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Notes from SEEP 2015 - Some Thoughts on Building Resilience in Agricultural Systems: What Works?

"What types of interventions, technologies and business models contribute to systemic change, resulting in lasting impact for vulnerable producers?" "What are some practical lessons learned from experiences that support more effective, efficient, and adaptable relationships?" 

These were some of the questions posed for the "Small-scale Producers in Resilient Agricultural Systems" learning track leading up to the SEEP Network’s 2015 conference. Microlinks and Agrilinks were there to take in all of the panelists’ and participants’ insights. What were the top five takeaways (in our opinion) to come out of the conference on issues of agricultural resilience, you ask? Well…

  1. First, consider the system. The system in question will include people, institutions, processes, markets, the agro-ecological context and more. All of these factors are interconnected and influence one another, and also interact with other systems at different scales. On top of this, people in their respective contexts have different vulnerabilities – a very poor person will have different needs than a relatively wealthier person, and a woman may have different concerns than a man. Simple, right? So what does this mean for resilience? Well, according to research from this paper on market systems for resilience, at the systems level, indicators of resilience include: diversity within the system to protect against concentrated risks from specific products and markets channels; redundancy within the market so that a shock doesn’t completely dissolve a sector; high levels of social capital; and good governance.
  2. Absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacities all need to be developed. The four aforementioned indicators will all contribute to the ability of a system to mitigate stresses (coping or absorptive capacity) and the ability of a system to adjust incrementally to those shocks (adaptive capacity). Transformative capacity, defined in the above paper as "the ability to fundamentally change the structure of the system when the previous system is no longer sustainable," by nature takes place over a much longer period of time. Good governance and social capital are the two indicators that are especially key for making such a transformative shift, when necessary. So, just to re-state the obvious…
  3. Social capital and group associations are very important! A case study presented by Global Communities on their Enabling Market Integration for Rural Group Empowerment (EMIRGE) program in Rwanda illustrated this. The project used the "cooperative development model," which brought community members together in maize and vegetable value chains to aggregate resources and improve incomes. The implementers found that what drew people to the cooperatives, however, weren’t just these aspects. They found participants were drawn to the cooperatives as a mechanism for coping by building social capital through bonding, bridging and linking relationships. In a related vein…
  4. Mentorship and coaching can be critical in developing short- and long-term coping capacity. The Liberian Agricultural Upgrading, Nutrition and Child Health project (LAUNCH) facilitated a training and coaching program for up-and-coming youth entrepreneurs to help them learn to manage setbacks in a safe space. The implementers asked the young entrepreneurs to manage setbacks in a one-day business operation, and then asked them to reflect on the process and what they learned afterwards. This was followed by a more complex, week-long start-up situation, where they applied lessons from their previous experience and reflected again once completed. Not long after the mentoring ended, the Ebola crisis began. When the researchers were able to return to the country to speak with their trainees, the trainees emphasized the critical importance that the coaching, trainings and periods of reflection played in their ability to cope with the crisis. This improved their overall resilience (beyond just economic resilience) in the face of a major national shock. 
  5. Use new technologies when appropriate. While the value of social capital and mentorship cannot be overstated, there is, of course, a crucial role that technology can play when applicable. Two projects – MARKETS II and WINNER – used new technologies to improve smallholder livelihoods in the context of uncertainty. MARKETS II in Nigeria focuses on linking producers with processers and buyers more effectively, and on using technologies (like improved rice varieties and nets protecting seeds from birds) to bolster smallholder income and security in the face of unpredictable environmental changes. The WINNER project in Haiti used greenhouse technology to improve hillside farming in local communities. The project has helped farmers stabilize hillsides post-earthquake through the use of good management practices, and the greenhouses allow the farmers to grow high-value plants year-round. As a result, farmers have been able to improve environmental sustainability and bolster their incomes.

I opened this blog post with a couple of questions, so naturally I’m going to end it with even more. Do the above points resonate with you? For those who attended, what else stuck out to you? And for those who didn’t, what insights or examples do you have to share from your own resiliency programming? Let us know in the comments section below! And don't miss out on our SEEP 2015 interviews with a handful of practitioners involved in resilience programming, such as the one below with Vaidehi Krishnan of Mercy Corps. You can find more videos from the conference on the Microlinks YouTube Channel.