Regenerative agriculture has emerged as a key component driving many companies’ sustainability strategies and a critical tool to help transition the global food system.
Through our work with a variety of stakeholders, we are learning that the most successful outcomes have taken a farmer-centric approach, where they collaborate and partner with farmers early and often, which better supports their transition to more regenerative agriculture practices.
In the most recent episode of our new webinar series, Cultivating the Future Through Food, we heard from leading sustainable agriculture practitioners on how they engage and partner with farmers to design and implement effective transitions to regenerative production in the first mile of supply chains.
This episode featured four cross-sector experts:
- Vita Jarolimkova is the Global Food Sustainable Sourcing Manager at Mars. She leads the food sustainable sourcing strategy for raw materials, ensuring that where and how they are sourced delivers positive change for people and the planet. She advocates for sustainable transformation of the rice sector as a member of the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) board and the Federation of European Rice Millers (FERM) sustainability working group.
- Noël Bastiaan has extensive experience in agribusiness management, retail systems, project management and primary agriculture. He started his career in the agricultural sector when he was appointed by Kaap Agri in 2005 as an operational manager. Noël is the founding member of For Farmers Group (Pty) Ltd.
- Lood Visser has had a passion for agriculture from a young age, being involved in a family farming enterprise, farming beef cattle on the Highveld of South Africa. In 2020 Lood got involved with the For Farmers Group as a technical advisor and currently oversees the production of their winter cereals on approximately 2,300 hectares in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.
- Anna Müller (PhD) leads the research area on Inclusive Design and User Research within the Alliance of Bioversity and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). She has applied user-centered and inclusive design methods to design a food security monitoring system or digital extension services for climate risk management.
Together we discussed the pioneering efforts of the panelists, the importance of the human factor in regenerative agriculture, and some of the best practices they use to effectively partner with farmers to support their transition to regenerative production methods.
3 Lessons Learned on How to Develop Farmer-Centric Solutions
1. Include Farmers in Developing New Solutions
“It would be difficult to push an innovation onto farmers without making sure their needs are addressed, and they have important needs like “will I be able to make a profit? Will I increase my yields if I implement this? What will happen to me if [a new practice or innovation] doesn’t work? Will you take care of me, or am I just facing all this risk alone?’” explains Vita Jarolimkova of Mars.
To ensure farmers’ needs get addressed, Jarolimkova starts her engagement process by talking to a significant portion of the farmers supplying the raw materials—often rice—in a particular country, to learn about their struggles. Jarolimkova uses broad surveys that include questions such as “Would you be happy if your children are farming? How do you see this as a prospect for a career? Are you happy farming? What are the challenges in the field? Can you access A, B, and C inputs?”
“We really consider the farmer voice in how we design the program and then we go back to the farmers to check again, asking if they think this will solve their struggles, what else they need from us, the role that we [Mars] can play, and how can we leverage our position to engage others in collaborative approaches to ensure that the change we want to implement is really sustainable,” shared Jarolimkova.
2. Solve for Farmers' Unique Problems, Instead of Imposing Ready-Made Solutions
Historically, one hurdle many companies face is getting farmers to adopt more regenerative agriculture practices. Overcoming this challenge requires companies to deeply understand and then solve for farmers’ unique challenges.
“Prototyping and testing [solutions] is key, and do not bring a ready-made solution to farmers and expect them to use it,” advised Anna Müller (PhD), who leads Inclusive Design and User Research within the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT. “It sounds easy but, at least in the ag research development community, it’s a different way to think of solutions.”
Müller recommends solving a specific problem facing some farmers, and then seeing if you can reach scale. Müller shared a recent project where her team worked with smallholder farmers in Kenya to design a new technology that would operate like an agricultural advisory system. Early on, Müller’s team discovered many obstacles farmers faced using advanced technology. For instance, many farmers did not own fancy phones, but basic models; often the screens were broken; the phone could only be charged once a week; some farmers didn’t have money for airtime; and many female farmers were less able to read and write.
By understanding the precise challenges Kenyan farmers faced, Müller’s team designed an interactive voice response program that sent farmers push calls with critical messages and information like best practices for pest management.
“You try to be as close to the farmers as possible,” Müller explained, “and then you use prototyping and testing. You may have more development costs in the beginning as you test with farmers and get their feedback, but let that feedback influence the design. By addressing one problem, then you might extend to many.”
Müller found that the system they designed for farmers in Kenya solved for relatively generic problems faced by many farmers elsewhere, and they are now looking to scale the voice message solution in other regions.
3. Collaboration with Diverse Ecosystem Partners is Key
All of the panelists agreed that getting farmers to embrace more regenerative agriculture practices requires help from a range of ecosystem actors. “No one player can find and implement solutions alone, nor can we expect farmers to make this transition by themselves either….We don’t do this alone,” said Jarolimkova, from Mars. “We always work with partners, with our suppliers, with donors, with civil society, and agri-economy experts because we are not a farming company, and we recognize that we need the help of others to take a holistic approach.”
Noël Bastiaan, the founding member of For Farmers Group (Pty) Ltd in South Africa, agreed. As Bastiaan explained, For Farmers Group is structured in the old cooperative style with farmers as owners, where they can create “hubs of excellence in specific regions” that utilize the best agriculture and sustainable practices given unique climate conditions. But Bastiaan and the smallholder farmers whom he represents cannot do this on their own.
“Collaboration is key,” said Bastiaan. “If you try to do things on your own, it’s not possible. You need to work with people and leverage the knowledge and expertise that can assist you.”
Lood Visser, technical advisor to For Farmers Group (Pty) Ltd in South Africa explained that many of their farmers are engaged in small-scale, single farmer operations. These individuals often do not have access to key inputs like chemicals or fertilizer, tractors and other technology, or insurance. If they do have access, it’s often not possible for them to consistently utilize them while maintaining a viable operation.
“If you leave these farmers to their own devices, they will use old technology which is not sustainable long-term, and they’ll use the same ag practices they used 50 years ago that were ineffective, and it all comes to nothing very quickly,” said Visser.
Asking individual farmers to handle new programs and practices, invest in new inputs and technology, on their own is often too much, too costly, and unattainable. But when partners get involved, it can make a huge difference. “Many small-farmers come from poverty, and it’s not realistic to expect them to afford inputs like high quality agri-chemicals, services they need to farm sustainably, or soil health analysis,” said Jarolimkova, who also explained that Mars often takes on these costs.
Panelists used transitioning from monocropping to intercropping as another example of how partnerships can make regenerative agriculture transitions more successful. “It’s unsustainable to rely on monocropping, especially when the crop is unfit for the environment such as wheat or rice in Pakistan,” Jarolimkova said. “This is where collaboration between multiple partners and the private sector make sense. If you have a cropping system that relies on two to three crops, and if you can find private sector partners who rely on one of those materials, then you can split the responsibility and expertise you need.”
Jarolimkova noted that it takes many ecosystem partners beyond big corporations and farmers to get this right. This includes critical local actors such as local governments, which can provide the right enabling policies, as well as other private sector partners who can offer new markets for crops. “It’s important to think about your role in the ecosystem and who else you can involve in the process because they bring different perspectives and ideas. Building a strong partnership and consortium of organizations that can do this work together is critical to the process.”
Transitioning to a More Sustainable Global Food System
Diverse actors from Mars to the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT to the For Farmers Group in South Africa show us that by placing farmers at the center of solutions, we have the opportunity and the power to realize the promise of regenerative agriculture.
“We need patience from farmers and multinationals,” encouraged Visser, from For Farmers Group. “We need to work together, to stay positive and to stay patient with anything we want to achieve, especially with agriculture.”