismissive attitude in the field of agriculture. There’s an undertone of “we know what’s better for them” running through a lot of the talks, websites and articles I see about smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Bolivian mountain villages, the texts say, don’t need this or that piece of technology; farmers in Guinea-Bissau are much better off sticking to hand-weeding and old seed and fertilization by their goats.

The authors typically write for organizations based in places that haven’t known true hunger since the 1940s (Hamburg, Germany, for example), or not since the early 19th century (Bern, Switzerland), or which have probably never known hunger — like Palo Alto, California. But those writers still supposedly know that smallholders in developing countries should be kept well away from modern advances in agriculture. I think that is about as insulting as claiming that one extra chromosome makes you unable to row.

There are probably several motivations for such a patronizing rejection of technology on other people’s behalf. But one favorite argument is money. Higher-yielding seeds, a less back-breaking and time-consuming method of weeding, or a fertilizer that complements the goat are all — say the patronizers — far too expensive. Taking money from people who don’t have much is nasty, capitalist and generally suspect. Especially because — spot the unproved circular argument here — the poor farmers won’t want the stuff anyway.      

I beg to differ. There are bags of proof, both historical and current, that if the right product is available at the right price with the right information, people worldwide will benefit from it. Take certified disease-free seed, for example. Sure, it costs more up-front than saving some of last year’s seed. But instead of therefore shooting it down on principle, we need to do two things.

First, we need to think ahead, instead of ideologically. Using modern seed raises yield. With potatoes, for example, harvests can easily double. Quality and quality improve markedly, just through the change in seed. Alter some other practices at the same time, and the gains can be even more striking. The resulting profits considerably outstrip the extra expenditure.

But the thinking ahead doesn’t stop there: Higher yields require more storage space. In a team, smallholders can afford proper silos that enable them to sell produce over a longer period, and not just at low prices straight after harvest. So instead of patronizing, get planning.

Secondly, lower the risks, instead of just raising objections. Here the patronizers have a point, of course: most new technology initially costs more than old versions. But instead of pretending that that’s a reason not to use it, we need to find smart ways to lower the entrepreneurship threshold — in other words, to make it easier for smallholders to invest in their harvests.

Government subsidies may help kick-start a change, but are not a sustainable option. Making credit and/or insurance affordable and accessible is a better way to encourage investment, year after year. People who sadly also see financial services as nasty, capitalist and generally suspect will find it difficult to help smallholders run their farms as sustainable businesses. But there are many good reasons why farmers in Australia, the Netherlands or Canada are so successful — and banks and insurance companies are near the top of the list. So instead of patronizing smallholders, it’s time to get practical.

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About the author

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Paul Castle

Paul Castle is communications manager at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Basel, Switzerland. Between careers in healthcare and agribusiness, Paul worked as a journalist and translator. 30 years after graduating from Oxford, he completed a certificate in African Studies at Basel University, specializing in radio extension for smallholders in minority languages. Paul is trustee of a children's cancer foundation and an international rowing commentator.


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