Lessons From The Field - Helping Smallholder Farmers
Our team have recently been sharing tips and tricks that can make or break an agricultural program.
Given how transformative these initiatives can be for people’s lives, you’ll understand why we take them so seriously.
We’re always looking for ways to get more families involved, increase the amount they can grow and earn, then ensure that the benefits last for generations.
Here are some of the approaches that we’ve found useful:
Give people assurance
Farmers aren’t stupid.
People understand that some crops are more valuable than others, and the generally know the kind of work they’ll need to do in order for their crops to flourish.
What they don’t know is if someone will buy their (allegedly valuable) harvest at the end of the season.
To you and I, this might not seem like a huge risk, but we’re not staking our livelihoods on that chance.
If we can create a guarantee that says “We’ll take all you can grow at $X/kg”, families are much more likely to make a switch.
Make credit accessible
To you and I, $100 isn’t a lot of money – we’d casually spend that on a pair of shoes without blinking.
To those in the developing world, $100 requires a loan, usually from someone without their best intentions at heart.
If we can help farmers borrow money at a low, fair interest rate (14% instead of 40%), we can reduce their stress and enable them to try growing more valuable crops.
Provide access to fertilisers
The stats behind fertilisers are crazy – the right fertiliser at the right time can double the productivity of a garden.
It’s a delayed payoff, so we try and make fertilisers as cheap as possible, or even give them away for free and pay a little less for the crops.
That way, farmers aren’t choosing between paying school fees or improving their land.
Porque no los dos?
Improve planting densities
Our teams teach households about small tricks that ramp up yields, such as planting more seeds per hole, and spacing plants in an efficient way.
Instead of planting 4kg of seeds per acre, farmers should plant 10kg, and receive a much larger harvest in a few months’ time.
Make mechanisation attainable
Sure, families won’t own their own tractor, but they don’t really need to.
Since they only need access to a tractor twice a year, we initiate microbusinesses that rent out machines for a day at a time.
This allows farmers to reap the benefits of mechanisation, without the massive investment.
It also creates a job for a local entrepreneur.
Set up demonstration plots
Showing is much more powerful than telling.
Words are cheap, as are the empty promises of us expats – they’ll have seen people like us before.
But when your neighbour’s corn is suddenly a foot taller than yours, you want to learn how they did it.
That’s how we capture attention, by showing the results with a demonstration, then talking about the methodologies.
Use structured payments and mobile money
Cashflow is a major source of anxiety, so we use structured payments to reduce the feast/famine seasonality.
For example, we might arrange to pay farmers 40% upfront, to help cover costs as they grow their crops, then the remaining 60% as they harvest.
Mobile money removes the risk of theft, and sets each household up with a bank account.
Establish a farmer code of conduct
Yes, people will try and rort the system – their barrels of rubber or grain will contain some hidden stones that bump up their weight.
Nothing surprising, Aussies would do exactly the same thing if they saw an opportunity.
By establishing a code of conduct early on, the rules are made clear, and everyone understand the costs of dishonesty.
Avoid criticising traditional methods
Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
As such, it’s best to not criticise the “antiquated” or “backwards” systems that are currently in place – they probably exist for a reason.
Yes, there may well be improvements, but we can make those gradually, without looking like the know-it-all westerners.
Intercrop short and long cycle crops
Delayed gratification can only last for so long.
Most of the really valuable crops (like vanilla, nutmeg, cocoa, coffee, macadamia) take 5 years to establish.
By alternating these long term crops with shorter cycle ones (like vegetables, stevia or cassava), farmers get the benefits of immediate income and long term prosperity.
It’s vital to ensure that the two crops play nicely together, and don’t rely on the same nutrients in the soil.
Create positive competition
Those of you who are fans of behavioural economics will know of the benefits of friendly competition.
This is where farmers compare notes on their yields, and the inner one-upmanship drives them to be more diligent with their gardens.
If that can nudge them to go from nine bags of corn to thirteen, then life becomes a lot easier.
These might seem like small, incremental improvements – and they are.
We serve smallholder farmers; two thirds of whom earn under $400 per year, and 30% of whom have no income at all.
It’s not uncommon to have ten people dependant on a single plot of land, and when cash runs low parents may only be able to afford the school fees for one of their children.
If boring improvements to a plot of land can transform that family’s life, then agriculture suddenly becomes fascinating.