Small-scale producers key to attaining food security and ending hunger
Strengthening producer organisations and co-operatives can empower them to become partners in locally-oriented, participatory development
Empowering small-scale producers to participate fully in development is one of the main components of the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s efforts to improve food security and reduce hunger and poverty. As individual farmers are often dispersed, they may have little power to seize economic opportunities, or influence policies that affect them. Too often they are excluded from decision-making, whether in markets or in social and political fora.
However, when rural producers come together in producer organisations, they can shape their own paths out of poverty, and make their voices heard. Well-functioning rural organisations, such as POs and co-operatives, are crucial for rural people to address the complex challenges they face today: improving agricultural productivity, accessing input and output markets, overcoming asymmetries in information and knowledge, accessing financial services, accessing and managing natural resources sustainably, and adapting to climate change.
In the past decade, a wide range of institutional innovations have emerged that have helped to overcome the barriers small producers face in integrating into markets, while also improving policy-making. These institutional innovations arise when small producers build strong relations: among themselves within the same organisation (bonding), with similar organisations (bridging), and through their organisations, with external actors (market actors, policy-makers, researchers, NGOs) in the framework of institutional arrangements (linking).
The capacity of a group of individuals to collaborate towards a common goal is the essence of collective action. Among small-scale producers, this typically begins with voluntary relationships built on solidarity among individuals within a group or intra-group relations (pdf). These bonding relations are based on affinities among like-minded individuals, trusted friends or neighbours, who usually enjoy a similar status or share a common interest. They unite small-scale producers into formal or informal organisations, such as grass-roots and self-help groups, associations and co-operatives. Bonding relations enable small-scale producers to develop their own collective capacity to design and implement solutions.
Farmer field schools (FFS) in west Africa, in which farmers work together to control pests more effectively and thereby obtain higher yields, are a good illustration of these dynamics. Such groups of farmer-learners gather data from a cropped field, pool their knowledge, analyse and discuss their findings, develop hypotheses, conduct experiments, and make collective decisions about integrated pest management to enhance yields and optimise inputs (pdf). In the process, farmers develop self-confidence, gain knowledge, and enhance their problem solving abilities (pdf).
Furthermore, FFSs and similar organisations contribute to a culture of learning–by-doing, particularly through trial-and-error experimentation and local adaptation. By working, for instance, to identify income-generating opportunities or improve members’ entrepreneurial skills, these groups can generate a deeper understanding of ‘how things work,’ and enable farmers to devise strategies to cope more effectively with change. Ultimately, the skill sets developed in the process afford small-scale producers an autonomous capacity to direct their own development.
Organisations of small-scale producers are often localised, fragmented and spatially dispersed, and have limited capacities and resources. They face high risks and transaction costs that discourage investments in marketable crops. They are also frequently unable to influence policy processes and decision-making at the national level. However, by building intergroup relations with other local producer organisations, known as bridging relations, small-scale producer organisations can create larger scale unions and federations of (self-help groups, grass roots associations and co-operatives. Gradually expanding inter-group collaboration to the national, regional and global levels can result in apex organisations with the power to bargain and negotiate in the interests of smallscale producers. Such bridging processes also enable them to develop their common voice in society and to articulate concerns and aspirations.
In Kenya, the experiences of producer groups of African leafy vegetables (ALVs) illustrate how bridging relations can empower small producers. In this case, small-scale farmers realised that there was a high demand for their produce in Nairobi. To seize this market opportunity, however, farmers had to address the demands of modern food-procurement systems and respond to supermarket requirements, particularly quality standards, pre-defined quantities and timing. All of this required a greater level of investment and co-ordination than was present in any single farmer group.
So with the support of Farm Concern International, a regional NGO, the farmers organised into a network of local groups and entered into a contract farming arrangement with the Uchumi Supermarket chain. The groups then co-ordinated responsibilities and functions in order to meet the specifications and demand from Uchumi, working to regulate phytosanitary conditions and stagger planting to ensure more continuous supply and timely scheduling of harvesting, grading, bulking and delivery.
Bridging relations enabled small producers to pool resources, share risks and strengthen their competencies. By joining together into a single apex organisation, multiple small scale producer organisations were able to develop a more coherent set of priorities, streamline decision-making, and achieve economies ofscale.
POs and co-operatives can also develop linking relations with powerful institutional actors to influence policy processes and, in the context of food security, help ensure that their concerns are heard. To paraphrase 1990 Nobel prize winning economist, Douglass North, small-scale producers are then able to move beyond ‘playing the game’ towards defining the rules of the game.
Experience from FAO and other international organisations shows how enabling small producer organisations and co-operatives to link with other types of organisations can benefit them.
Through involvement in multistakeholder processes with state and nonstate actors, small producer groups can achieve synergies and tap into comparative advantages and complementarities, thus enhancing the scope and scale of the resources and influence available to them. Participation in policy processes and dialogue platforms enable small producers to provide input into, and develop a sense of ownership over, decision-making.
Involvement in both types of processes can strengthen POs and co-operatives, and increase their impacts. When these process concentrate on improving food production, empowering small producers, and making rural services more responsive to their needs, “linking relations” can also help strengthen the contributionsmall producers and co-operatives make towards ending hunger and achieving food security.
To this end, FAO’s director-general has renewed his commitment to strengthening FAO’s relations with key stakeholders, including producer organisations and cooperatives, given the major role they play in ending hunger, reducing poverty and achieving food security. This proactive outreach to POs and co-operatives coincides with a shift in development approaches.
Moving away from traditional, top-down approaches in which small-scale producers are expected to passively adopt imposed programmes and policies and follow instructions, FAO increasingly embraces a model of development in which producer organisations define their own needs and preferences and solicit support accordingly on their own agendas. UN agencies like FAO increasingly view POs and co-operatives as active participants and agents of transformation in the overall pursuit of development, growth and food security.
The processes of bonding, bridging and linking empower small-scale producers, help leverage their collective strengths and increase their effectiveness and influence. Strengthening producer organisations and co-operatives by building these three types of relationships can instil a new dynamism in these groups and strengthen their role as partners in locally-oriented, participatory development.
Policies and programmes which adopt this shift in approach enable small producers to engage in policy debate and dialogue and can help ensure that their communities enjoy consistent, access to safe, sufficient, nutritious and affordable food and nutrition. In our efforts to end hunger and achieve food security, small-scale producers and their organisations are undeniably key players, and FAO is committed to expanding and enhancing the positive contributions they make.