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Digital Cooperatives to Support Rural Farming Communities amid Covid19

Empowering smallholder farmers to participate equitably in food value chains through farmer-designed digital services amid Covid19

Photo of Talia Lostaunau
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Safeguarding the world’s food systems is now an immediate priority. In order to do this, we must look to the experts - smallholder farmers - who produce 70% of our food. Producers Direct is owned and led by smallholder farmers - from the smallholder farmers who represent the majority of our Board members, through to our investment in the farmer and youth leaders who deliver our activities across smallholder communities internationally.

Overall, Producers Direct works with and benefits the livelihoods of over 1 million smallholder farmers in East Africa and Latin America. For the last decade, we’ve pioneered a model committed to building resilience for smallholders, promoting sustainable food systems and powerful market linkages, and empowering farmers to manage sustainable and diverse farming systems. Our award-winning solutions include Wefarm, which originated as a Producers Direct project (2010-2015), before being spun out as an independent start-up from 2015. 

As a result of governments’ responses to Covid19, restrictions on movement in different countries is constraining farmers’ access to inputs, technical support and markets to sell their products. Fresh produce is accumulating on farms, resulting in food loss. FAO recommends that countries implement core measures: bring collection centers closer to smallholder producers to reduce the need for mobility and accelerate the development of e-commerce for smallholders. We want to go further, and provide smallholder farmers a solution to continue producing sustainably and selling their products safely.

We will adapt FarmDirect, our pioneering farmer-designed digital tool, to support food value chains, allowing vulnerable groups, particularly female smallholder farmers, to access key services (training, data) and still sell their fresh produce without traveling to local markets. 

Our adaptation focuses on digitally replicating the benefits that smallholders would gain from being part of a cooperative. In particular, two key benefits. Firstly - the power of aggregation at scale, particularly the increased negotiation power a farmer gains from selling as part of a collective, rather than individually negotiating small volume sales.  Secondly, collective ownership. Just as farmers are members of a traditional cooperative, farmers equitably share any profits generated by FarmDirect.

Crucially, accessibility will be via either a smart or a dumb phone - dependig on a users’ realities.  So how does it work? When Agnes has surplus pineapple, she uses FarmDirect to connect with other female farmers who also have surplus. Working collectively, Agnes not only has the potential to negotiate better prices. She can also join with others to supply larger volumes to buyers who she could not reach when selling alone. For example, longer-term, this could include supermarkets.  Olistina’s transaction records are also digitised, building her credit history and therefore enhancing her access to financial services. 

Product aggregation will be led by youth, who aggregate the surplus produce from the farms and deliver it directly to buyers (who also have the ability to access the digital platform). Payments are digital, decreasing the chances of contagion. 

FarmDirect’s system can be adapted to support multiple farming systems facing the current Covid-19 restrictions, offering services that span multiple crops, and addressing the multiple issues that farmers face to farm sustainably. These include access to markets for multiple crops, data to support on-farm management, including soil and weather, yield tracking and predictions across multiple crops, and digitised training.

The development of this system is only possible for an organisation that already has a strong network of smallholder producers and youth leaders in place internationally. This strongly positions Producers Direct as the right organisation to deliver this.

What is the need are you focusing on?

Restrictions on movement in different countries constrains farmers’ access to critical goods (inputs, tools) and services (data, extension services) as well as markets to sell their products. Fresh produce (surplus) is accumulating at farms, resulting in food loss. 

Most smallholders are >60 years, placing them in the highest risk category for Covid19. There is a critical need to support this sector access services and markets safely. If not, the consequences on the sustainability of the world’s food supply will be severe. Key challenges range from significant health issues facing rural smallholder communities to potential reversals on gains made toward achieving SDG 2 Zero Hunger. Impacts will reverberate well beyond smallholder communities, as global food supply chains will be affected by protectionism and recession. Further, we anticipate the employment crisis currently facing rural youth worldwide will be exacerbated. 

Which type of submission are you sharing?

  • Sharing a pivot idea your organization is considering or could consider

Describe the business pivot or adaptation in 3-4 sentences.

Producers Direct has pioneered FarmDirect, a farmer-led data system developed by and for farmers through human centred design to support them to collect, manage and own their own data, enabling smarter on-farm management. FarmDirect functionality can be adapted to support smallholder farmers - particularly women smallholders - to deal with the restrictions placed by Covid19 and operate safely by: (1) joining cooperatively with other women smallholders to effectively bundle and sell their products without leaving their farms; (2) coordinating youth leaders within farming communities to run aggregation, logistics, delivery and product sales services. The digital tool will be piloted with Producers Direct producer organisations partners, having the potential to be used by our network of more than 1 million smallholder farmers, and all producers worldwide.

