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A three-year study of the ways small-scale farmers operates in Africa, Asia and Latin America by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has prompted calls for a major rethink of development and business interventions.
The final report dubbed HIVOS Project by the IIED and published on Thursday- shows how mainstream efforts to make markets work for poor farmers can fail to operate in tune with the ways such farmers themselves try to make their markets work.
Bill Vorley, a principal researcher at the IIED and co-author of the report said “Contrary to the prevailing narrative, and what NGOs, policymakers and donors expect, interventions that aim to upgrade small-scale farmers into high-value, formal supply chains and modern markets tend to benefit only 2-10 per cent of farmers.”
Vorley and his co-authors said most small-scale farmers combine farming with other activities and trade more in informal than formal markets – and rarely through cooperatives or producer organisations that could take advantage of connections with modern markets.
The report shows that rather than being a problem that needs to be fixed, informality could provide the space for small-scale farmers’ agency, to find and build flexibility and resilience in a globalising world.
A central part of the study was managed by a network of farmer leaders, business people, researchers and civil society that spanned Central America, the Andes, East Africa, India and Indonesia and led from Bolivia by the MainumbyÑakurutú Research Centre.
This learning network found that dynamic local, national and regional markets in developing nations gave small-scale farmers options beyond those that high-value and modern global supply chains offer.
Factors that encourage this include more buyers in the countryside looking for supply, increased trade between developing nations and a growth in urban markets.
At the same time, many small-scale farmers are modernising in their own ways. Rather than rejecting or fully joining modern, globalised markets they are combining aspects of them with informal structures, culture and traditions.
The report draws attention to a key issue: the fact that fewer young people will want to farm tomorrow.
Policies and development interventions to support small-scale farmers need to fit with this changing and complex reality to get the future right regarding not only agricultural production and consumption but also youth employment.
Co-author, Ethel Del Pozo-Vergnes, a senior researcher at IIED, says it would be better for governments, donors, development agencies and big business to work to understand and support the strategies small-scale farmers are already using, as the combine formal and informal ways to make markets work for them.
The report and regional reports for Asia, Africa and Latin America provide case studies of situations where this is already happening. “Informality has its downsides,” says Vorley. “
Small-scale agriculture is defined based on farm size. Many sources, including the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, count landholdings of two hectares or less as small farms.
By this, there are at least 450-500 million small farms, representing 85 percent of the world’s farms, which are thought to support partly or completely, a population of roughly 2.2 billion people, or one-third of humanity.
There are just a little over a billion people employed by agriculture according to FAO report of 2009, of which Sub-Saharan responsible for 176 million constituting 16.5 percent of the global figure of 1, 068 million.
Olivier de Schutter, UN Special rapporteur on the Right to Food, estimates that 200 million farm workers are not paid enough to benefit from food security and dignified livelihood.