As 150 leaders from Asian governments, global and regional companies, international civil society and farmer organizations convene at the 2016 Grow Asia Forum, hosted in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, four sector leaders share progress and insights on how their partnerships are transforming South-East Asia’s agriculture systems.

Grow Asia is a platform for so-called “multistakeholder” partnerships – where more than one sector of society or industry are represented – established by the World Economic Forum in cooperation with the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (commonly known as ASEAN). The platform facilitates collaboration to enable sustainable and inclusive agricultural development in South-East Asia, focusing on the development of smallholder farmers and environmental sustainability. Grow Asia reaches almost half a million smallholder farmers through 34 value-chain projects.

The Rainforest Alliance is engaged in several initiatives with companies in Vietnam and Indonesia that support smallholder farmers. How do NGOs work effectively with companies and governments to build inclusive agriculture systems that support smallholder farmers? What challenges have been encountered?

Answered by: Edward Millard, Director Asia Pacific, Rainforest Alliance

Our partnerships with the private sector and local governments have demonstrated that cross-sector collaborations are key to progressing our collective and respective goals of creating impact in agricultural development – and ensuring environmental sustainability alongside socio-economic growth.

Aligning the disparate agendas of businesses, NGOs and governments can be a tricky task. There needs to be a space where we can build trust, understanding and find common ground. In addition, an enabling environment through laws, policies and investment is a necessary ingredient for long-term success of agriculture development efforts at the community and landscape level.

The model of co-investing in value chains and sharing best practices, core competencies, resources and investment risks, benefits from a platform to share learning with the wider sector, table issues and develop industry-wide approaches that scale up individual collaborations. Through mission-driven and independent platforms like Grow Asia, we can be part of a group of forward-thinking companies, organizations and individuals that share common values and seek solutions to issues affecting the well-being of Asia’s smallholder producers and the natural environment that sustains their livelihoods.

In Vietnam, we continue to work with Unilever in supporting tea farmers gain access to mainstream export markets; in Indonesia, we are working with Nestlé on replanting coffee trees to ensure sustainability of the crop and land. In both of these examples and beyond, the value of partnerships is obvious in helping to solve challenges and address systemic issues that farmers face.

To date, we have trained 4,500 Vietnamese smallholder tea farmers – of which 2,500 are now Rainforest Alliance-certified – in improving their productivity and environmental sustainability. In Indonesia, we have now met our target whereby 19,000 smallholders have adopted sustainable agriculture practices in the production of coffee while also being linked to secure and sustainable value chains and markets.

Digital solutions have the power to reach millions of smallholder farmers. What progress has been made recently through partnerships, and how are digital solutions changing the way farmers do their work?

Answered by: U Thadoe Hein, Chairman and Managing Director, Myanma AWBA Group

Millions of smallholder farmers across Asia are often unable to access best grower practices, weather and crop price information and financing options to extract the best return from their crop. This is particularly pertinent in Myanmar, where Myanma Awba operates and provides farmers with high quality crop nutrition and protection products, technical assistance and large-scale grower education programmes – since the agricultural sector lags behind many other ASEAN neighbours. In a country where over 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture, these bottlenecks can severely impact the overall development of the country and the ability of citizens to earn a decent living.

Mobile and digital solutions have opened the door to address many of the constraints faced by the farmer. As technology penetration increases – in Myanmar we are approaching one smartphone per household in many areas - there’s now a great opportunity for more companies, NGOs and other stakeholders to develop new solutions that can help farmers make better decisions and increase their productivity.

As an example, in collaboration with other partners through the Grow Asia network, Myanma Awba has developed a mobile application which provides a wide range of data such as weather forecasts and agronomic advice to farmers. This information helps growers manage their crop more effectively, providing up-to-date information that was previously hard to get hold of. It is still in a pilot phase, with only 1,000 users, but we’re excited about what it will allow farmers to do. We’re already piloting mobile money services through the app and there’s a long list of other things we’d like to try.

Although our user base is currently small, we do see enormous potential to scale these efforts in collaboration with other partners, rolling out more ambitious solutions to empower thousands of smallholders in the coming years.

A multi-sector partnership was recently launched in Cambodia. How will the new partnerships assist in achieving Cambodia’s national agriculture goals?

Answered by: Ty Sokhun, Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Royal Government of Cambodia

The launch of the Cambodian Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture (CPSA) in May this year signifies an exciting opportunity for Cambodia’s agricultural development. This multistakeholder partnership will greatly assist our nation in achieving its national agricultural goals: improving best practice, productivity and competitiveness across rice, our priority crop, as well as other important crops including cassava, coconut, palm sugar, pepper and vegetables.

More significantly, Grow Asia’s innovative approach to collaboration will facilitate brand new links to formal markets for our smallholder farmers, building on the current agriculture development activities by our government, development partners and civil-society organizations in building farmer capacity.

With Grow Asia's experience and network of stakeholders, we do hope the new partnerships and working groups can drive further multinational and local company engagement and investment in food value chains to provide better access to knowledge, technology, finance and markets – enabling Cambodia’s smallholders to compete in the global market.

We’re committed to playing our part as the government, by creating an enabling policy environment for corporate investment in inclusive value chains.

Although the partnership is still at an early stage of development, with 47 potential partners already expressing their interest, we see a very positive response from partners and collaborators. We look forward to achieving our national agriculture goals in the years to come.

How important is the role of companies in partnerships that support smallholder farmers and sustainability of agriculture, and what are some of your company's key achievements to-date?

Answered by: Ian Hope-Johnstone, Sustainable Agriculture Senior Director, PepsiCo

Helping to promote sustainable agriculture is essential to a global, diverse food and beverage business like ours whose growth depends on procuring a safe, hiqh-quality and affordable supply of commodities that meet social and environmental standards. To effectively promote this, we need to support the whole value chain from farm to consumer. This means coming together and working with all the various partners across the value chain and bringing our different expertise and viewpoints to the table. For a global challenge of such scale, businesses need to be part of the solutions.

PepsiCo has been able to help bring about improvements to farming communities in South-East Asia over the past few years. Through Grow Asia partnerships and others in Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia, we are supporting local potato farmers.

Our collaborations have provided education and training to farmers, exposing them to best practices as well as methods that reduce the environmental footprint of farming. This has borne results as recent crop yields have notably increased. We have also been able to give farmers access to greater resources like high-quality seeds by trialing and registering new and better varieties of crops through support from local governments. More importantly, these efforts have helped link the smallholder farmers directly to formal markets, enhancing their incomes and contributing to local community development.

Via such multi-stakeholder partnerships and non-traditional solutions, we can enable improvements in farming and production methods and provide the much needed support to the many smallholder farmers who produce much of the food we consume – while ensuring a safe, high-quality and sustainable supply for businesses like PepsiCo.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 1 to 2 June.