Enabling food security through smallholder farming

Kavita Prakash-Mani, 18 Jan 2013

How will we feed 9 billion people by 2050 when there are already 870 million hungry people in the world today? The answer is not simple. It centres not just on increasing the production of food but also on ensuring that food is accessible, affordable, and nutritious − and is produced sustainably, respecting our planetary limits.

Syngenta believes that a critical part of the solution lies in working with smallholder farmers. Farming on less than 2 hectares of land in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, smallholders currently produce around 25% of global food production and economically support and feed more than 2 billion people. They also account for half the hungry people in the world today – evidence that if they can improve their livelihoods through better farming, they can lift themselves, and their local communities, out of hunger. It is estimated that even if large farmers increase their production by 20% by 2050, smallholder farms will need to more than double their current production in order to feed a growing population, which places an even bigger challenge on their shoulders - but one that can be achieved.

The yield gaps that continue to exist are mostly in developing countries that are dominated by smallholder farmers. Yields in developed countries, as well as in many countries in Asia, have increased significantly over the past 50 years. Cereals yields have more than doubled in many regions, reaching highs of over 8 tons per hectare in places like the UK and France. Yet the majority of countries in Africa and in parts of Asia are still producing well below their potential – providing the opportunity to increase yields in these regions and increase food security.

Figure 1: Syngenta analysis, using FAO data

Smallholder farmers need access to a range of services and products to enable them to develop as farmers, as communities, and as providers of food security for themselves and the world. They need access to markets, information and training, among other support. The services that can be provided to smallholders include:

Figure 2: Mapping smallholder needs (Source: Syngenta)

Appropriate technologies

While it can’t provide all the answers, technology has a significant role to play in increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers and bridging the yield gap. Large farmers in developed markets have seen big jumps in productivity over the past several decades, largely due to the introduction of pesticides, improved seeds, mechanisation, and fertilisers. Currently, only 34% of the farmers in low- and middle-income countries have access to adequate resources and markets.

While not all technologies are appropriate for all geographies and all farmers, appropriate technology coupled with agronomic knowledge and best practice can help smallholder farmers to increase productivity and profitability in an environmentally sustainable way. Herbicides can significantly reduce labour costs and time spent weeding. Improved seeds can increase the yield potential of a crop, and increasingly allow crops to withstand environmental pressures, such as water scarcity. Fertilisers can significantly increase yields and avoid nutrient mining of the soil. One example of this type of approach in action is TEGRA™, where Syngenta is working closely with rice farmers to understand their challenges in rice production to develop a new technology that improves transplanting techniques, requires less labour, and increases yields.

Other areas that merit further investment in technology are locally relevant crops, such as sorghum, tef, and cassava in Africa. These form the dietary staple for many of the resource poor farmers and their families, but have seen no investment in research and development to improve their productivity. One such approach is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa initiative, where the private sector, development agencies, public research organisations and local research institutes are working together to develop drought tolerant maize varieties suitable for the African region.

Part of the challenge around technology is not just about making inputs available to the farmers. Training and demonstration is essential, both on the safe use of inputs as well as on best agronomic practice, including how to prepare the land, how and when to plant, how to manage pests and diseases, how to harvest, and how to store. Syngenta’s experience in working with smallholders has shown that this is a slow process requiring on going, on-the-ground engagement with farmers, working alongside them to develop the best agronomy and technology protocols. Farmers need to see the results on the ground to be sure that any new technology being introduced will result in increased production and income.

Given the geographic spread of smallholder farmers and their sheer number, mobile phone technology is increasingly being used to support the dissemination of agronomic advice as well as other valuable information, such as market prices and weather predictions. Nokia, Vodafone, Tigo and many other mobile companies are developing specific products focused on smallholder farmers, and are partnering with companies like Syngenta to develop robust solutions.

Affordability of inputs

While the newer generation of inputs is more efficient and effective at enabling farmers to grow more from less, they also need to be affordable for smallholders. Learning from the consumer goods industry, Syngenta is developing small packs of products to match the money in the farmers’ pockets. This allows farmers to purchase crop protection products in small packs, making them affordable and easy to apply. Syngenta has successfully established a small pack market in many countries in Asia, and is introducing this approach in Africa. In Kenya, this approach, called Uwezo (meaning “capability” in Kiswahili), is matched with field staff and agronomists working closely with farmers and a training program for retailers to enable them to provide the right advice to the farmer.

Even with these efforts, the higher outlay for inputs can pose a financial risk for the farmer who is already dealing with the vagaries of nature and the market. New insurance products are being developed to reduce this risk. The weather-indexed input insurance programme, Kilimo Salama, developed by the Syngenta Foundation along with Swiss Re and launched in Kenya, enables farmers to invest in inputs, secure in the knowledge that if too much or too little rain ruins his crop he will recover the cost of the inputs. Kilimo Salama currently insures 70,000 farmers in Kenya and Rwanda, and building on this success there are plans to roll it out in more African countries.

Ensuring profitability and market access

For smallholders, access to appropriate inputs and increasing productivity does not necessarily lead to higher incomes or food security. They have to be able to access markets and sell their products at a fair price. Many factors come into play at this stage, including the smallholder’s ability to store their products so that they can sell their produce at the most appropriate time, at the best price. Technology can play a role here too – from developing low cost storage solutions to ensuring that their harvest remains safe from pests and diseases. The next step is to find the right buyer – this could be a local market, a commodity exchange, or an international company.

