Smallholder Farmers & Big Business: Some Key Conference Takeaways

This is a guest post by Tobias Webb, Founder of the Innovation Forum. 


Innovation Forum recently held a conference on how business can engage smallholder farmers. For those who were there, or were not, here’s some of the take aways we cobbled together. Some of them might even be useful.

The importance of smallholder farmers in so many commodity and other agricultural supply chains is increasingly recognised.

As is the potential they offer in terms of better productivity that can maintain the global supply of essential products and, crucially, improve livelihoods at the farm level.

Over the course of a two day debate at Innovation Forum’s recent smallholder farmer conference in London, there were many challenges and solutions discussed around building supply chain security resilience.

Here are some of the main talking points – and some links to podcasts with expert participants.

  • Business models are essential for creating the scale and speed we need to help smallholder farmers. But we need to move the business models closer to the farmers, and make them relevant for them. The role of NGOs is to help by testing and evolving these models.
  • But how do we build these new business models? How can we make things easier? All too often companies know what they should do, but don’t know how to go about it. Equally, the farmers have the knowledge to improve productivity sustainably, but lack the access to finance and technology that they need.
  • There is always talk about taking projects “to scale”, but what should this really look like? In the smallholder context, too often it means a small impact on as many farmers as possible. But is this really the best model? Is it not better to work more deeply with fewer, at least initially, to develop far more effective impact? TFT’s Bastian Sachet says more in this podcast – available here.
  • Gender imbalance is a serious problem and a barrier to proper development. Empowerment of women can properly improve livelihoods and productivity, in smallholder supply chains and elsewhere. There are some great examples of projects where this is being made to happen – CottonConnect’s Alison Ward and Primark’s Lindsey Block talk about one such example in a podcast here.
  • Technology can provide some exciting solutions – and in many cases it is the small scale smart-but-simple answers that can be the most effective for smallholders. Basing new products around existing technology that the farmers will have access to already – such as mobile phones and cellular communications networks – is an effective way of focusing technology so that it works.
  • Measuring progress is vital, of course. Doing this in a way that focuses on real change and what it looks like is the challenge, and moving away from a tick-box standards-based approach. Standards and certification have had a vital role to play, and will continue to be important. But there need to be next steps.
  • Engaging all the value chain in solutions, including the farmers, is key. Leading companies can see the benefits of, for example, sourcing locally and are working with their suppliers to share these benefits for increased productivity and enhanced livelihoods. Diageo’s Michael Alexander talks about this here.

This article was originally published on Sustainable Smart Business

Tobias Webb is the founder of the Innovation Forum and sits on the sustainability advisory board for Walgreens Boots Alliance. He works with businesses all over the world and has also taught corporate responsibility at King's College London and Birbeck University for eight years. You can follow him on Twitter at @webb_tobias

Header photo by Levi Morsy (Creative Commons).