Agriculture for Development

July 17, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Cardamom processing in Nepal. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps

Agriculture is a hot topic in development circles these days. There's talk of a "second green revolution" for Africa, a recent G8 commitment to invest $20 billion in farm aid to poor nations, and growing recognition that — in the words of a 2008 World Bank study — agriculture "must be placed at the center of the development agenda" to alleviate poverty and hunger.

Keith, who's based in Europe, and Amy, who works here in our Portland headquarters, are key drivers of many our current agricultural efforts. I spoke to them in Portland last month, just days after the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization announced that the number of hungry people in the world has surpassed 1 billion.

What's the scope of Mercy Corps' agricultural efforts?
Keith: Currently we have around 70 projects in about two dozen countries. Right now, we're investing about $100 million in agricultural programs. These range from distributing seeds and tools in sub-Sarahan Africa, to developing an online data map showing the production, price, movement and markets for ginger and cardamom in Nepal, to helping smallholder farmers sell produce more profitably in Afghanistan.

How would you describe our approach?
Amy: We're working with smallholder farmers, communities and local governments to accomplish three things: decrease hunger, increase incomes and improve environmental sustainability. It's simple, but it's powerful. We don't say it's necessarily innovative, but it's work that makes a difference.

In terms of where we work, we tend to work in communities emerging from conflict and with marginalized populations who are often left out of the commercial agricultural sector. A good example of that is in Guatemala, where we're working with Mayan farmers who typically grow only for their families or sell a bit locally. We're helping them sell into more lucrative markets, like supermarkets and canneries.

What are the main elements in our programs?
Keith: The main components to all of our programs include training farmers on production techniques, improving their access to capital, and linking them to new markets. We also make sure in each of our programs we work with governments so our efforts mesh with what's already being done and will continue once we're gone.

What's a recent example of our best work?
Keith: In Nepal, we're looking at how to help 100,000 households who farm cardamom.
At the production level, we're helping farmers increase profit margin and income by improving their business planning and processing techniques, helping them gain access to appropriate financial services, and giving them skills to negotiate and trade with their end buyers. At the export level, we're helping traders up their market share through better product grading, packaging and branding, improved relations with producers, and a national-level trade promotion association.

Our work in Nepal — not only with cardamom, but potatoes and ginger, too — is a great example of our focus on high-impact agricultural value chains. We're focused on crops that affect a lot of people's livelihoods.

Tell me more about providing farmers with access to capital.
Amy: Traditional loan programs don't always work for the poor farmers we work with. They're not always considered "creditworthy" because of their lack of income and assets. So they don't fit the traditional client profile of a commercial bank or even a microcredit agency, and the loans that are available to them don't often match their needs.

Take Nepal, for example. The cardamom farmers there live in remote, hilly areas far from their neighbors. So the traditional "solidarity group" lending model, where people get together weekly or monthly to meet and pay installments on their loan, isn't really feasible. So instead we're working with a private microfinance bank to develop and market financial products and structured loans that are specially tailored to meet the needs of farmers and processors of cardamom and other perennials.

There are a lot of groups helping poor farmers and trying to improve agricultural economies. What's our niche?
Amy: I'd say we've developed an expertise doing relief-and-recovery work in transitional environments — places emerging from or still suffering from conflict like Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia, and Guatemala.

Food prices have come down a lot since their 2008 highs, but there's still a lot of talk about a global food crisis. What's your take on the situation?
Keith: To me, food crisis is a misnomer. It's an income crisis, it's a poverty crisis. There's enough food in the world to feed everyone, but it's a question of distribution and politics. The emphasis in our Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–funded food crisis program is on helping people earn cash so that they can buy food.

In the countries where we work, agriculture tends to be the number-one employer for poor people and the largest economic sector. So it makes sense, when we talk about "development," to focus on improvements in agricultural sector — from production to government support, so programs are sustainable long beyond our presence.