Farmers and people

Farming forward: pathways and promise for smallholders

On the surface, Grounded’s projects vary hugely, landscape to landscape – from cultivating regenerative spices in the rainforests of Tanzania, to pioneering the honeybush tea industry with farmers in South Africa. No matter how diverse the opportunity or tailor-made our approach, when it comes to working with farmers and businesses, we’re seeking wholesale transformation for the long run. To get to the heart of how and why we do what we do, and what sets us apart, we chat with Grounded co-founder Gijs Boers and Grounded business developer Stephie Mendelsohn.

Interview and editing by Hailey Gaunt

11 February 2021

Blog artwork

From share-cropping peanuts to careful crop and farmer selection, over time, Grounded has sharpened its approach to working with farmers and developing businesses.

Credit: Gareth Hubbard

Grounded is a social enterprise that wants to make a positive impact on soil restoration and rural livelihoods. Practically, the organisation is about supporting farmers. This might be a very basic question, but why focus our energies on this particular group?

G: We always talk about restoration of rural areas in general, and people who live rurally are usually farmers – with a few exceptions left or right. Sooner or later, the custodians of the land are farmers, so if you want to restore lands you have to work with farmers.

Sooner or later, the custodians of the land are farmers, so if you want to restore lands you have to work with farmers.

S: What comes up visually is the graphic of unequal risk that farmers handle. If you look at it from the value chain perspective – and if you want to improve equality on that value chain, like we do – you want to make the risk more equal. Many farmers are in an incredibly cash-insecure position. So then looking at soil degradation, farmers often just have very little power to make a big change in the system. I think from those two perspectives, there’s a linking point: the needs of the landscape and the needs of the farmer. It’s where those come together and it’s where a lot of the change needs to happen.

Infographic displaying mainstream agricultural models vs Grounded's agricultural model and explaining shared agriculture risks.

Farmers carry most of the risks and receive the fewest rewards. The entire value chain rests upon their success, and yet their role is systemically undervalued.

Which farmers do Grounded most want to work with?

G: We wanted to work with all farmers when we started, but over time we began to focus on farmers that have ambition to farm as a business, and can supply the businesses we are involved in.

S: I’d say we really want to differentiate between circumstantial farmers and vocational famers. To put it very simply, in any group of people, say ten thousand people, you would only expect maybe five percent of those people to do any one profession and to be good at that profession. If we took ten thousand people living in Cape Town and said, ‘look, all of you ten thousand people should be accountants,’ we would never expect all those people to be good accountants, based on a shared geography. If we tried to train them to be better accountants, we wouldn’t expect a different outcome, either. We would accept that not all of them should be accountants. That example sounds absurd, yet in a lot of projects people who grow crops in rural areas are routinely expected to be or become competitive farmers. And for us, I think what is crucial is we only concentrate on the top five to ten percent – people who are farming vocationally, rather than just circumstantially. We focus on the most promising farmers, recognising the huge amount of variation in potential, interest, and individuality.

We focus on the most promising farmers, recognising the huge amount of variation in potential, interest, and individuality.

G: Ya, and what I think is general about the farmers – whether it’s Langkloof, Baviaanskloof, or Zambia – we tend to partner with those who are in it for the long-term, who are in it for their whole life but are struggling in their current models, whether they are more commercial growers looking to follow the trends of going organic, or small-scale farmers looking to improve their yields. But for both kinds, we’ve learned to be very selective, making a big change for those farmers we partner-up with, rather than a small change for many farmers.

Has this focus narrowed from the beginning? I’m thinking of Grounded’s work in Zambia, for example – how did that experience change our approach in terms of the projects we work with and farmers we choose?

G: The ambition when we started was to support the people living in the Simalaha Conservancy with their farming. The organisation we partnered with in Zambia (Peace Parks) successfully employed a training scheme, and we were planning to build upon that. The idea there was to see, ok, how could we make that programme work commercially? What would the minimum package be? How much seed would be delivered to the farmers? How much support would farmers need to make back the investment and inputs and produce for their families and make a bit of extra income? What we saw when we started pushing that – increasing the seed packages, the land – we saw that the farmers who were actually on the small seed packages with small support, were working effectively and turning that small package into food security and resilience-type farming. But when we started increasing that to make it more sustainable and durable from an economic point of view – for the business but also for the farmers, cash security rather than food security – we saw that many farmers couldn’t meet the model. When the increased package landed, only the top farmers were able to take it on and convert it into an economic model.

We’ve learned there are big differences in performances between all the small farmers – due to the differences in their families, their networks, but also planning capacity and energy, the time they can commit to their farming activities. We saw that we were under-supporting the farmers that worked really well, and over-supporting others.

S: With the small-package approach, what ends up happening is you can have these incremental gains and people can improve their farming capabilities a little bit, but we had to realise that at the end of the day it’s an area where farming is difficult. What you end up doing is promoting farming in places where it’s actually not suitable – or where the inputs needed to make it work are just much more than you can offer to the whole group. I think we had to be really honest with ourselves about the limits of that approach.

G: We want to make sure that for our farmers, we are offering an opportunity that can lead to a substantively different trajectory than the one they’re already on. What’s important is that beyond farming, we see many different avenues for farmers to improve their livelihoods beyond growing successful cash crops. Rural employment, city employment, commercial farming, small enterprises. We want to see a rural economy bloom in the long term, and a sustainable and competitive agricultural system is often the base of that.

