What Works: Turning Farmers into Businessmen and Women

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By Matt Styslinger

Poor farmers in rural areas often cannot afford expensive seeds and fertilizers, and they lack access to far away markets to sell their crops. Agricultural supply dealers and extension services do not reach many areas—the average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa has to travel more than 10 kilometers to reach an agro-dealer. While aid projects often attempt to assist farmers in these areas with inputs, education, and other support, farming communities can become dependent on aid organizations. But by helping farmers run their farms more like a business, establishing networks of agricultural supply businesses, and helping farmers connect to functioning markets, some aid projects are helping subsistence farmers become thriving entrepreneurs.

Farmers and agribusiness agents are using cell phones as bank accounts, to pay for orders, to manage agricultural inputs, to collect and store information about customers, and to build credit (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Care International’s work in Zambia focuses on increasing crop production and improving farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers. But instead of giving away bags of inputs to farmers, Care creates access through a business approach. One way they’re doing this is by creating a network of agro-dealers so that farmers can get the right inputs at the right time—unlike subsidy approaches that give farmers fertilizer for free, but often at the wrong time of year. It is important to apply fertilizer at critical growth stages of the crop to reap the full benefits. Agro-dealers are trained and given start-up grants. In this way, the organization’s activities remain invisible to farmers, allowing Care to be a catalyst to the market without distorting the basic pricing structure. According to Care, business-like approaches to agriculture, alongside more traditional ones, allows local farming industries to flourish without becoming dependent on gifts of fertilizer or seed.

Many farmers and agribusiness agents in Zambia are also using cell phones as bank accounts, to pay for orders, to manage agricultural inputs, to collect and store information about customers, and to build credit. Mobile Transactions, a financial services company for the “unbanked,” allows customers to use their phones like an ATM card, says Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions General Manager. An estimated 80 percent of Zambians, particularly in rural areas, don’t have bank accounts, making it difficult for them to make financial transactions such as buying seed or fertilizer. But by using Mobile Transactions, farmers are not only able to make purchases and receive payment electronically, they are also building a credit history, which can make getting loans easier.

In Burkina Faso, the Africa Sustainable Development Council (ASUDEC) helps the poor transition from “subsistence to entrepreneurship” through integrating livestock with crop production. By raising livestock, farmers can produce eggs and milk to sell along with okra, African eggplant, maize, cucumbers, and other crops. Composted manure can be used as fertilizer, and animals can be slaughtered or sold in times of need. ASUDEC is also helping facilitate small loans from a microcredit agency, allowing farmers to buy things like easy to use and inexpensive Kick Start pumps that help irrigate crops, during the dry season, allowing for year-long crop production.

These are but a few examples of projects that are turning farmers into businessmen and women. Do you know about other projects using a business approach to help poor farming families grow more crops and get them to market?

Tell Nourishing the Planet what works and have your answers featured on the blog. Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @NourishPlanet.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To read more about ‘What Works,’ see: What Works: Innovations that protect both agriculture and wildlife, What Works: Improving Health with Agriculture, What works: Making the Most of Small Spaces, and For Sharing the Best in Agricultural Innovations, Nourishing the Planet Asks You: What Works?.

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