Enabling a transition - a gradual shift - towards sustainable smallholder farming is imperative for 3 reasons:
1. Smallholders cannot afford to be big risk-takers and need to have confidence in changing practices. A gradual approach allows for smallholders to take their own journey, and gradually pick up the application of different products and practices.
2. Shifting to regenerative practices and biological products will often result in an initial yield decline. For example, if a smallholder needs to learn how to make their own compost, it will take a minimum of two to three seasons to develop an effective compost mix. For a farmer, the risk would be too high to immediately substitute synthetic fertilizer with their own compost; only a small part should be substituted initially to test the approach. The most effective approach to not lose yield but to actually increase it, and increase savings, is a mix of composting and other regenerative practices, combined with application of synthetic fertilizer.
3. A gradual transition is also important because it allows for time and space to co-create with smallholder farmer communities. Co-creation allows for ‘last-mile finetuning’ of new agronomy concepts and business models to fit each field and farmer community. Co-creation also enables local knowledge to be integrated into the protocols,which encourages smallholders to take the lead and feel more empowered to allocate their funds and farm their fields, regeneratively.
Smallholder co-creation is an important aspect of the transition to sustainable smallholder farming.
Sustainable farming depends on context-specific knowledge. As we touched on during the Digital Learning Series session, sustainable farming does not offer fixed prescriptions. Smallholder farmer co-creation fosters participatory learning and development, which differs from the current, often passive (from the farmer’s side), knowledge-sharing systems. A co-creation approach can bridge the real and perceived gaps across diverse forms of knowledge, including what is often seen as farmers’ traditional, indigenous, tacit, or local knowledge and experts’ scientific, western, or generalizable knowledge. Formal academic documentation of processes and outcomes related to farmer co-creation is limited.However, the FAO, amongst others, has started to highlight the importance of co-creation when it comes to scaling up agroecology.
Ironically, co-creation within smallholder farming communities is nothing new. Co-creation processes have always taken place between farmers and their communities. Smallholder farmers have shared that they put together knowledge from previous generations, knowledge of best practices from the community (what we now call ‘farmer influencers'), and from government extension services. If they live in an area with better connectivity and infrastructure, they also include knowledge from retailers, radio programs, NGO workers and private sector companies. They also spoke about the importance of discussing this knowledge and the different approaches informally with their community.
The co-creation process I advocate for, aims to reinstate and professionalize the invaluable role of farmer co-creation, including farmer-centered inquiry, understanding and application, which offer benefits to individual farmers and their extended communities. Another aspect to co-creation is the deeper understanding of what farmers do, how they behave, and why they act in those ways, which could give clues to researchers and innovators and help to produce relevant and new insights.
The following real-world examples show how co-creation has led to innovation and transformation:
Co-creation and community design of locally-tailored rice farming protocols for each crop stage
In Indonesia, through field visits and observation studies on rice farmers’ practices, conversation with farmers’ wifes, meetings with community leaders we gathered indigenous, ancestral and local knowledge on soil, local water management practices, biological pest control and farming techniques. By combining this with proprietary academic and company knowledge, we designed local protocols (seeds + products + practices) per crop stage which we validated in farmers’ fields. Results were astonishing, increasing yield by up to 30%. The farmer community felt empowered to keep refining and evolving the protocols and scale them up to other farmer communities.
Co-creation and implementation of profit-increasing rural kiosks
In India, by gathering farmers’ wives and women farmers, we led focus groups to brainstorm ideas on how to increase market access for vegetables, decreasing dependence on traders and reducing post-harvest losses. By developing the right supportive atmosphere, women were able to share and co-develop ideas. The winning idea led to the establishment of rural kiosks in market areas - managed by women - selling vegetables to the local community. These kiosks would differentiate themselves from normal market stalls by guaranteeing a standard high quality and by washing the vegetables, cutting them and offering ready-to-cook vegetable mixtures. These kiosks were so successful that the women branded them and were able to collect further funding to expand and scale.