4 Practical Tips for Working with Farmer Producer Groups
Working with smallholder producer groups and cooperatives is a great way to empower farmers, develop inclusive market systems, and achieve sustainable outcomes. But even the most cohesive groups can run into trouble. At the SEEP Network’s Annual Conference in early October, the Microlinks and Agrilinks teams caught up with practitioners to discuss the do’s and don’ts of market systems development and working with producer groups. Check out these top takeaways:
The best outcomes are built on realistic expectations
When building relationships between smallholder producers and buyers, it can be tempting to promise the moon. But when programs don’t take a realistic view of producer group capacity, the subsequent underdelivery can result in unfulfilled contracts with buyers or suppliers who may not be eager to work with those producers again in the future.
“As someone who works with aggregators, producer groups and cooperatives, I think we’re sometimes asking a lot of them. We’re asking them to be part of a group, to be part of a governance committee, to be managers, to be shareholders, and to gather clients. I don’t think that it’s always good practice to expect such high-level qualifications from people whose primary objective is to grow enough food to feed their families and hopefully make a profit on some of it.
In the UnConference, it came out that there are so many solutions that people have tried, but it’s really hard to find that balance where you have enough cooperation and enough competition to actually have a win-win (for both the producers and the buyers) solution. And when you tip that balance too far, you end up with a win-lose, or a lose-win, and then that situation is not replicable after that, because one or the other has lost and they don’t want to repeat that.”
- Kristin Wilcox, Program Manager, cooperative development programs, Global Communities
For sustainable outcomes, include the private sector suppliers and buyers
In too many cases, successful producer groups see progress evaporate as soon as the project is out of the picture. But by engaging with buyers and input suppliers, projects can help ensure that interventions are effective and sustainable.
“Working through buyers and agridealers is an incredibly effective way to support producer groups. Because if they start realizing that producer groups actually make business sense for them to connect to—that it’s a good way to continue getting good quality supplies, or otherwise being able to sell inputs—then it’s much more effective than an NGO playing that role.“
- Margie Brand, Initiator, Director and Board Member, EcoVentures International
For good business relationships, build trust early
Especially in places without effective legal contract enforcement, mistrust among value chain actors can quickly lead to poor outcomes and project failure. But early efforts to ensure price transparency and the facilitation of regular meetings among these actors can help pave the way for successful outcomes.
“If you’re going to connect a producer group with a certain buyer, if there’s not trust from the beginning, then it’s not going to work. You have to work on ways that you can convince, for example, the input supplier to change their behavior in a way that the trust comes through for the farmers or the producer group.”
- Caroline Fowler, Program Assistant, EcoVentures International
Document small wins to stay inspired
Development work isn’t easy, and working with producer groups is no exception. When things look bleak, reflect on previous successes to find inspiration and prevent a bad day from turning into a bad project year.
“We all need to capture those individual stories that we experience through our work. Not only to try to figure out how to replicate or scale them, but to give us the hope to get through the next day. This is tough work, we see a lot of bad stuff, so remembering and thinking about those successes, even if they’re small inspirations, is important.”
- Kristin O’Planick, Enterprise Development Specialist, USAID