Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas. Most rely on agriculture for income and food. Some 500 million smallholder farmers cultivate less than two hectares. Their scant and unreliable access to basic agricultural knowledge and tools traps them in cycles of hunger and poverty, unable to improve crop yields and incomes.
Development assistance has fallen far short of addressing this problem, failing to reach most of the smallest and remotest, as well as those who fall into the “gap” between microfinance and commercial investment capital. Add to that insecure land tenure and unorganized farmers’ inability to bring product to market, store their harvest or negotiate better prices, and you have a recipe for one of the world’s thorniest systemic problems.
Enter social entrepreneurs, approaching the issue from different angles—livelihoods, food security, property rights, environmental sustainability. Their quest illuminates a more comprehensive constellation of solutions—including finance, technical assistance, technology and marketplace efficiency and equity.
At the center of social entrepreneurs’ interventions is equitable participation of the producer communities. To take these solutions to greater scale, they recruit multi-sector partners—innovators in their own right, similarly vexed by the status quo and equally compelled to forge new paths forward.
The smallholder agriculture system is ripe for disruption and equilibrium change. Nothing short of that is required to empower smallholder farmers and their families—some 2.6 billion people worldwide—to determine and reach their own potential, and the rest of the world to enjoy the fruits of their production and environmental stewardship.
Systems change has been at the heart of the work of Skoll Awardees like Root Capital, One Acre Fund, Proximity Designs, Landesa, Fair Trade USA, KickStart, and IDE-India. Their innovations in technology, training, financial services and access to markets, have scaled to contribute importantly to improving small-farm livelihoods and advancing sustainability commitments by global food companies.
There is also great potential for transformation in market systems, capital flows, and public regulation and investment. Corporations like Unilever, Olam, and Starbucks have validated the business case for capital investment in smallholder agriculture. Public development assistance to agriculture has reached $10 billion.
In Africa, growing investments in agricultural development have come with policies to strengthen land tenure, and a pan-African framework known as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme provides principles and strategies to help governments champion reform and identify opportunities for investment in agricultural development agendas centered on smallholder farmers.
The Skoll Foundation has conducted systems analyses and supported research to identify key points of leverage—on farms, in markets, with investors and supporting agencies, and with innovators who introduce new inputs and approaches.
Research results pointed us to major public and private sector partners, who we then connected to Skoll Awardees and other key players. Their work, and their collaboration with us and with each other, has improved the lives of millions of farm families, and the health of their land and communities.
Significant challenges remain: engaging more corporations and governments; getting the means for enhanced productivity to many more farmers; identifying more donors willing to support innovation and testing; and overcoming the constraints of inequality and exclusion.
Work with farmers producing cash crops has produced the most robust impact to date. And the even better news is that there are more solutions to be developed and scaled for the 90 percent of farmers producing for local consumption.
But evidence of impact has illuminated a path forward, and there is clear potential to build a powerful global community of smallholder farmers, social entrepreneurs, and scaling partners.