Over 500 people attended the first day of the three-day conference, Making the Connection - value chains for transforming smallholder agriculture. Held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the event attracted a broad range of individuals representing the private sector, government, civil society, farmers' organisations and academia.
Value chains are all about making effective connections between farmers, input suppliers and buyers; between processors and supermarkets or buyers overseas. "It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this topic," said CTA director Michael Hailu in his opening remarks. He quoted a popular Ethiopian saying: "You have the horse; you have the field - now it's up to you to make things happen." Much, he said, could be achieved by conference participants over the coming days.
Before declaring the conference open, Wondirad Mandefro, Ethiopia's Minister of Agriculture, described some of the steps taken by his government to help smallholder farmers, including the deployment of over 70,000 extension workers. "Smallholders have huge potential to increase their production and income, but if that's to happen, we need to gain a better understanding of value chains," he said.
Prof David Hughes of Imperial College London, an expert on agricultural trade, gave a presentation discussing the implications of population growth, urbanisation and price volatility for agricultural value chains. Global retailers will continue to influence the shape of value chains, but local and regional trade are becoming increasingly important for developing world farmers, he said.
During the plenary session on 'Promoting Sustainable Market-led Value Chains', the six panellists found plenty of common ground. All agreed that local markets would become increasingly important for smallholders over the coming years. There was a vigorous debate about the issue of standards and certification, with some expressing the view that these are frequently designed to protect retailers' own interests, rather than those of small-scale farmers. It was felt that farmer organisation and co-operatives need to have access to better training in good financial and business management.
Four parallel sessions
The first parallel session in the afternoon focused on the role of farmer organisations in building bridges between suppliers and buyers. Moderated by Heiko Bammann of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the session attracted a lively audience. Fadel Ndiame of AGRA/FOSCA emphasised the need for farmer organisations to work on their agribusiness and management capacities so that they provide high-quality services to smallholders.
Keeley Holder of the Caribbean Farmers Network (CAFAN) emphasized that farmer organisations need to gain a better understanding of buyers' requirements. There was much discussion about how to build mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and middlemen. The session agreed that there is a need to exchange best practices across farmer organisations working in value chains, and across ACP regions.
The second parallel session, convened by Jim Tanburn of the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development, examined the difficulties of designing systems to measure value chains. Most projects provide anecdotal evidence about their achievements, and do little systemic monitoring and evaluation. The member agencies of the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED), together with field practitioners, have come up with a practical solution, described during this session.
Two examples of value chain programmes applying the DCED Standard were presented. Measuring results is a priority for many practitioners, but it involves many challenges. Sustainability needs to be ensured, both at the intervention level - by working not directly with farmers, but through market players - as well as in measurement, such as with National Statistics Offices.
Mobile phones and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) are playing an increasingly important role in supporting agricultural value chains. This was the focus of the third parallel session, moderated by Ken Lohento of CTA. Shaun Ferris of the Catholic relief services (CRS) provided an overview of how different ICT technologies and products are being used to develop and improve agricultural value chains.
Fritz Brugger of the Syngenta Foundation discussed the way in which his organisation had used ICTs in index-based crop insurance schemes. Peter Thompson of Jamaica's Rural Agricultural Development Authority highlighted the role of mobile phones in connecting farmers with information on everything from markets to the weather. "Agricultural losses to Hurricane Sandy would have been much greater had it not been for the text messaging service alerting farmers to how to cope with the hurricane," he said.
The fourth session explored the issue of creating jobs in value chains. The moderator, Merten Sievers of the International Labour Organization (ILO), stressed the importance of selecting value chains with real potential for growth and employment. In the past, too many attempts were made to intervene directly in value chains. "We need to facilitate, rather than drive interventions," he said.
Two presentations focused on specific interventions. One described the development of a dairy value chain in Kenya. In Nyala, Technoserve helped small-scale dairy farmers to develop a thriving market. This in turn benefited a range of other businesses, such as fodder producers, stimulating employment both within and beyond the agricultural sector. Tadesse Meskela described the astonishing success of the Oromio Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia, which now boasts over 200,000 members organised in 217 co-operatives. There was much to learn about the importance of leadership and the development of a strong cooperative model.