How Do You Sell KnowledgeTo Smallholder Farmers?

By Lewis Temple, CEO, iDE UK

How Do You Sell KnowledgeTo Smallholder Farmers?

iDE has over 30 years of experience working with smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As a result we know two things:

  1. If smallholders are to transition from subsistence farming to the production of high-value fruits and vegetables for the market they need access to low cost agricultural technologies, such as a drip irrigation kit or a treadle pump and agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers.
  2. However, without technical support and advice most small farmers do not make the most of their investments in technology and other inputs.

So the question is, how can we fill this knowledge void to ensure smallholders reap the benefits of their investments?

In most countries public sector agricultural extension services are becoming increasingly limited, and the reality is that over the years iDE has been providing a lot of –grant funded- technical support to the farmers through the work of field officers.

In recent years we started to focus a lot of effort at ways of providing this knowledge transfer (as well as technology transfer) through the market.

In 2005 the iDE team in Cambodia started to experiment with knowledge transfer through the private sector. Small-scale farmers in Cambodia told us they had trouble accessing quality agricultural inputs, sound technical advice, and reliable markets for their produce. Serving this market segment has traditionally been the realm of community-based NGO projects. We set out to take the key features of NGO service delivery and turn it into a financially viable business model based on the fact that a little know-how and some basic technology improvements could create a lot of value on small farmers’ fields.

It was clear right from the start that it would be almost impossible to get smallholder farmers to pay directly for training and technical support – they were too used to getting this for free from the government through extension services or from NGOs.

So, iDE Cambodia developed a micro-franchise model that has become known as ‘Farm Business Advisors’ whereby individual entrepreneurs sell productivity enhancing inputs and technologies at a small profit and also provide advice and training to the farmers on how best to use these to achieve profitable results. The cost of the advice is ‘embedded’ in the price of the input. iDE Cambodia created a franchisor called Lors Thmey (meaning ‘New Growth’) that supports the Farm Business Advisors with training and provision of high quality agricultural inputs – such as seeds, fertilisers and irrigation equipment – they can in turn sell on to the farmers.

There are currently 61 Farm Business Advisors serving over 15,000 client farmers. The most recent results from field evaluations among FBA clients are impressive (as of December 2013). On average the rice farmers:

  • Increased yields by 27% from 3.7 to 4.7 tons per hectare.
  • Boosted net profits by 57% from $395 to $620.

Lors Thmey is now one of the largest seed retailers in Cambodia through the Farm Business Advisor network and won the Nestlé Prize in Creating Shared Value in 2010 – as an embodiment of the creating shared value concept. It is poised for growth, with plans in place under a new management team to expand the number of FBAs to 150 by the end 2014.

Very similar challenges exist for smallholder farmers in Zambia. In 2012 we started work to adapt and refine the model for Zambia – making use of the ‘lead farmer’ approach iDE in Zambia has been using for a number of years.

Small farmers in Zambia and most other countries of Africa are far more dispersed than they are in Asia – so the challenges of last mile distribution of agricultural inputs and technical support are particularly acute.

Now, in partnership with SIDA iDE Zambia are training a network of 250 Farm Business Advisors in Zambia to help them become small scale entrepreneurs supporting 25,000 poor smallholder farming families in their villages.

A comprehensive training program in business, agronomy and marketing is aimed at significantly improving the technical knowledge of FBAs. There is a strong emphasis on recruiting and training female Farm Business Advisors to increase women’s involvement in agribusiness.

Due to the strength of the private-sector in Zambia, the approach we are taking is to link FBAs to 1) existing companies selling farm tools, inputs and 2) micro-finance organisations to provide loans to buy their products – rather than creating a central Franchisor.

I would love to hear from others about similar approaches to delivering agricultural products and services through the market to smallholder farmers. Have you got any experience of selling knowledge to small farmers?

A film of the iDE Cambodia Farm Business Advisor project made as part of the Creating Shared Value Prize.

Profiles of some of the FBAs from Zambia – called the FBA files!

Blogs on the work of iDE Zambia

iDE UK website and iDE US website

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