What do we know about which smallholder farmers we reach?

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The debate on the role and impacts of supply chain approaches in supporting smallholder livelihoods has advanced significantly in the last decade. We know much more today about the impacts of supply chain tools on farmer incomes, yields and livelihoods than a decade ago. And, although we have less information about some sectors and on impacts of new tools such as company programmes, we are in a better position to analyse the potential and limits of supply chain initiatives in driving long-term change.

Given the advances in research and programme thinking, it might seem surprising that, until recently, we had little detailed information about who participates in such schemes. A recent paper by ISEAL explores this question and highlights why it is critical for sustainability standards and supply-chain tools to invest in learning about the farmers with whom they work. The paper’s insights, based on monitoring data from seven agriculture standards and empirical research, are applicable to a wide range of tools and approaches.

The paper highlights that multiple data sets and analytical experiments confirm that across regions and products, certified smallholders have larger farm sizes compared to the average farm size in that context. This means that those who participate in (or are selected into) these schemes are relatively better-off farmers in that region growing those crops. While land size is only one indicator of the socio-economic status of a farming household, it is worth noting that those with the smallest farms also tend to be the poorest and most marginalised (IFAD, 2019; FAO; 2012).

However, the result that farmers who participate in certification tend to be those who are relatively better-off is not to say that they are not poor. On the contrary, data confirms that sustainability standards do work in some of the poorest regions of the world and with poor farmers. But even within the poor, those who tend to participate in such schemes are those with a higher land-asset profile than those who don’t.

Understanding this difference means that schemes can adapt and target their programmatic responses for smallholders with larger and smaller land sizes.

The fact that participation is characterised by relatively better-off farmers also highlights that there are some limits to their accessibility, which is a core principle of credibility. Research points to several factors that limit the accessibility of schemes – a key one being the high initial costs of production changes needed to obtain and retain certification.

But these factors alone do not determine which farmers end up in these schemes. More significantly, the findings show how those entrusted with group formation chiefly determine which farmers participate in such schemes and which don’t. The critical role that groups play in determining smallholder participation puts a lot of power in the hands of those entrusted with forming groups to determine who is selected. These could be implementing partners, local marketing agencies, government agencies or even importers and traders dominating specific supply chains.

Research points to a range of factors that determine which farmers are selected into schemes, which could be based on farm characteristics (size, soil type, location, topography), farmer characteristics (age, education, experience) or other market determinants such as accessibility to processing unit or distance to the nearest road.

Without monitoring and understanding how groups are formed, and by whom, we risk overlooking an important factor explaining why certain farmers are in certification schemes and other are not.

There are an estimated 470 million smallholder farms globally under two hectares in size, of which 86 per cent are less than one hectare. The best estimates place the extent of certified land to be about 1.2 per cent of all global cropland. Even if we include the coverage of other supply-chain sustainability schemes, sustainability standards’ collective efforts to reach these farmers remains modest.

If schemes seek to address issues of smallholder poverty and livelihoods at scale, they urgently need to assess how accessible they are to those farming households who fall out of their nets. Such as assessment might result in the conclusion that certification may just not work for farmers with very small land sizes – but this should be an informed position rather than a de facto one based on selection dynamics. If, on the other hand, the goal is to widen reach to a broader spectrum of farmers than those who are currently being reached, urgent innovations in programme designs and models are needed.

Understanding the profile of farmers we work with is also critical from an equity standpoint – are we improving incomes for farmers who are already better-off in a region or can we raise income levels more equitably?

Research on the impacts of supply chain tools in boosting farmer incomes shows promise and potential for the changes that such approaches could make. But, without expanding reach and addressing accessibility concerns, there is a clear limit to what can be achieved in the long term.

Rangan, V.
Impacts and Evidence Senior Manager at ISEAL Alliance

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