Industries in Depth

This is how smallholders can secure our food's future - and their own

Farmer David Barton holds an example of his barley crop in his hand at Manor Farm in Middle Duntisbourne in south west Britain, August 1, 2018. Picture taken August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville - RC18BC585D00

Grassroots interventions and new technology could help farmers in the face of climate change, isolation and poverty Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Patrick Struebi
Founder and Executive Chairman, Fairtrasa
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

When it comes to global food security and the development of smallholder farmers, we live in an era of lessons learned. Never before have we understood as much about what does work and what does not.

However, despite the efforts and successes of programmes designed to share best practices and initiatives to foster market connections, smallholders – with their ties to families, communities and whole-food chains – continue to face an uphill climb against isolation, stubborn poverty and climate change.

Yet today, more than ever, there is fresh hope for sustainable and affordable solutions that can scale. In the combination of successful grassroots interventions with the promise of technological approaches connected to the digital economy, there exists unprecedented opportunity. With adaptable and data-rich platforms, the benefits of information technology can be delivered as never before into the hands of farmers no matter their location, connecting them to best practices, agricultural science and markets – all at a significantly reduced cost compared to traditional development.


If global development work has taught us anything, it is that the solution will not be one size fits all. As agricultural technology platforms proliferate, the question remains how to ensure tailored, local solutions that build on decades of development wisdom. Top-down solutions rarely endure, as they often fail to take into account local factors and points of view. At the same time, flourishing models of farmer development face the continual challenge of scale.

Take the example of Fairtrasa, the $70-million fairtrade company I started 12 years ago. I have seen great results from development work with smallholders, as well as some of the limitations that make scaling a challenge. While Fairtrasa has had success with a three-tier farmer development model that builds subsistence farmers into independent exporters, our growth is dependent on the establishment of new offices to meet a nearly limitless demand.

Is technology the solution? And if so, how can we determine an equitable approach that helps to usher in a Fourth Industrial Revolution and avoids skewing in favour of industrial and large-scale farming?

Rooted in on-the-ground experience, we must reach for cloud technology. We must start by building on successful smallholder programmatic interventions like ours while borrowing from such exponentially scalable technological approaches that can work on a local level while having a human face. Such a system requires less ongoing funding while providing richer, more adaptable data and knowledge for every stakeholder in the food supply chain.

A sustainable end-to-end solution that combines development learnings of the past with technologies of the future could connect smallholder farmers to local and global markets, lifting livelihoods and increasing food security. In such a model, empowered local farmers will serve as the basis of food and nutritional security locally, while supplying local and global markets, and helping to ensure environmental stability and conservation.

With that model in mind, we have developed a partnership with a leading agricultural technology company, eKutir, that shares the same mission and does similar farmer development work to Fairtrasa. A human-centric tech platform provides dynamic crop, weather and market inputs tailored to local needs. Our belief is that combining both networks – global market access and cutting-edge technology – we can build a truly sustainable, end-to-end solution that will lift millions of smallholder farmers out of poverty and contribute significantly to addressing the global food security challenge.

Sharing this ambitious goal, we are launching Blooom, a co-venture that borrows from the best that our respective approaches offer and is based on our common appreciation for our ultimate stakeholders: the farmers we serve.

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It couldn’t come at a more important time. We’ve already entered the second phase of the Sustainable Development Goals and have 12 more years to achieve their aims. Climate change is chasing us all, altering norms and disrupting once reliable patterns, as need rapidly grows to feed an expanding global population. With the societal imperative to grow more sustainably, smallholders represent both the best custodians of our food basket and the largest number of targeted consumers under the SDGs.

In today’s world, we are racing against time and that’s why linear growth solutions may no longer be sufficient. With the latest technological tools at hand, we have the power to enhance and change old structures with new solutions to enable exponential growth and impact. Now is the time to join forces to meet the ambitious SDGs, to see all humans and our planet bloom.

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Industries in DepthNature and BiodiversityFood and Water
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