Why a farmer-first approach might not work

Picture a small scale farmer in Zambia.

Imagine all the things that keep that farmer from running their farm as a profitable business.

There are lots of reasons, but let’s looks at the most commonly cited ones:

Lack of farming and business skills and knowledge.
Lack of capital, financial and otherwise.
Lack of power, societal and otherwise.

All these reasons illicit a common reaction from donors and NGOs:

“Let’s train them.”
“Let’s give or sell them stuff.”
“Let’s empower them by doing the first two.”

Now, for you practitioners out there, think back to the last time you ran a farmer training.

Do you remember how many of those people went home and tried doing something new? Do you remember how many people actually changed their behaviour?

Likely, a very small number. Maybe 5% (the ones that are always quick to adopt), 10% if you’re lucky.

Why is that? Is that an acceptable return on investment?

I’m as big a fan of investing in small-scale farmers as anyone out there, so I can’t help but feel disappointed by this outcome. Even if you use the best methods and even if you design all the best incentives, programs that employ training and technology subsidies by rote don’t get very far.

There must be more to it.

What if a farmer’s lack of knowledge and assets is seen as a symptom, not a cause, of the problem? What if you zoomed out and looked at the larger system?

Though an important player, the small-scale farmer is one of many players in a large and complicated market system. The solution to a problem in one part of the system (e.g., with the farmer) may be found in a completely different part of it (e.g., in the financial industry).

This means that the solution to a farmer-focused problem might require a non-farmer-focused solution (e.g., working directly with banks to create a low-margin-high-volume business model, services from which a small-scale farmer can choose to access to improve their business).

I see a lot of organizations moving in this direction, but I’m afraid their efforts will be futile if the image of a deficient farmer continues to loom large in their methods. Training farmers and “linking” them to other players is simply a variation on the same old theme. To truly take a systems approach, one must detach from this image and put the emphasis on creating a more prosperous industry that small-scale farmers can participate in.

I find it difficult to be so clinical about the whole matter, but I do believe it’s what’s needed to create large scale and lasting changes for farmers. My heart wants to take a farmer-first approach, but my head thinks it might be more prudent to focus elsewhere.


2 Responses to “Why a farmer-first approach might not work”

  1. 1 Roving Bandit March 24, 2010 at 7:28 am

    You can think rigorously and systematically about this approach using “Growth Diagnostics”


  2. 2 Heather MacKenzie April 19, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    A thought that I had while reading was that,

    then you can zoom out even further and question whether the very notion of ‘prosperity’ or wealth accumulation is one of the root causes of their powerlessness in the first place.


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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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