Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development
There is a widely accepted story (gospel, even) that farmers (particularly those in rural areas) eagerly share information. The belief is that neighbours, in the bucolic hills and valleys of the developing world, happily share with other farmers improved farming techniques, recommendations on inputs, and suggestions on marketing or selling yields. Or that they watch each other’s farms, noting the yields and inputs of other farmers.
It’s a lie. Sort of. To be more specific, like many narratives in life, the truth is more nuanced.
To be sure, some farmers do share information, although not as often as we may have been led to believe. Further, the venue for sharing information may not even be on the farm. Instead, agricultural festivals or stores are often equally likely arenas for the sharing of information across social networks.
It makes sense that the “kumbaya” story on sharing farmers does not always hold true. As a farmer, if in your area you want to be the go-to-guy for the miller, will you actively share your secrets with your neighbour? After you walked 2 km to a motorcycle, took the motorcycle to the market, then probably took a packed bus to town, only to have to repeat the entire process with seed and/or fertilizer? I probably wouldn’t share as well.
At least, this has been my experience working in East Africa. One thing that I would like to see happen is for farmers to share more often. For them to discuss more about the inputs, particularly maize seed, which help them deliver the best yields. For farmers to discuss the distribution channels that are in stock with the products farmers need, at the prices farmers want.
More sharing between farmers means better yields, better households, and better lives.
Achieving this is hard.
Farmers, at least in my experience, often come from a family where agriculture has long played an important role in daily lives. And as people with minimal resources who carefully ponder decisions, switching brands, or buying products at a new store is not a light decision. Yet, selling inputs requires finding more channels for the distribution of the product, and consumers knowing where to get the product.
One way to address this is to put point of sale promotional tools to drive awareness of products. This could mean posters or display tools at different stores. Another is to showcase products so that farmers, storekeepers and stakeholders alike can see the performance of a brand and share (!) what they’ve seen. The entire point of these strategies is to encourage awareness among farmers of the product and various distribution channels.
While in East Africa, I have had the chance to put into place some of these techniques. I’ve worked with some fantastic people who still leave me somewhat in awe with what they are able to achieve in challenging circumstances. The results have been largely satisfactory, although there is still a great way ago.
And what we are doing is helping farmers to have a conversation about a quality seed that will help them improve their lives and ensure food security. For them to talk more about which stores meet their needs. And for them to go to the aggressive storekeeper, and make sure the right seed, at the right price, is available.
And that feels good.