Agricultural improvements have yielded tremendous results, decreasing the number of undernourished people by 167 million in the last ten years alone. However, these improvements have often been made by increasing the amount of land under cultivation – a practice that cannot continue indefinitely. Agricultural expansion has also come at a price: soil erosion, deforestation and water pollution – compounded by higher and more volatile global temperatures – have already begun to reduce agricultural productivity. For this reason, Mercy Corps works to ensure agro-systems around the world are economically productive, nutritionally diverse and efficient – both today and in the future.
We help smallholder farmers – farmers with less than 1 hectare of land – and pastoralists develop their production capacity so they can increase productivity and weather environmental shocks and stresses. We also focus on improving agriculture-related products and services by working with traders, input suppliers, processors and government bodies. And our holistic approach extends further – to improving the nutrition of people who consume agricultural products. This might mean increasing a crop's nutritional value by improving how crops are harvested, stored and transported. We also work with families to help them diversify the crops they grow and educating communities about the benefits and conditions of good nutrition.
The world’s 450 million small farms — two hectares or less — are home to about 2 billion people, many of whom are among the poorest on Earth. In the countries where Mercy Corps works, agriculture provides the main source of household income and is the primary means of food security for 57 percent of the population. These people face incredible obstacles: soaring prices for food, seeds and other supplies; outdated technology; unfavorable or limited access to markets and financial services; and poor soil and water resource management.
However, with the right investments and development assistance, these small farmers hold the potential not only to improve their lives but also to contribute to a safer, healthier and more secure food and agriculture system for everyone.
Mercy Corps’ Approach
Mercy Corps works in places where livelihoods and economies are under extreme stress, if not severely disintegrated. The results are hunger, poverty, natural resource exploitation, conflict and a lack of opportunities for youth. In most cases, agriculture is the mainstay of the local economy.
In these transitional environments, Mercy Corps’ proven agricultural programming works with farmers, agri-business, communities and local governments to provide food, increase incomes and improve environmental sustainability — while also addressing the root causes of conflict. During extreme disasters, conflicts and poverty, people need immediate assistance just to stay alive. But in the long term, our goal is to help build a sustainable local economy that can bring about the greatest social and environmental gains while avoiding dependency. Currently, our agricultural work includes more than 70 projects worldwide — worth $100 million — that touch more than 3 million smallholder farmers and their families.
Building Food Security
Mercy Corps is working to increase local food production and marketing and improve nutrition by helping farming households diversify the types of crops they grow, eat and sell. Boosting the amount of food grown strengthens families’ economic stability and lessens the chance they will go hungry in the future. In Niger, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Mercy Corps is helping more than 100,000 people earn higher wages through improved agricultural practices and better access to more profitable local and regional markets.
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia, Mercy Corps began a cash-for-work program to help people rebuild rice fields, boats and roads, while providing immediate wages. We continue to focus on providing farmers and traders with access to credit and technical assistance.
In Liberia we are making it easier and more cost-effective for farmers in 100 communities to bring their produce to market. Over 500 farm families have learned how to produce or process higher-value crops such as cassava, cowpeas, peanuts and hot peppers. In Myanmar, we are helping more than 100 communities devastated by Cyclone Nargis to restart their crop, livestock and fishing activities. In Afghanistan, Mercy Corps is boosting the productivity of more than 6,000 farmers by increasing access to quality agricultural supplies. We are helping 100 seed growers profitably produce 20 percent of the nation’s wheat seed, doubling yields and netting more than $1 million in seed sales. In a country where farmers often earn less than $1 per day, this increase in production adds approximately $150 to each family’s annual earnings.
From Subsistence Production to Profitable Businesses
Farmers increase their incomes and food security when they improve crop yields and plant new varieties. To spur economic growth and create more jobs, Mercy Corps teaches farmers how to increase harvests and better manage their crops. We develop market-based services to supply farmers with seeds and veterinary supplies, improve their access to credit, and connect local agri-enterprises so they can cooperate in crop storage, processing and transport.
In Guatemala, Mercy Corps is helping 300 farming families boost their incomes and stimulate the local economy by diversifying their crop mix into high-value products, minimizing mid-level players and capitalizing on market opportunities. In addition, Mercy Corps has mediated 120 land conflicts, and 38 communities are now producing commercially viable crops, including pineapples, chili, cacao, plantains, cardamom and vanilla.
In Mongolia, Mercy Corps provided technical assistance and better access to financing to help 4,651 pastoral herders and agribusinesses diversify and expand their operations and increase total revenues by more than $3 million.
With Mercy Corps’ help, 7,000 households in Uganda are increasing vegetable production — and incomes — and improving food security. We are also helping producer groups re-establish their cooperative production, processing and marketing businesses.
In Nepal, Mercy Corps works with more than 1,000 ginger and cardamom farmers to increase their productivity and profitability. We also support nationwide cardamom and ginger trade associations and promote trade and better access to financial services.
Better Access to Financial Services
Enterprises that have very little collateral and no formal credit history are considered risky investments by traditional banking institutions. Many small farming businesses fall into this category. Mercy Corps helps family farms overcome this challenge to running their operations and building their assets through a variety of creative financial solutions.
In Mongolia, we’ve helped fund 460 loans totaling more than $1.2 million; half have been repaid in full. In rural China, Mercy Corps is helping 13,000 poor farmers gain access to microfinance. In Guatemala, 4,000 farming households are forming 50 village banks to increase access to credit. In Nepal, Mercy Corps expects to reach 10,000 clients — especially women and the poorest households — by teaming with the country’s largest microfinance provider to expand financial services in remote areas and develop savings and loan products for agriculture. In Ethiopia, Mercy Corps plans to expand financial services into never-served areas, potentially touching tens of thousands of farming and related agribusinesses.
Niger: Schools empty as food shortage worsens
Twelve-year-old Lauretta was forced to drop out of school to help keep house and watch her younger brother while her mother forages for food to feed the family.
Yemen: Humanitarian needs demand urgent attention
Tajikistan: Food supplies dwindle as extreme winter drags on
In the high villages of Askalon Jamoat, there is no food left in the shops, and households are completely reliant on their own dwindling supplies as access is completely cut off.
Niger: Update from the field: Food crisis is just beginning
Guatemala: Land ownership yields stronger, healthier communities
Families in the rural highlands are dependent on the land, but years of civil war have diminished resources. Find out how they are rebuilding from the ground up.
Niger: "There is nothing to eat"
During the two weeks I recently spent with in Niger with our emergency response teams, I kept hearing the same thing over and over: There is nothing to eat.
Niger: Families seek food assistance
Due to worsening food shortages, the nutritional screening centers that Mercy Corps established several years ago have experienced a massive increase in patients.
Niger: Mother and child in Niger
One of many mothers worried about the lack of food for their children after severe drought and a meager 2011 harvest have brought the lean season to Filingue and the rest of Niger months early.
Niger: Malnutrition screenings in Filingue
Mothers — and often grandmothers caring for babies left orphaned — come to the nutritional screening center in Filingue, where Mercy Corps volunteers assess each child for malnourishment using arm measurements and a formula that takes into account age and weight.
Myanmar: A father plants seeds for a new future
A wide grin spreads across U Myo Zaw’s long, lively face as he eyes his new watering cans and vegetable seeds. The relatively simple supplies will help him cultivate his own small plot of land, a tremendous symbol of personal progress for him.