Impact story

Farmer Agency for Rural Economies (FARE)

Small farmers are often seen as target group and beneficiaries of development programmes rather than drivers of change. This leads to dependency and limits the impact of development programmes. According to Ted Schrader, this can be done differently and better by considering farmers as small entrepreneurs and agents of change. Leveraging on 35 years of fieldwork experience and implementation knowledge, he developed Farmer Agency for Rural Economies, a practical approach to changing food systems. The insights and methods for this approach have now been collected in a handbook for rural development professionals.

Ted Schrader, expert in rural development at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, explains where the bottlenecks are in the majority of programmes: “Farmers in developing countries are nearly always considered a target group or group of beneficiaries. The framing is that they are poor, dependent and ill-educated people in a situation with dire need of improvement. Let’s instead start by realising that we are, by definition, talking about entrepreneurs with a lot of practical experience. Smallholder farmers are active in various markets, such as raw materials, finance, consumer and labour. In addition, they take considerable risks with their own resources, both on the production side and on the market side. Oddly enough, these farmers are rarely addressed as business people in development programmes. Yet, they make up the bulk of the small and medium-sized enterprises and the private sector.”

Listening well

Schrader says that things often go wrong from the start: “Donor organisations and governments rarely offer space in the initial stage for actually listening to the people for whom the programme is set up, understanding what challenges they are facing and what options they are seeing themselves. On the contrary, priorities and solutions are often predefined. The FARE approach is different: it starts with farmers, the family farms that together feed 80% of the world. Paradoxically, they also make up a large part of the undernourished population. If you really listen to them well and ask open questions, they’ll indicate where the problems lie in a couple of sentences. Other actors do of course also matter, of course, such as agricultural research and extension, banks, processing companies and local governments. But a system approach begins in the farmer’s yard: with the food producers.”

Schrader has seen time and again how listening actually helps: “In a project aimed at sesame farmers, experts were surprised that the farmers didn’t use fertilisers while studies had showed this would lead to much higher yields. The farmers said: ‘We’d like to use artificial fertiliser but would have to purchase it at the end of the dry season when we’re broke.’ The problem, in a nutshell, was the lack of financing at the right time.”

Another example comes from Tanzania, where a new variety of sorghum was tested on resistance to the root parasite striga. “The resistance to striga was fantastic, but the farmers still decided not to cultivate the new variety. One farmer remarked that the sorghum was inedible; it was so bitter that even birds would not touch it.”

Making choices

These simple examples make it painfully clear why so little actually remains once the funding of projects stops. The examples also demonstrate the need for a practical perspective on food systems, covering production and consumption as well as technical and socio-economic aspects. These types of insights formed the basis for the Farmer Agency for Rural Economies (FARE) course, established in 2011. The course leans on the same approach that Schrader applies to projects: listening to farmers and other local actors, empathising with their objectives and resources, and paying attention to farmer entrepreneurship and farmer organisations. But also: improving production and quality, exploring possibilities for chain development and better trade relations and building cooperation between farmers and other stakeholders. Simple methods are available for all these points of attention. Schrader: "There is a great need for knowledge and methods for action that really start with the local reality and dynamics. And not for programmes in which farmers and other local actors just conform themselves to governments and donor organisations. I use the term 'farmer agency' - as a counterpart to dependency - because it stands for the ability to make one's own choices and to operate independently.”

Rwanda: uniting 3000 farmers

Jean Marie Ntakirutimana temporarily moved from Rwanda to Wageningen to take the course in 2016. At the time he was working as a project manager on a public-private partnership to improve the value chain for sugar cane farmers (Sugar make it work). “One of my tasks was to train and organise over 3000 farmers in cooperatives, putting them in a stronger position regarding the sugar factory. I saw participation in the course as a way to gain the necessary experiential knowledge and learn tools that would allow me to show the farmers the essence of working and searching for solutions together for a number of challenges.”

The approach has helped him a lot, Ntakirutimana says. “I learned a great deal about how farmers can organise their organisations, and how to set up leadership in cooperatives. The sugar cane farmers have now been properly organised for several years in nine cooperatives, significantly improving their position in the chain, also to the satisfaction of the sugar factory.”

Ntakirutimana now works for Agriterra, a Dutch agri-agency that advises farmers’ organisations in developing countries. He continues to apply the FARE insights learned at Wageningen UR. “How can you organise farmers and ensure they work together effectively? How do you improve their access to the market? And how can they connect with financial institutions ? I often use the examples I learned in the course to show farmers how they can work together toward a common goal.”

Benin: improving the position of maize farmers

Abdoul Yazid Tchani and Boukari Maanzou took the course online from Benin due to COVID-19. The two young professionals work in non-governmental organisations and aim to use the FARE approach to improve the position of producers. This includes helping them to better prepare and structure themselves for production, processing and marketing – and thus improving their living conditions. According to Tchani, development programmes often lack ownership and coherence and suffer from poor communication with ‘the field’. His main objection is that farmers are not seen as partners. “Unfortunately, development programmes are designed without the involvement of farmers, and therefore often do not respond to their real needs. They should rely on the strength and own resources of farmers and other local actors. In the FARE approach, farmers are well organised; they produce, process and sell their products together. This gives them good access to the market, greater opportunities for acquiring financial support and the chance to present themselves more effectively towards companies and policy makers.”

According to Boukari, for development programmes to succeed, they should work with producers as partners or stakeholders. “They are people who can contribute significantly, intellectually and also financially, through their organisations. The involvement of producers will allow them to take more ownership of activities and to make sure achievements are sustained when projects are gone.”

During 2022, the two young agronomists plan to popularise the FARE approach in Benin through the organisation of a training programme for actors in the Beninese agricultural sector, (such as NGO’s, producers’ organisations and others), with the aim to bring a breath of fresh air to the agricultural sector. The FARE training Initiative in Benin aims to create a space to study bottlenecks and find structural solutions, based on the joint analysis of practical cases and experiences.

Collecting insights: FARE guide and FARE toolbox

From results in the field and feedback from participants, Schrader concludes that FARE is highly workable in practice. This prompted him to collect all the insights into a handbook, with will be published in English and French. The handbook consists of two parts: a companion guide with backgrounds and explanatory content and a DIY toolbox for facilitators working on their own practical cases. “I started bringing all the material together in 2020 and 2021. This was partly because our courses were taking place online, while not everyone has a stable internet connection. Another aspect is that I feel a strong need to transfer my 35 years of field experience to the younger generations. When I look at Africa, I see a continent with huge potential, a wealth of resources, a young and increasingly well-educated population. I also see a new generation of local development workers that is motivated to make farmers the agents of change.”