It’s hard for me to imagine life as a smallholder farmer. If I want to sell anything from old furniture to hobbies I’ve grown out of, I take a few pictures on my phone and upload them to Craigslist. Many in the world, including – and often especially – smallholder farmers, don’t have such easy access to a market.
Market access is more than physically being able to carry crops to a location to sell – although that is a basic requirement. A farmer who truly has market access knows current prices for his product, knows who will buy it from him (or his farmer group) and knows how to get it to those buyers. Though it is a necessary condition for profitability, many smallholders lack market access – barring them from escaping a cycle of poverty.
So how can we help?
Primarily, farmers need to grow crops that have value – and have buyers who recognize that value. Sometimes it’s cotton. Sometimes it’s soybeans. There have been situations in which farmers have grown an expensive cash crop, only to find that the market for it has dwindled. Mobile technology – among other ways – can help farmers see what crops will be a good investment. Development partners can help farmers get access to seeds for these crops and training on appropriate fertilizers and other technologies.
Public-private partnerships can create a guaranteed market for a crop, linking farmers to buyers. Usually, the buyer (a processor or distributor) will guarantee to buy farmers’ crops at a certain price so long as they achieve certain criteria. One recent partnership involved potato farmers and a business that made those potatoes into other products. The farmers were guaranteed a good price if their potatoes were of good quality.
Just as important, good roads need to be built. Many harvests are spoiled because some farmers must travel long, uncared-for roads that damage their crops. An IFDC project in Malawi encouraged farmers to participate in improving infrastructure by offering fertilizer vouchers in exchange for building better bridges and roads. The community effort was successful, as farmers reaped benefits from the fertilizer and the new roads.
For commercialized smallholder farmers, a guaranteed market means a guaranteed income and a potential for profit. The benefits of market access don’t stop with the farmers bringing home more money. Healthy markets benefit farmers and consumers alike. If the food can get to the market, the world can be fed.