A three-year study of the ways small-scale farmers operate in Africa, Asia and Latin America has prompted calls for a major rethink of development and business interventions.
The IIED - Hivos project's final report -- published today (29 November) -- 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," said Bill Vorley, a principal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and co-author of the report.
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 organisations 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 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. It was led from Bolivia by the Mainumby Ñakurutú Research Centre.
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 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, added that 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," indicated Vorley. "But it can bring small-scale farmers great benefits - in market access, flexibility and even market power - but policies tend to ignore this potential in favour of formal structures. Shifts in policy that take account of this informality while addressing its downsides would benefit far more farmers."