A three-year study looking into ways small-scale farmers operate in Africa, Asia and Latin America has prompted calls for a rethink of development and business interventions, if they are to transform their livelihoods.
The final project report jointly published on Nov 29 by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Hivos 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.
"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," says Bill Vorley, a principal researcher at IIED and co-author of the report.
According to a 2004 International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), half a billion farmers of less than two hectares produce a significant proportion of the world's food, estimated at over 90% in sub-Saharan Africa.
Vorley and his co-authors point out that most small-scale farmers combine farming with other activities and trade more in informal than formal markets - and rarely through cooperatives or producer organizations that can take advantage of connections with modern markets.
The report shows that rather than being a problem that needs to be fixed, informality can provide the space for small-scale farmers' agency, to find and build flexibility and resilience in a globalizing 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.
This learning network found that dynamic local, national and regional markets in developing nations give 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 modernizing 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 also 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 they combine formal and informal ways to make markets work for them.