We want to see a rural economy bloom in the long term, and a sustainable and competitive agricultural system is often the base of that.

Infographic explaining rural pathways.

This graphic, from the publication Pathways, lays out the often overlooked opportunities small-holder farmers have to pursue successful livelihoods.

There has been a lot of discussion about which pathways exist for rural farmers. But what kind of foundations are needed for successful opportunities to emerge – for the farmers and for Grounded?

S: When speaking specifically on small-holders in, for instance, Zambia or Tanzania, the fact is that there are lots of different players who work with, support, buy from, or help people in rural landscapes. Of course there is a need for those broad-based programmes that can improve food security and nutrition – people need to be fed and people need to be healthy.

So there’s also a paradox here, which is what makes it so tricky. If people are becoming more resilient and stronger in meeting their basic needs but can’t take the next step – in farming, migrating, becoming part of a paid labour force or whatever – if they don’t make the jump to another pathway, the cycle just starts again. From our experience, that jump from ‘vulnerable subsisting farmer’ to ‘consolidated/commercializing farmer’ is quite a big jump. I think it’s quite interesting to think about these steps, and what’s realistic and feasible to expect from the farmer, and from the business in, for instance, a Zambian or Tanzanian context.

The imbalance is that much more focus goes into resilience, and sometimes chasing the million farmer mark, and the result is that we don’t see long-term changes or improvements. So for Grounded at least, and I think in general too, we feel like there is a strong need to abandon the assumptions that rural people living in Africa can all be farmers in the long term (and also that all Africa is good for is farming). Those assumptions might be true for subsistence, but the point is that no one wants to ‘subsist’ any more – people need much more.

G:  In our approach, the short-term social impact is less clear, yet the opposite is true for the long-term impact. There is a very interesting paper which explores it all further.

We feel like there is a strong need to abandon the assumptions that rural people living in Africa can all be farmers in the long term.

What are some of the ways Grounded is doing this already – helping to fill in the gaps and not just supporting successful farms, but successful business endeavours?

G: Sometimes it’s about increasing packages per farmer and supporting their cultivation, but in the bigger picture, also about creating a competitive agri-economy and hopefully also creating economic opportunities that support this agri-economy. In the Langkloof, for example, we had two individuals who had been employees of a nursery, who, now, together with us in a joint venture, have started their own nursery. It’s more of a small-scale spinoff, but that type of opportunity, you know? We manage the finances for the nursery, but they get their own inputs, and they grow amazing quality.

Farmer walking through honeybush seedling nursery.

Building on a budding economy of honeybush farming in the area, two enterprising locals in South Africa’s Langkloof valley, together with Grounded, have started supplying farmers with organic honeybush seedlings.

Talk a little bit more about the significance to the landscape / social ecosystem then, considering this concentrated approach. How do you reconcile this with Grounded’s aim in the bigger picture to try and have as big an impact as possible?

G: This is a very critical distinguishing point, and also very difficult to explain. If you have 100 farmers and there are 80 that might even be in greater need for your help, but you go with the top 20 performers, we think this is the best chance for the business to succeed. It may look like you’re excluding the most in-need, but we believe that if a business works in an area, it’s easier to have an impact on those other 80 farmers. This is a very tricky point, being a social enterprise. But if you go for the short-term impact, then you would go for the farmers who are in the direst need. However, they are the most susceptible to mistakes. There are organisations with models that serve the greatest number and the most vulnerable, but we think that doing our best to make the business work is the best way to impact the landscape in the long term.

S: Right. Again, we want to be careful not to end up incentivising or sustaining people to continue to farm if there is not a strong economic outlook for them. That can end up sustaining poverty, in fact. Whereas those people might otherwise confront the hard but necessary decision to pursue an alternative livelihood in a rural landscape, or to move to an urban landscape.

We think that doing our best to make the business work is the best way to impact the landscape in the long term.

When you’re looking for investors, is it hard to justify this ‘less is more’ approach?

S: Well, we try to be honest and modest and say, ‘we’re only going to target a small percentage of the population’, which can be an immediate turn-off for some – even though the impact can be significant. It’s not only that the benefits can be bigger for the individual, it’s the rural economic circulation that starts to happen with successful businesses. That’s something we really care about, and it’s a little bit like the larger landscape restoration – it’s not something we can attribute directly to our activities, but it’s a part of the puzzle and something that strong local businesses can support. So when you support successful farmers – those who can scale, who can grow, who can employ labour where their cash cycles are otherwise really local, all of that benefits these rural economies. And I think this is the thing, in an African rural context, that will transform livelihoods.

G: And that impact will be more sustainable, because a system that can compete, in the end, is creating value. That value leaves the rural area as a product and cash comes in; the value created is larger than the costs of adding that value. That is the step that is often missing, and that is where businesses need to step in, although your impact on the individual becomes less direct, especially on the large numbers of individuals. We believe that a good company that can create millions of Euros of local value in a district can have a significant impact, even if you dilute that among all the inhabitants. But that relationship is poorly researched, it’s less written about – it’s less sexy. We are not good at showing or understanding how that will work. Yet if you look to Western governments, they spend most of their time making their economies more competitive and then hoping this translates into overall prosperity.

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