Smallholder farmers, typically characterized by limited resources and production capacities, play a significant role in global food production. However, smallholder farmers in low-income countries face particular challenges that include low productivity, limited access to markets, and disproportionate vulnerability to climate change.
There is a critical need to ensure that nutrient-rich foods produced around the world survive all the way to potential consumers. Good human nutrition and health depend on safe, high quality, diverse diets, and sustainable food systems require a significant reduction in the volumes of food that are lost or wasted annually. Part of the solution lies with innovations of all kinds (technologies, best practices, policy shifts) that can support the flow of fresh, perishable foods along the value chains on which poorest households rely. But they must be innovations that are cost-effective, scalable, and viable across many contexts to be successful.
This agenda was discussed at the first Annual Partners Meeting of the Feed the Future Food Systems for Nutrition Innovation Lab (FSN-IL) at Tufts University, held in Boston, Massachusetts on July 27-28, 2023. In this meeting, the Lab, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), brought together its consortium of over 40 thought leaders and global experts to gather recommendations and insights to inform FSN-IL’s strategic thinking and approaches around scaling actions around food systems for nutrition.
The meeting provided a forum for rich discussion on the future of scaling actions related to smallholder production systems and value chains to enhance the production of nutrient-rich foods, promote food safety and reduction of post-harvest losses, and contribute to sustainable food systems and economic development.
Key insights from the discussions emphasized the complexity of scaling innovations in nutrition-sensitive agriculture and the importance of shifting our thinking from a project-oriented mentality to a system perspective when considering the scaling of innovations. “You have to begin with the end in mind, begin with scaling as the goal, not the technology or intervention. Success to scaling rests more on people and processes,” commented FSN-IL partner Gerald Shively from Purdue University. This holistic approach considers the interconnectedness of various elements within the agricultural and value chain systems.
Partners highlighted the importance of scaling champions, and how scaling innovations benefit from the involvement of champions or leaders who come from the government, public institutions, or private sector (depending on the nature of the innovation). These champions play a crucial role in driving the scaling process. Scaling efforts should be context-specific and tailored to specific countries and settings. What works in one region may not be suitable for another, given variations in climate, culture, and local practices and processes.
Additionally, planning and investment should consider variability, both in terms of climate and other factors. Smallholders need strategies and support to adapt to changing conditions effectively. The concept of reverse scaling analysis was discussed, which involves examining successful cases of scaling (such as quinoa, soybeans in India, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes) to identify the factors that led to their rapid adoption and integration into food systems. This reverse analysis can help inform scaling strategies.
Partners also emphasized how crucial capacity building is for smallholders, particularly in testing and research, and short-term support, such as with access to financing and ensuring smallholders see tangible economic benefits.
In terms of policy development, recommendations included establishing a science-to-policy platform to better facilitate decision-making within the policy community to ensure that research informs policy development. The private sector also needs to be involved, as de-risking early investments from them can incentivize their participation in scaling efforts. Addressing policy gaps and creating markets for private sector engagement is essential.
It is also important to understand the linkage between production and post-farmgate activities since activities at the production level have a direct impact on processing and distribution. These aspects are interconnected and should be addressed together. Furthermore, we need to strengthen the managerial capacity of farmer organizations and actors that connect smallholders to value chain buyers for successful scaling.
The topic of indigenous foods was also highlighted, and how we should consider the value, resilience, and sustainability of traditional foods. Exploring case studies of successful traditional food scaling can provide valuable insights. Other topics discussed included ownership of technology, and how defining and clarifying ownership is important to ensure that innovations benefit the intended users, post-harvest storage and safety, and how scaling efforts can focus on addressing storage and post-harvest food safety concerns, and scaling behavior change, which is crucial for uptake of sustainable agricultural practices. One recommendation is to involve behavior change specialists in interventions to effectively drive desired changes in practices.
Overall, the insights from the discussions emphasize the need for a multi-faceted approach that considers policy, finance, investments, communication, advocacy, and dissemination to drive meaningful change in smallholder production systems and value chains.