By Alina Paul, communications specialist, ICRISAT
It would be hard to walk down a village track in India without coming across a shack displaying colourful strips of shampoo sachets for 1 rupee (nearly 2 cents) or stacks of mini soap bars. Creative marketing has even brought these sachets to isolated villages on the back of camels.
Hindustan Unilever was behind this approach. They noticed that their soaps and shampoos were too expensive for poor people so they re-packaged them into small doses that they could afford. They initially sold them door-to-door, helped by ‘shakti ladies’ who were members of self-help groups receiving microcredit to become small entrepreneurs. The 1-rupee range now constitutes a significant part of Hindustan Unilever's revenues and sustains a healthy network of small shops.
Could this widespread success be translated to agricultural development, given that most smallholder farmers do not reach their maximum yield potential? In Africa, for example, yields are only a fifth of what they should be, and could increase two to three times if farmers had better access to technologies.
Inventing new marketing or dissemination methods to enable this could be a route to solving food price and supply problems in many developing countries.
Is a “mini pack” revolution a promising way to get smallholder farmers better quality and variety of seeds and fertilisers to improve yields? It’s a question I put to some of the many agribusiness companies gathered to “rethink agriculture” at the recent World Agricultural Forum in Brussels.
Some companies are, in fact, already trying it out. Agricultural firms such as Syngenta, Bayer and BASF have developed small packets of seeds and pesticides for farmers with less than a hectare of land. They also hold training and field school days.
The argument goes that, if it’s affordable for the smallholder farmer, it will induce enough yield increase for the next crop to get a quick return on investment. Mini-packs can also be more economical and ecological, in some cases, as farmers tend to overuse products like pesticide and fertiliser.
The technique of applying a small capful of fertiliser targeted at plant roots (microdosing) has been well researched by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics (ICRISAT) and found to significantly boost yields.
But smallholder agriculture faces many challenges. Growing plants is clearly much more complex than washing hair. There are so many variables – including soil, weather and water access – that simply providing a kit or small packets won’t solve the issue alone. Farmers also need help to make informed choices.
As Arvind Kumar from India’s agricultural research institute, ICAR, put it: “Farmers listen to agro-dealers but they are often poorly educated. So how can we ensure that technologies get adapted to meet smallholder needs, but are also accompanied by the right training so that tailored advice can help them make the right decisions?”
Extension services are key, as are information and communications technologies, which are increasingly used to deliver farm advice - from sowing time to market prices, pests and weather forecasts - through mobile phones. Each district in India now has a farm science centre that supports farmers using new methods such as mobile services.
Irish Aid and ICRISAT are supporting agro-dealers in Malawi to grow and supply improved seed varieties on demo plots, which offer a platform to share knowledge and advice with farmers. USAID is involving government extension services in Mali to train small agro-dealers to better advise farmers about agricultural inputs.
Local solutions that don’t involve modern farming methods are also important. Many small farmers practice informal seed exchange between villages, ensuring biodiversity is maintained and seeds are regenerated.
One example of bio-intensive agriculture is to combine crops with legume plants like pigeonpea and chickpea which fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. This feeds other crops rather than relying solely on increasingly expensive inorganic fertilisers for plant nutrients. Mixed cropping strategies are also more resistant to insect damage, and can help reduce malnutrition.
“Given the alarming malnutrition in Africa and India, where 28 percent and 42 percent of children respectively are malnourished, we need to focus more on diversifying crops,” said William Dar, director general of ICRISAT. “One way is to ensure farmers have the tools and motivation to grow a mixture of legumes and cereals as well as vegetables to provide a balanced diet.”
To promote pulse production on small farms, India’s National Food Security mission is sourcing seed via the National Seed Corporation and other agencies to send to various states. ICRISAT is involved in this programme to ensure high-protein pigeonpea spreads across small farmers’ fields.
Each state government identifies farmers and provides a mini-kit of seed, fertiliser and pesticides. Since over 65 percent of Indian farmers own less than 1 hectare of land, downsizing the packaging suits the smallholder’s budget, and therefore encourages production.
ICRISAT and several other partners are also working with the Gates Foundation to boost legume production and market value in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One example of success is the changed farm landscape in parts of Ethiopia: a sign that farmers are now dividing their fields to grow cereals, as well as legumes like chickpea which fetches a good price. They have found that growing chickpea and then wheat gives them better harvests with less fertiliser as chickpea improves the soil’s nitrogen content.
Sometimes ecological farming and biotechnology approaches can team up to help small farmers. For instance, the Danish biotech company Novozymes works with CleanStar Mozambique, a social enterprise that supports farmers to produce more food and energy through sustainable practices. They assist farmers to grow a diverse mix of grains, legumes and starch crops, and manage the processing and logistics required to get the crops to market. One initiative is to make clean cooking gels by working with farmers to grow cassava, the surplus of which feeds into a bio-refinery.
“By implementing a cultivation system focused on soil restoration, a greater variety of nutritious food crops can be grown, which in turn has a strong positive impact on rural family health,” said Greg Murray, co-founder of CleanStar Ventures.
As John Barrett from Britain’s Department for International Development noted: “Given the 9 billion (people) to feed in 2050 challenge, combined with the increasing pressures of climate change and water scarcity, it is clear we need to support innovations that will help smallholder farmers grow more and better food.”
Those innovations can be in the form of a technology, a new marketing model or a creative extension system. In the end, it is the farmer who decides whether or not to adopt fresh ideas, and this depends on many things.
While small packets and credit schemes seem promising, we know that agriculture is a very risky business - made even more challenging by shifting climate patterns and degrading land. The additional risk of trying out new things isn’t taken lightly by many small farmers, who must also worry about whether they will have enough to feed their families tomorrow.