Do you plan to implement this solution?

  • Yes

Describe the impact that this solution will create in the world.

Digital Cooperatives will directly impact the livelihoods of 280K smallholder farmers from our network in Peru and East Africa, and indirectly over 1M people, with the potential to reach all smallholders worldwide. We are adapting our digital tool FarmDirect to respond to the current pandemia. Our solution will benefit three main groups:(1)Female Smallholder Farmers: The surplus produced by women is generally sold in local markets, but now it’s being difficult for them to take it to markets. With our solution, women’s surplus will be aggregated and delivered to buyers, (2)Youth (18 - 35 yo) in Rural Areas: Rural youth underemployment and unemployment continues to rise and will be exacerbated with Covid19. FarmDirect will provide youth viable employment opportunities in the sector. Youth will lead in aggregating and bundling food products grown by female farmers and delivering it to buyers, (3)Buyers looking for sustainable, nutritious and safe food will be key users of FarmDirect.

What is the name of your business or organization?

Producers Direct

What does your business/company do? Whose needs does your business/company address? Who do you serve?

Producers Direct is an award winning enterprise led by farmers for farmers. We provide direct farmerled product sourcing & support services, working directly with smallholder-owned cooperatives from East Africa & Latin America. Our unique farmer-led model blends in-person services with digital tools, enabling smallholder farmers to enhance their participation in, and ownership of key crop value chains. Producers Direct has been engaged in innovative approaches to supporting smallholder production since 2009. We’ve developed FarmDirect, a digital tool, serving producers to access data & training. Now we’ll adapt it to be useful for smallholders to access markets, in a moment when it’s needed the most.

What is your profession?

Fundraising Coordinator

Where are you located (country)?

Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Peru

Where are you located (region)?

  • Eastern Africa

What industry is your business/company in?

  • Agriculture/Farming
  • Non-Profit/Philanthropy

How many people does your business/company employ?

  • 11-49

How old is your business/company?

  • 10 or more years old

Which classification describes your organization/business?

  • Nonprofit/NGO

What kind of stakeholders and partnerships are needed to pursue this solution?

  • Funding- Grants
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- NGOs
  • Stakeholders/Partnerships- Grassroots/Community Groups

Do you need help building partnerships and finding partners?

  • Yes

If Yes to the above, please share 1-2 sentences describing the specific help you desire.

We would appreciate help to engage buyer community groups in semi-urban areas, since we’ve been working with smallholder farmers for more than 10 years, and they are already part of our network. We would also appreciate support in finding funding partners to develop this solution.

What do you think are the main barriers to implementing this solution?

Not everyone in semi-urban areas are used to digital tools and e-commerce. The main barrier will be engaging local buyers in the use of this digital tool and making them understand that it is a safe way of buying products. Nevertheless, if there is a good moment to make a digital solution like ours popular, it is now. We are sure that, with the right communication campaign we will be able to engage this community.

If you are currently working on a pivot, what have you learned so far?

Listening to users needs and likes is paramount when adapting your model. In Producers Direct we work with Human Centered Design. Although we know this is not a good moment to have in-person meetings, we use the insights we’ve gotten from more than 10 years working with smallholder farmers as well as virtual conversations, to get relevant information about the users.

Are you aware of any open source efforts, hackathons or other collaborative efforts related to your solution? Are you participating in these efforts?

Yes, we have participated in several hackathons and challenges with this solution. We are constantly in the search for new opportunities to develop our model and impact the livelihoods of more smallholder farmers across our network.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Susan Jackewicz

Hello Talia Lostaunau  Thank you for posting your idea to help small shareholder farmers during COVID19. Under normal circumstances there are many challenges, but your organization is looking at a good pivot. I'm here in the US. Our situation has some different challenges, but also parallel difficulties to what you're experiencing in Africa and South America.
There's an organization here called the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, based out of the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. They acknowledge US small production farmers are aging at a fast rate, with no one to continue farming on highly priced land. Their focus is to train new young people in farming practices, and help them acquire what's needed to start a farm. You both focus on training, finance, market access, and data acquisition. You might find it helpful to connect with them. I don't think they have an app. They do have a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) and a sophisticated network of community buyer groups. You might be able to help each other! Best, Susan

Photo of Talia Lostaunau

Hello Susan.

Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, smallholders, who are reponsible for 70% of the world's food are some of the most vulnerable.

I am looking into the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project and it looks like we are doing some similar work. Interesting to know they are having some digital training. Thanks fr sharing, will contact them!


Photo of Susan Jackewicz

Talia Lostaunau  you're welcome! I hope that helps. Sharing ideas across cultures can be fertile ground for new insights. Keep at it, this is important work :-)