Business – smallholder relationships: true commitment or false promises?

beauty - beast

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country!”, said John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address.

Would large companies have similar ideas when buying produce from smallholders? “Smallholder, don’t ask what I can do for you, but what you can do for me”?. The dynamic has to be more complex than that.

Consumer behavior, certification and green-washing

When “northern” consumers started to get conscious about the impact THEY are having by choosing their basket of goods, businesses started to get cold feet. “We have to please them, what shall we do?” Suddenly, many started embracing Certification, Organic, Fairtrade, etc. NGOs like Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified mushroomed to get a slice of the cake which was to be made from this opportunity. Businesses were happy that they could team up with someone to get a green vest. Some called this Greenwashing, others are claiming truly sustainable benefits for both the environment and humans.

“Has certification failed?” Tony Simons, director general of ICRAF, asked several high-ranking corporate officers at the World Congress on Agroforestry 2014. Answers were mixed. Some said that even with the best of intentions the inhumanly hard market would not even allow a 5 – 10% premium to be granted to smallholders. Others asked the question “Well, what do you get for your money?” and stated that “Certification is buying guilt from rich consumers”; an interesting thought. But are you capable to evaluate the promises? In most cases not. “If a smallholder can live in poverty being certified, it has failed” Dr. Howard Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer MARS Inc., said. I agree.

What I see as key to the problem are constraints in two fields: international standards and consumer attitudes, particularly with regard to education. About the former: Inconsistencies between labels are very big today. There is a need for a set of internationally recognized indicators a company has to comply with before it can call itself “green”, “sustainable”, “environmentally sound”, etc. A situation that the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and HAFL in Switzerland have addressed with an FAO mandated project called “Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems” (SAFA). Regarding consumer attitudes, let me give you an example: a beloved person of mine is fanatic about eco-friendly products. But does she know what is behind this term? It takes a huge amount of time to get behind the curtain. Time we don’t have in the “North”. Once the standard set of indicators is a necessity for businesses to get a product labelled, we can start developing equally-standard courses at schools to teach the upcoming generation what the label in the store actually means.

What about science and Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP)?

We need to ask ourselves: “What are the questions we need to ask better” when we bring the researcher into the game. Researchers funded by public money are required to create knowledge for the public good. But when it comes to Public-Private-Partnerships, are businesses not misbalancing Justitia’s scale, are scientists not losing their position as the upholders of neutrality, the ones you can rely on when in need of objective information? We must ensure that science can hold up its noble position as the objective conscience of society. Furthermore, someone must stand up to the duty of informing smallholders about possible risks and consequences that come along with promised-to-be long-term partnerships with the big guys. Who is responsible for that: researchers, governments, extension workers? Or is it at the end of the day really the corporate responsibility? And if so how can we assure that is being implemented? Brings us to the ultimate question I want to ask: “Private sector: the beauty or the beast?”

After all, win-win situations and long-term partnerships are not only a nice-to-have, but a must for sustainable development of both businesses and farmers livelihoods. I think the IAASTD report brought this message across in a quite unbiased way.

Blogpost by Christian Andres/FiBL (Frick, Switzerland) –

Photo courtesy Disney

One Person has left comments on this post

» Harki Sidhu said: { Feb 14, 2014 - 04:02:57 }

If certification means only the 5 – 10% premium, we have failed. The farmer is then only looking at the premium & fails to gain from all the benefits that can accrue from adopting the various practices etc. for sustainability. We do not promise premium when we train farmers for certification. The idea is to enable the farmer with systems, methods & knowledge that will:
a) reduce his dependence on high inputs like agrochemicals b) reduce his waste c) increase efficiencies d) enrich the soils, e) create a balance between predators & pest, f) improve the soil g) help him better utilize his resources, reduce cost,… & make him better enabled.. Then the premium will come as an icing on the cake. We need him to, without preaching, understand & appreciate ‘why’ each thing that he is doing for certification needs be done. The certification training needs to add value to the farmer, even without the premium. Then he can demand the premium.

Vigyan Bhavan & Kempinski Ambience

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