Smallholder farmers are remote, disconnected and harder to reach than ever as a result of COVID-19; how can we ensure their voices are heard?
More than 80% of the world’s farms operate on less than two hectares of land and the smallholder farmers who work on them are essential partners in international supply chains. Yet even before the COVID-19 pandemic, smallholders were facing increasing challenges from climate change, intensive cultivation and degraded land, invasive pests and disease, poor infrastructure, low levels of education and social exclusion (particularly amongst women), all of which have contributed to unsustainable agricultural livelihoods. With generations of experience, these farmers are more knowledgeable than anyone else about their local growing conditions and challenges – but are we listening to them?
Participatory radio: an innovative use of a traditional technology
Farmers’ Voice Radio is an initiative from UK NGO The Lorna Young Foundation (LYF), which enables farmers to address their concerns, share insights and seek advice through the power of participatory radio. It brings together local farmer groups, extension agents, research institutions, supply chain partners and community radio stations to produce and record radio programmes that find shared solutions to the dilemmas that smallholder farming communities face.
Farmers are involved at all stages of the process; guiding the selection of discussion topics, generating content in local language and submitting feedback and questions that influence future programmes. Topics vary widely, but most frequently cover issues such as sustainable land management, value addition, market access, farmer cooperation and women’s empowerment. COVID-19 has also featured strongly over the past 18 months, with programmes empowering even the most remote farmers with context-appropriate information about how to keep themselves and their peers safe.
Radio is the most trusted, affordable and accessible communications medium in low-income countries, overcoming COVID-19 restrictions and quickly reaching thousands. With no reliance on the written word, radio is particularly important for farmers who have low levels of literacy or do not access mobile technology. Radio can be accessed from within the home, so is able to reach and engage with those often excluded from traditional training interventions – for example women, who despite making a significant contribution to the production of agricultural commodities, are frequently invisible or ignored.
Jeneba Mansaray, living on the edge of the Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone, is just one of the world’s 570 million small farmers. Over the past year she has been involved in the production of a radio programme targeted at cocoa-growing communities. “Having my voice broadcast on the radio makes me feel big, proud and honored… I can now stand in women’s meetings and talk to fellow women without being shy, something I never did before… The radio program has not only taught me how to practice forest friendly cocoa production; I learnt that companies buy the cocoa and produce different items... I did not go to school so all those things sounded strange to me, how can sweet chocolate come out of bitter cocoa? I was confused but I have learned that even body creams are made out of cocoa.”
What is the impact?
Farmers’ Voice Radio has been used over the last ten years in a range of countries and crops. With potential listenership figures in the tens of thousands, by super-charging peer-to-peer support networks these programmes have helped to change farming and wild collection practices, increase quality and volume of production, challenge gender injustices and strengthen cooperation between farmers.
These projects have also involved collaboration across supply chains, bringing significant benefits to businesses that source from smallholder farmers. Virginia Sampaio, Community Fair Trade Senior Buyer for The Body Shop recently said: “I am impressed by the impact the initiative has had on people’s understanding and attitudes towards the programme and topics of discussion… Radio is such a powerful communication tool! I have really enjoyed working with the LYF team (and I am sure that the listener groups do too!), they are very professional and knowledgeable.”
How can your business get involved?
In response to COVID-19 and limitations regarding travel and face-to-face gatherings, LYF has created a free-to-access online Resource Hub which provides guidance materials for any organisation that wishes to use its Farmers’ Voice Radio model to improve the lives of rural communities. But more than that we aim to challenge the existing power dynamics of who speaks and who listens in international business, amplifying smallholder farmers’ voices on the global stage and making supply chains stronger.
Will your organisation join the conversation? Please get in touch to discuss opportunities for partnership and how Farmers’ Voice Radio could add value to your work.
 Lowder et al. 2014