New models are being tested in this space, including contract farming, out-grower schemes, farmer associations, and producer companies. Having security of demand also allows farmers to invest in their farms, inputs and processes. In the NUCOFFEE model in Brazil, Syngenta provides inputs and advice to farmers and is paid back at the end of the year by the farmers in an equivalent amount of coffee, which in turn Syngenta trades as high-end sustainable coffee and re-invests in farmer development. In Vietnam, we are working with Nestle and Yara, as well as government agencies and NGOs, to develop training and solutions for coffee farmers using demonstration farms. All partners work together to develop the most profitable and sustainable protocol for farmers, and the link with Nestle ensures that the farmers can sell their products profitably.

Higher farm incomes are in turn critical for food security. As mentioned, smallholder farming families constitute half of the hungry people in the world. This is not just due to lack of availability of food. It is often a matter of affordability. Farmers often spend 70-80% of their incomes on food, compared to the 10-15% that urban consumers spend in developed economies. If smallholders can receive a fair price for their produce they can use this income to purchase sufficient and nutritious food for their families.

Consolidation of smallholders

One approach that has helped smallholders to make the most of their land is by organizing farmers into associations. Whether described as an association, cooperative, producer company, self-help group – the organization of farmers into groups can provide them with a range of services that can increase their collective productivity and profitability.

For example, they can ease access to input and output markets, allowing farmers affordable access to high quality inputs, but also to fair and reliable markets for their produce. They can help farmers access financial services, such as credit and insurance. They can facilitate access to information – such as crops advice, weather forecast, and market prices. They can also provide training not only on agronomy, but also on softer skills such as entrepreneurship, accounting, and advocacy.

The overarching principle as to why associations help, is that they give farmers a much more powerful and influential voice. This increases their negotiating power, which can assist farmers to achieve better prices for inputs or produce, and even influence public policy.

Farmer associations also enable suppliers, buyers, and service providers to reach a larger number of smallholders more efficiently. Food chain companies increasingly source their raw materials through cooperatives: to source inputs for its Ben & Jerry’s brand, Unilever is working with smallholder cooperatives with a membership of over 23,000 farmers. Input companies can similarly work with farmer associations, as Syngenta does with cocoa farmer cooperatives in Cameroon, to help them to increase the quality of their cocoa, facilitate access to financial services, and link them to buyers who will offer better prices for their produce.

We expect that smallholder farmers will remain small in the coming generations – but by working together they can create a strong voice to access the technology, services and policies they need to become more productive and profitable.

Smallholders and the environment

While increasing productivity of smallholder farms, we also need to ensure their environmental sustainability and their ability to deal with climate change. Agriculture already uses 70% of the world’s water supply, 40% of the land, and generates 30% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. It is critical that we ensure that even while producing enough to feed the growing population, the environmental footprint of agriculture decreases, or at least, remains the same. We also need to ensure that natural resources such as soil, water, and biodiversity are protected. Growing more from less will mean increasing productivity per hectare of land so that we do not increase the amount of land needed for agriculture, and better protect natural environments such as rainforests and grasslands. Given the low yields on smallholder farms, there is a unique opportunity to work with them to increase food production on the land they already farm and help them use resources like land and water more efficiently. We also need to work with smallholders to ensure they use inputs such as fertilisers and crop protection safely, and do not pollute their surrounding environment.

One programme that is designed to address these issues is the Environment and Climate Compatible Agriculture project in Tanzania, run by Syngenta in partnership with Yara and local universities. This programme works with smallholder farmers growing rice and maize, providing them with advice on inputs and agronomy practices. Data is then recorded to monitor changes in productivity, profitability, and environmental impact. First year results showed an 82% increase in yield for maize and 122% for rice. Farmers benefitted from a 110% increase in profit for maize and 96% for rice – while greenhouse gas emissions and water use remained the same.

In summary, smallholders have the ability to reduce hunger in the world and help feed the growing population. However, they need support and access to technologies, markets, information and finance. If companies, governments, donors and NGOs come together and work in partnership with smallholders farmers, they can help lift the farmers out of poverty. This not only supports rural economic growth, but also contributes significantly to overall food security. With 870 million people already hungry, a growing population and changing diets due to rising incomes, the need to produce more food – sustainably – is urgent. The food riots in the recent years are just one example of the growing desperation. The time to act is now.


•    Water Efficient Maize for Africa partnership: http://www.aatf-africa.org
•    TEGRA/Syngenta’s rice offer: http://annualreport2010.syngenta.com/en/our-offer/Rice.aspx
•    Uwezo programme: http://www.syngenta.com/country/ke/en/crop-solutions/vegetables/uwezo/Pages/home.aspx
•    Kilimo Salama micro-insurance programme: http://www.syngentafoundation.org/index.cfm?pageID=562
•    NUCOFFEE programme: http://www.nucoffee.com.br/en/home.asp

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Kavita Prakash-Mani

Head Food Security Agenda, Syngenta

Kavita Prakash-Mani is Head Food Security Agenda at Syngenta. The current focus of her work is working with smallholder farmers to improve their productivity and profitability, and on environmental sustainability of agriculture. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food Security and Nutrition. She was previously Vice President for Client Services and Emerging Economies at SustainAbility, a strategy consulting firm and think tank, where she focused on the food and beverage sector and on emerging economies.

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