Connecting Subsistence Farmers to Local Distribution Networks (Q&A)

June 30, 2020 8 minute read

Connecting Subsistence Farmers to Local Distribution Networks (Q&A)

Simon Winter is the Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, a private foundation supported by Syngenta, one of the world’s leading agribusinesses. Syngenta Foundation seeks to “create value for resource-poor small farmers in developing countries through innovation in sustainable agriculture and the activation of value chains.”

Winter is a leading expert on agribusiness in developing countries and has successfully built and managed numerous cross-sector partnerships around the world. 

Food security challenges emerging from COVID with Simon Winter (Q&A)

In this interview Simon discusses the food security challenges emerging from COVID-19 in Africa as well as the role partnerships can play in addressing those challenges.

Africa was already starting to face some significant food shortages this year with poor weather and the locust infestation. As COVID-19 spreads throughout Africa, what should business and policy leaders be most concerned about?

One of the most important things on the policy side is keeping trade going and borders open. That is one of the biggest lessons from 12 years ago when we had the food price crisis. Some of the most severe impacts from that crisis came from the borders closing. When borders close, you wind up with local market surpluses and local market deficits that drive price behavior. It is important that as things tighten up and harvests potentially fail due to the locusts that we keep borders open.

The second issue is storage and making sure there are stocks available that can be moved and distributed easily if there are major harvest failures. That must be both a public and private sector discussion.

The third issue is pests where there has been fairly slow progress. Syngenta, the company that we are funded by, is trying to put together initiatives with the FAO and regional organizations to make sure that pesticide stocks are available for rapid deployment and rapid responses as outbreaks happen. Again, this must be a public and private sector collaboration. It is not just a question of the private sector having the ability to supply those stocks. If you are going to spray from airplanes you have to have the airplanes available to fly and funding available for fuel.

Another critically important issue is urban feeding. One of the bigger problems, especially in larger cities like Nairobi, Lagos, and Johannesburg, is the urban poor. They are the ones whose jobs are cut or they are informal workers and their regular incomes have been negatively affected. You have to ask, how are these people going to be fed? Most governments have not put together comprehensive national schemes yet. Partly this is because governments can’t afford it themselves. Here, there is a critical role for the World Food Program and local philanthropy in providing support. So far, we are seeing a great upsurge of enthusiasm and energy to deal with this issue, but we also see a need for greater leadership and coordination across public and private sectors.

How do you see COVID-19 affecting different levels of the supply chain, specifically transport, logistics, processing, and urban distribution?

Fortunately, one of the things that happened pretty quickly in most of the countries we are active in, the government recognized that agriculture and food is an essential service, earmarked it that way and then issued permits for the truckers to continue to be able to move supplies; whether it is imports being distributed or whether it is harvests being collected and taken to market.  Having said that, it is one thing for the truckers to be able to move, it is another thing for everything else in the logistics system to continue working and there have been some breakdowns there.

There is a great desire for more local connectivity between producers and food consumers and a shortening of the supply chain. Where there are strong rural networks of cooperatives or rural distributors or rural agents, they can be repurposed. That is what we're trying to build as part of our foundation’s work helping transform more vulnerable and low-income rural areas. It is critical to have someone deployed in the area, who is trained and supported through a digital system on a tablet (for example). You can quickly redeploy those people to be successful interlocutors at shortening the supply chain.

There is a great desire for more local connectivity between producers and food consumers and a shortening of the supply chain.

On the processing side, an interesting challenge is sourcing. Since this crisis erupted in most of Africa, we haven't seen a harvest so maybe sourcing hasn’t arisen as a problem yet, but again I think that's definitely going to be something to look at and make sure that those dots are joined.

Another important issue is data. Who is gathering what data? I think the FAO is doing a great job and the World Food Program has its country platforms, but outside of those two large organizations who else is gathering data and how does it get shared? Who is tracking what is happening in local markets in terms of food availability and prices?

The other important issue that we have not touched on is the financing piece. A lot of socially oriented organizations operate on thin cash flows and the moment there is a bit of uncertainty, it leads to liquidity problems and that is a looming challenge in the months ahead.  I chair the Steering Committee of the Farm to Market Alliance (FTMA) which is a partnership of Syngenta, Bayer, Rabobank, AGRA, Yara and the World Food Program. We’re looking within FTMA to put in some standby finances. This is not something the private sector can do on its own. It needs the support of the public sector as well.

What is the distinction between Syngenta and the Syngenta Foundation, how much do they interact? Can you let us know about the response to COVID-19 in the key markets you work in?

Our Foundation’s focus is exclusively on helping pre-commercial small holder farmers. Meaning they are not yet fully engaging in markets. Our farmers are not using improved technologies regularly, whether that is seeds or proper protection and they are not regularly selling surplus into the marketplace. The goal of the foundation is to make these smallholders successful entrepreneurs and enable them to run their own farms and businesses. We focus on bringing affordable and accessible technologies to the small holders and try to mitigate risk.

The company provides us with an annual donation, which is our basic capital and then we interface with the company on a couple of other dimensions: we offer people from the company opportunities to support our work on a volunteer basis. There are also some technologies that the company has that could be blended with more public oriented technology to offer something more affordable and accessible to low income people.  For example, we have developed a climate resilient maize variety in South Asia which is a cross between CiMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) germplasm and Syngenta’s germplasm. It still yields well from the company lines and it has good drought properties through the CIMMYT ones. AAA maize is now available through local seed companies in hard to reach parts of India where the company does not have its own distribution networks.

