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Small is bountiful: Why smallholder farmers feed our future

October 15, 2018

Smallholder farmers service an astonishing amount of the global food need; helping them take advantage of modern farming practices helps everyone.

For the last ten years, Umakant Singh’s workday has begun at 6:00 am. It often goes on until well after sundown. The long summer days in the sub-tropical climate of India’s northern Uttar Pradesh can be brutal, but they are only one of the multitude of challenges he must face every day, tending to the crop that will provide for his family over the year. 

Umakant can lose a third of his chili plants to disease, while flooding is a constant threat that could wipe out his entire harvest in a flash and, without knowing the current local market prices, he risks selling his produce for too little – or even at a loss. All this can make it difficult to earn enough to survive – let alone put away the savings he needs to invest in his farm for the long-term.

Smallholder farmers like Umakant are the rule rather than the exception, especially in the developing world. There are currently more than 475 million smallholder farms around the world, occupying 70-80% of the total global farm land. Umakant works on just one of India’s 93 million small farms. And these farms form a critical element of global food supplies. Around 80% of the food consumed in developing countries is produced by smallholder farmers, working on plots less than two hectares in size.

“The biggest problem is we lack information – about new techniques, about newly invented crop protection products, and about market prices. If we do not get a good price at market, we cannot afford to increase our output."

– Umakant Singh, chili farmer, Uttar Pradesh

The tools these farmers rely on are a mixture of ancient and modern agricultural practices. While the land has been tended with plows, hoes and picks for generations, tractors and spraying mechanisms now augment these traditional methods.

But without the latest support in technology, innovative practices and capacity building, the livelihoods of smallholder farmers – and the livelihoods of those that depend on them – will continue to be fragile.

The smallholder challenge

Smallholders like Umakant are trapped in a vicious cycle – a lack of income, education and resources means they are operating farms at a fraction of their potential capacity. This means they can’t make the necessary investments that would help their productivity, especially when they are often faced with a choice between providing for their families or investing in the farm.

And faced with ever growing demands from consumers, there is pressure to not only produce more but maintain the quality of the chili already being grown.

“The biggest problem is we lack information,” says Umakant. “There is a lack of information about new techniques, about newly invented crop protection products, and about market prices. If we do not get a good price at market, we cannot afford to increase our output.”

For farmers like Umakant to realize the productivity that will help them to invest in future growth, they need better access to:

  • Training (capacity building): Most smallholder farmers in developing countries practice farming as they have learnt it from their parents and grandparents. But farming has moved on. Educating farmers in the latest methods in crop protection, crop management, irrigation, and soil nutrition enables them to build more productive farms. In turn, these farmers can share these insights with others in their local community.
  • Resources: Smallholder farmers also need access to essential on-farm resources. These include better seeds, more effective crop protection solutions and fertilizers, modern farm machinery, irrigation systems, and improved crop storage. But it also includes having access to financial resources like credit lines, and insurance against flooding and other forms of crop loss.
  • Markets: The most efficient farm in the world is worth little if there’s nowhere for farmers to sell their produce. So, the third thing farmers need is access to physical and digital markets. This includes access to things like price transparency and certifications, as well as pathways to collaborating with food chain partners. It also means farmers understanding the demands of the value chain in terms of the quality and the correct and safe use of plant protection products and fertilizers they buy.

Working together to find a solution

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges, which is why many players from both the public and private sectors around the world are collaborating to better support the needs of smallholder farmers like Umakant.

For example, Better Life Farming, an alliance between International Finance Corporation, Netafim, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, and Bayer is giving farmers access to the latest agricultural practices and technologies – from crop rotation and protection to improved irrigation systems – as well as to training, finance and insurance. By leveraging their agribusiness expertise, the alliance aims to provide financial security and boost agricultural know-how, transforming the productivity of these farms – and the lives of those who work on them.

Another similar global initiative is Food Chain Partnership, which helps improve farmers’ access to markets. In this particular case, Bayer connects farmers with global traders, processors, food retailers and NGOs. It offers training for the farmers so they can better fulfill market demands.

Umakant is a prime example that these models work. Bayer has worked with him to expand the productivity of his farm using modern techniques like crop protection application technologies, weed, pest and disease control, greenhousing and mulching (where the soil is covered by tarpaulin, helping retain moisture and prevent weed growth).

“We’ve seen the productivity of the farm go up by between 60 and 70 percent,” says Umakant.

And the improvement process is far from over: “I love learning about new technologies, and how these can help me and other farmers increase outputs. It’s meaning that I’ll be able to get my daughters a good education and buy my own house and car.” 

Agriculture built for the future

Initiatives such as Food Chain Partnerships, the Better Life Farming alliance and the World Food Programme, are critical to helping smallholder farmers become more productive, competitive and resilient. They are empowering farmers like Umakant to turn their small farms into profitable businesses.

This boost in economic growth will not only lead to an improved livelihood for these farmers and their families, but also for their communities – and the world at large. More productive farms produce more, higher quality food, generate more opportunities for employment and set the foundation for rural communities to flourish.

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