Regenerative agriculture (RA) has taken over the sustainable development space in recent years, with policymakers, companies and NGOs alike using these terms extensively. This also applies to impact measurement. It is defined as a holistic agricultural approach that restores the health of ecosystems and maintains them in a resilient state. It holds many promises, not only positive social and environmental outcomes, but also: convincing business case for farmers.
Although they are becoming popular in OECD countries, where large-scale farmers have access to the necessary knowledge, infrastructure and services, it seems much more difficult to replicate these approaches and techniques in the context of smallholder farmers in emerging economies.
Because adopting RA practices poses many challenges for smallholder farmers, we will explore how data collection and impact measurement can support smallholder farmers in their transition to regenerative agriculture.
Challenges of transitioning to RA for smallholder farmers
PRIOR FINANCIAL INVESTMENTS
Past experience shows that the transition to the RA production system is often accompanied by a period of lower yields due to the change in practice. Moreover, it also requires large upfront costs from small farmers to prepare their farms and access the right techniques and tools. However, farmers in southern countries often do not have the means and resources to pay for these initial investments and to cope with productivity losses.
ACCESS TO TECHNICAL KNOW-HOW AND CUSTOMIZED ADVICE
The transition to RA requires specific technical knowledge that most smallholder farmers in low- to middle-income countries do not have access to. Moreover, while RA provides general technical frameworks and approaches, the transition to RA requires context-specific interventions, driven by knowledge about farm soil typology and health, current practices and agronomic system, farmers’ needs…
CHANGING AGRICULTURE APPROACHES
RA is defined as a holistic agricultural approach and thus views the farm as a system that integrates a variety of crops and is managed by coexisting practices. Thus, it requires farmers to change their perspective from crop-specific and yield-oriented to a holistic system that interacts with surrounding ecosystems and is characterized by a diversity of crops.
LACK OF HEALTHY DATA FROM SMALL HOLDERS FOR EFFECTIVE SUPPORT
Although RA appears promising, it appears difficult for smallholder farmers in developing countries to replicate these approaches without support. With that goal in mind, governments, development organizations, NGOs and companies have developed programs to support small farmers in their transition. However, the lack of data profiling makes it difficult to connect with farmers.
Engaging with smallholders requires answering a number of crucial questions to tailor effective programs:
- Who are the farmers at the first mile of the supply chain?
- How should we define a small farmer?
- What is the profile of farmers producing this product?
- What level of supply chain fragmentation?
- What challenges do these small farmers face?
By addressing these questions, effective and context-specific programs can be designed that provide farmers with the necessary technical training, advice and access to services that will support them in the transition to RA.
In this regard, leveraging data collection and impact measurement at the smallholder level can facilitate farmers’ transition to regenerative agriculture.
Mainstreaming impact measurements at small-scale farmer level for an effective transition to regenerative agriculture
FARMERS AND FARMS DATA PROFILING FOR AN EFFECTIVE REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURAL TRANSITION
Switching to RA requires detailed knowledge about the profiles of farmers and their businesses. Defining a clear baseline of household income, current practices and farmers’ needs helps tailor a context-specific approach, which can minimize productivity losses when changing cultivation principles. However, as described above, there is a clear lack of data that allows for a proper understanding of smallholder diversity. As such, using digital tools can help collect data on a large scale compared to traditional, demanding methods.
INCREASED EFFICIENCY WITH DATA-BASED DECISIONS
Field-level data can help provide smallholder farmers with tailored prescriptive advisory services. With data derived from the specific context of their agronomic system, farmers can gain better decision-making, improving the efficiency of their business in areas such as water management or crop productivity.
CONNECTING SMALL FARMERS TO MARKETS
For a convincing business case for the transition to RA for small farmers, access to the market is crucial. Aggregating production data at the smallholder level facilitates the physical aggregation of supply among smallholders and thus achieves the volume threshold imposed by buyers. Working within coalitions of small producers, collectors and transformers makes it possible to predict volumes, inform buyers about deliveries, simplify certification and provide full traceability.
IMPROVING THE FINANCIAL INCLUSION OF SMALL FARMERS
As mentioned above, the investments required to initiate and bear the economic consequences of the transition are a major obstacle to the transition of smallholders to RA. While small farmers in general cannot rely on financial institutions Since their profile is considered risky, digital data collection on farm and production data offers a solution. The aggregation of production and financial data across farms’ business models and profit and loss accounts can help improve farmers’ credit profiles. This in turn can be used, for example, to apply for a loan from microfinance institutions.
EFFECTIVE PROGRAM MANAGEMENT SUPPORTED BY IMPACT MEASUREMENT
Data collected during the baseline process and used against field data collected regularly from smallholders will help program developers connect with smallholders appropriately. In fact, it provides a better understanding of the determinants of smallholder livelihoods, allowing for the design of programs that target high-impact areas of intervention. Additionally, it informs developers of any course correction actions that need to be implemented.
The same can be said about smallholder farmers’ management of their farms. Using digital to give smallholder farmers access to a visualization of their performance can help them assess implemented practices and improve their effectiveness.
Mainstreaming impact measurement and digital tools can be effective in supporting smallholder farmers’ transition to regenerative agriculture. However, field implementation of data collection processes has proven to be more complex.
Ksapa’s view on field impact measurements
KSAPA’S SUTTI INITIATIVE FOR REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
As part of its impact investing activities, Ksapa has developed responsible sourcing programs for companies focused on reconnecting with the first mile of the value chain: smallholder farmers. For example, Ksapa has developed a 1,000 natural rubber smallholder program in collaboration with Michelin Group and Porsche AG in Indonesia.
Ksapa developed its flagship SUTTI initiative – Scale Up Training Traceability Impact – to deliver scalable capacity building programs across fragmented value chains. Indeed, our in-house digital suite maximizes access to training through an e-learning tool and tracks the impact of the program on social, environmental and economic performance objectives. This ultimately helps industrial groups better understand their purchasing map and gives small farmers control over their farms. It also enables information sharing and data collection through a low-tech solution, making it fully adaptable to most contexts and users, including vulnerable populations.
SUTTI’s 360° approach, using regenerative agriculture systems, also addresses the needs of smallholder farmers. As such, farm diversification is an integral part of the strategy to help smallholder farmers transition.
Hybrid learning enables close relationships and customized advice, while achieving scale with digital content.
CHALLENGES ON THE FIELD FOR IMPACT MEASUREMENT
However, obstacles still remain in engaging rural populations with digital tools and processes:
- Major inequality in digital literacy among farmers (older versus young)
- Unequal access to infrastructure and equipment between rural communities (telephones, data, network coverage…)
- Necessary incentive for farmers to provide regular farm performance data
- Sharing and coordinating with farmers on data collection and impact measurement
- Ensuring that developers and farmers are on the same page regarding data privacy rights
- Lack of knowledge of financial management to understand the collected KPIs and calculation methods
Smallholder farmers’ transition to regenerative agriculture should be supported by capacity building programs managed using digitalized impact measurement. Effective involvement of small farmers and tailor-made support in decision-making, infrastructure and services depend on this.
However, implementing a digitized data collection process in rural populations requires calibration. Each field challenge calls for context-specific interventions in all programs.