So that gives you a feel of how the company and the foundation interface. The foundation is independent, we have an independent board except for the chair who is appointed by the company—currently Syngenta’s CEO.

In responding to the crisis, we looked at the field networks of the last mile distribution networks. We’ve been establishing an entrepreneurial platform that can take young people from rural areas to help them become entrepreneurs and serve their community’s needs. This includes anything from supplying inputs to machinery, irrigation services, aggregating produce, or providing financial services. The entrepreneurs provide three to five business lines to their communities. This is different from the traditional value chain which typically has one key cash crop where you have a local sourcing agent linked specifically to that crop. We find that that is not enough in the communities we work with to give a decent livelihood to a local entrepreneur. We need more blended models, then we back it and make it scalable with digital technologies.

We need more blended models, then we back it and make it scalable with digital technologies.

Most of the farmers we work with do not have smart phones so you cannot implement direct traceability, but you can provide an agent in a community with a smart phone or tablet. That agent then becomes the interlocutor for digital access on behalf of their community.  That is how we operate in many locations.

In India, where we have the largest network of close to 3,000 agents, after the coronavirus hit, we rapidly linked up with healthcare providers to provide health messaging, distribution of soap, and sanitation products. This is a point for the future: when you have a remote rural community it shouldn’t be thought  of in such a linear way: this person is an agriculture person, this is the education person, and health person—you need to look holistically at what the community needs are and then try to create an entrepreneurial opportunity that is broader.

We have reached over 300,0000 farmers in India with combinations of health messaging and piggy backing on that, this shortening of the supply chains issue and brokering local market links. A lot of the local farmers are now producing vegetables. This is a big step up from production of rice or maize. We then help develop local linkages for the vegetables. The potential for year-round production is important and this work is happening across most of the countries we are operating in.

When you have a remote rural community it shouldn’t be thought  of in such a linear way: this person is an agriculture person, this is the education person, and health person—you need to look holistically at what the community needs are and then try to create an entrepreneurial opportunity that is broader.

When it comes to COVID, we have done different things in different countries. For example, in Bangladesh we worked with rice farmers on advanced planning for logistics for the harvest there.  In East Africa, we worked with other businesses and went to the government as part of an advocacy effort to make sure that food and agriculture stayed designated as an essential service. So, we have been making sure that our local guys are supporting farming continuity, having access to inputs and markets.

What has been affected negatively throughout COVID-19 has been trainings. In the last three months, we have had to slow down over 350 trainings that were supposed to take place for entrepreneurs in India because these trainings have been run physically. We have developed a way to hold them digitally, so we have restarted those trainings using digital tools. It will be more complex and costly in some ways and we’ll have to see how effective that is.

Coming out of COVID and looking forward, we are seeing three areas we want to lean into.

  1. The first is help our teams understand what everyone else is doing. We produced the first policy watch for internal audiences, and we have had some positive reactions, so we’ve pushed that out publicly.
  2. The second is multi stakeholder organizing. Get people out of their silo of how they think. Not just health people thinking about health, not just food people thinking about food, but what’s the national conversation that needs to happen and how can we contribute to that? Can we help make that happen and then can we continue to help with content once that does happen?
  3. The third is the issue of accelerating digitalization. It is needed and it is an opportunity as well. We are seeing opportunities now to use digitalization that were not as evident without the crisis. That gives a spur to then further innovation and further development.

As folks are looking to build partnerships around COVID-19 what advice would you give as someone who has been in this space for decades?

I think there is this idea that maybe there is a renewed energy and enthusiasm and tolerance for some of the complexity because these multi-sector partnerships are complex. They are hard. In a partnership, you have all these different organizations with all their own strategies and ways of doing things trying to come together to do something for the greater good and not get tripped up in that process.

The FtMA in East Africa is a perfect example. You’ve got two public sector organizations, four private sector organizations, four countries and then within the different value chains multiple other actors. The coordination required is considerable.  The advice I would give is do not be afraid of the complexities and try to work through it so that everyone is agreeing that they can live with the common approach. That is important and that requires a lot of listening as well as talking, which is sometimes in short supply. It is also important to take the humble approach using works like "and" instead of "but." Focus on creating a common core of shared objectives and shared priorities and use that as the coat hanger to get to the simplicity that can help you work through the complexity.

Do not be afraid of complexities. Try to work through them so that everyone is agreeing that they can live with the common approach. That is important and that requires a lot of listening as well as talking, which is sometimes in short supply.

It is also important to not make assumptions. Steve, you just wrote a book on this, it’s a 101 on public-private partnerships. There’s a lot of assumptions as to what the other guys are going to bring to the table and when you get to the table you may come to realize that the objective functions aren’t what you thought, and you have to be adaptable.

If we are going to have these alliance-type structures that are going to create a pathway out of this crisis for a more resilient future you have to think immediate crisis, you have to think next crop cycle, and then think beyond that as well. Those three layers must be held in the same container. You cannot say let’s focus on the immediate crisis and worry about the other ones later, because you’ll miss opportunities for how to build back better and stronger.

There is one other important point: these processes require curation and moderation. Who are the trusted advisors who can hold people at that table? It is not just the stakeholders, there must be someone who is helping curate and facilitate. Who is going to be the moderator and hold that group of stakeholders accountable? You need that independent catalytic organization which is ready to facilitate and play that role to reinforce accountably, to get things done and to move things forward.

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