Private sector cannot ignore small-scale farmers

Food Security28 Mar 2013Heleen Bos

If the corporate world is to pursue a global food security agenda, it cannot ignore the role of small-scale farming systems. Therefore it is essential they make connections with local organisations.

As a global vegetable breeding company, Rijk Zwaan sells seeds to the professional horticulture sector in more than 100 countries. One of our subsidiaries is Rijk Zwaan Afrisem, a company we started jointly with East West Seeds Company. The aim of RZ Afrisem is to provide local African vegetable growers with dedicated hybrid varieties and top-quality seeds at an affordable price. Because of the growers’ low buying power, very little vegetable breeding work has so far been done specifically for tropical Africa. RZ Afrisem is now transforming this situation by developing commercial hybrid varieties with improved traits for Africa’s tropical regions. The newly developed varieties generate a higher yield and exhibit better resistances to diseases than the varieties traditionally used in tropical Africa.

Vegetables are very important for Africa; many people in Kenya and Tanzania are suffering from malnutrition. Currently, there is a strong emphasis on breeding staple foods to improve the food situation in Africa. However, because of the essential role of vegetables in a balanced diet, we believe that vegetable varieties adapted to the conditions in tropical Africa can also play a significant role.

Vegetables are not only important for a health reasons, but also because they can provide small growers with a good income and boost a region’s economy. Experiences in Europe and Asia have shown that to achieve this successfully, it is necessary to educate growers (by providing ‘seeds and service’). However, breeding and selling seeds in Africa is not ‘business as usual’ for Rijk Zwaan; it is a new ‘world’, with new farmers, a new level of growing techniques, new markets and new chains. That’s why we have chosen to cooperate with partners who complement our strengths – who know the local situation and work closely with both farmers and consumers. It’s the reason why we are now launching projects such as AIM (Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrution) and Sevia in Eastern Africa: to develop and share new growing techniques, to strengthen market linkages, and to improve the way farmers are organised and their access to financing. We are convinced that the entire vegetable value chain can benefit from this approach.

Both projects originated from a clear vision, which is also shared by Rabobank, our partner in the AIM project: namely, it is virtually impossible to resolve current and future imbalances in food supply without tapping into the production potential of existing small-scale farms. 500 million smallholder farms in the developing world account for more than 95 percent of agricultural holdings and support around two billion people. This agricultural potential is underused in many developing and emerging economies, and must not be underestimated. It is important not to leave small-scale growers to struggle, but rather to help and unify them. Small farms often lack access to affordable financial services, knowledge and education, market information, seeds, land, water and fertilisers. They must therefore unite in strong producer organisations or cooperatives. By working together, they will be able to overcome the drawbacks of their small size and fragmented production structure. Only then will public-private partnerships really have an effect.

Although Rijk Zwaan does not yet have tangible experience in such public-private partnerships, we are keen to underscore the importance of the role of the Dutch Ministries. They are in a position to improve the political landscape for private-sector development, food security, poverty alleviation and nutrition security in Africa. Together with counterparts in Tanzania, the Ministries can draw increased attention to key issues. At Rijk Zwaan, meanwhile, we have extensive experience of working together with knowledge institutions. We believe in involving them in public-private partnerships whenever possible since their experience is particularly valuable when it comes to transferring knowledge.

As mentioned earlier, implementing innovative solutions in developing countries is far from ‘business as usual’. Not only seed companies such as Rijk Zwaan, but also plant raisers or greenhouse constructors should be aware that everything is different: a different kind of soil, a different way of climate control, and above all a different mentality. That’s why it is important to really have a physical presence there. To ensure that small farmers are included in the vegetable chain, it is essential to make connections with local organisations. If the corporate world is to pursue a global food security agenda, it cannot ignore the role of small-scale farming systems.