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Eve Crowley, FAO

Eve Crowley outlines how institutions that work on behalf of smallholders can be strengthened (© FAO)
Eve Crowley outlines how institutions that work on behalf of smallholders can be strengthened

Strengthening agricultural institutions for small producers

Eve Crowley is deputy director for the Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

The old maxim "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" is outdated. Ask a smallholder producer about his or her training needs, and the chances are they won't mention the agronomic instruction traditionally provided by research centres and extension services. Instead, farmers increasingly want to know about the commercial aspects of agriculture, having already armed themselves with a mobile phone and the capacity to link themselves to market information systems, banks and a wide range of apps and services.

Yet despite producing most of the world's food, and investing four times as much in agriculture each year as governments, private investors and donors combined, the world's half a billion small producers continue to face a series of debilitating institutional and financial constraints. What smallholders desperately need is stronger institutions working on their behalf at all levels. Without this, to return to the maxim, small producers will not have the equipment needed to fish, the facilities to sell the fish in more lucrative markets, the knowledge to preserve the resource base needed to fish tomorrow, and the means to feed not just a man, but a woman, family, nation and next generation.

Tailor-made solutions

So how can this be achieved? Crucially, approaches to institution strengthening will have to be custom designed for each country, with those who know the country best (i.e. its own analysts and practitioners) taking the lead. Within government, ministers, parliamentarians and senior officials firstly need to focus on dialogue at the local level which allows for an exchange of views among policymakers, civil society and the private sector, including representatives of producers' organisations and cooperatives.

In ministries, departments and agencies, there is often a mismatch between existing technical expertise and the new knowledge needed to take advantage of the latest developments and innovations in the sector. In-service training should have high priority, with financial rewards for those who succeed in applying it. At the same time there is also a need to recruit new graduates into the government sector and to develop habits of talking with and listening to producers, for example by linking with farmer field schools.

In the past, ministry and agency officials have often seen themselves as an elite corps located in the capital city. A key to strengthening agricultural institutions is decentralisation. Programmes should be put in place to assist local governments to develop their support capacity for agriculture, as local officials are best positioned to understand local needs, with many likely to be producers themselves.

Tackling market failure

The private, commercial and financial sectors are also key to sustainable small producer agricultural development. Agriculture is a sector with a high prevalence of market failure, so market-smart government interventions are vital. The financial sector has typically been slow to move into farm financing, chiefly due to the seasonal and therefore risky nature of agriculture, and the high up-front costs. Yet in some countries, private commercial banks have begun to move into financing of small-scale agriculture and found to their surprise that this can be a profitable market, particularly where there is some organisation at the producer level that allows for economies of scale and better information.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are playing a critical role in filling gaps in the agricultural institutional framework in many countries, but expanding this role is likely to require capacity building and, in many cases, continuing financial support. There is also a need to regularly assess and tackle any shortfalls in their capacity, so that they continue to play a complementary role to small producers, alongside private and public institutions.

For small producers themselves, there is little doubt that increased organisation plays an important role in improving their productivity and livelihoods. However producers should not be mandated to be part of an organisation. Producer organisations are most effective when they are voluntary, driven by their own problems and interests, and the potential benefits are clearly understood by the participants.

Rising to the challenge

The needs of small producers today are evolving, and the various developments in new information technologies, particularly mobile phones, are reaching them and offering renewed promise. If country institutions at all levels - national and local governments, ministries and agencies, private traders and bankers, CSOs/NGOs and producer organisations - rise to the challenge and adapt to address these evolving needs, these institutions can become more effective and help small producers not only access the equipment, seeds, fertilisers, information and new technologies they need to become more productive, but also access credit and markets for sustained profitability.

Certainly, this is no simple task. Agriculture is not the most stable business. Governments and the private sector everywhere are facing financial constraints of some degree or other, and many have also questioned the long term viability of small producers. But whether or not small producers are viable does not only depend on the inherent advantages and disadvantages of small-scale production; it also depends to a large extent on the roles and actions of a plethora of relevant institutions, which under the right circumstances can create effective enabling conditions for small producers. It is time now for innovation, forward-thinking and synergistic approaches in agricultural institutions that can help small producers improve their productivity, not just now but in the years to come.

Date published: September 2013


Have your say

You have said and gone some paces towards dealing with the m... (posted by: Solomon Abdetta Shene)

Strengthening institutions is an imperative for African agri... (posted by: Keith Shepherd)

Great article. The article truly reflects what we are seeing... (posted by: Jaisinh Vaerkar)

In Kano state of Nigeria, smallholder farmers have always su... (posted by: Rabiu Auwalu Yakasai)


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