Could Thinking Small Be The Next Big Thing in Agricultural Development?
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
In India, every street corner has small shops displaying colourful strips of 1 rupee (about 1p) shampoo sachets, or stacks of mini soap bars. Creative marketing has even brought these sachets to isolated villages, draped on the back of camels.
Hindustan Unilever was behind this “adapting to the poor” approach. Realising their soaps and shampoos were too expensive for poor people, they repackaged them into small, affordable sachets. These were initially sold door-to-door by “shakti ladies”, who received microcredit to become small entrepreneurs. The 1 rupee range is now a significant part of the company’s revenues and stimulates a healthy network of small retailers.
Given that most smallholder farmers do not reach their maximum yield potential – in Africa, for instance, yields are only 20% of their potential and could be increased as much as threefold if farmers had access to existing technologies – could the widescale success of shampoos be translated to agricultural development? Solving the current food crisis is not necessarily about inventing new technologies. It could be about new marketing or dissemination approaches that give smallholder farmers better access to existing solutions.
I asked some of the companies at the World Agricultural Forum in Brussels, which ran from 28 November to 1 December, if the mini-pack revolution could help smallholder farmers get better quality and variety of seeds and fertilisers to improve yields.
Some already supply mini-packs. Like Bayer and BASF, Syngenta has developed small kits including mini packets of herbicide, pesticide and fertiliser designed for farmers with less than a hectare. The idea is that it’s affordable for the smallholder farmer and will boost harvests sufficiently to provide a quick return on investment. Sometimes, mini-packs are also more economical and ecological as farmers tend to overuse products like fertiliser. The technique of precisely applying a small capful to the plant roots (microdosing) has been well researched by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics(Icrisat) and found to increase yield significantly.
But smallholder agriculture faces many challenges. Different soil types, weather and water access are among several factors that mean simply supplying small kits is no panacea. Tailored advice is needed to help farmers make informed choices.