What does it take to improve smallholder livelihoods?

This question is one of the main reasons that I am in Indonesia at the moment and I have had many different answers.

As I described in my previous blog, in West Sumatra, part of the answer is more and better tea plants as many smallholders have bush densities that are less than half what is optimal. But while a massive project in itself, providing good seedlings is only a small part Sarah handing over first seedlings to farmer group leaderof the answer. So after the handover ceremony we headed over to Java where over the last few days I’ve been hearing first-hand what it takes to earn more from farming tea.

In Java, Pak Odih, a tea specialist and farmer trainer introduced us to some farmers, such as Pak Wawan who had achieved phenomenal productivity increases during our project by changing the way they prune and pluck. Pak Wawan’s results have been so successful that he has become renowned across Indonesia for his results, receiving the Governors Medal for his achievements and hosting a seemingly endless succession of visitors from Indonesia and beyond who want to learn more about how he has done it. As you can see he is so committed to Pak Wawan's certificate of most improved productivity from the Governor of West Javapassing on his learning he doesn’t mind explaining it to strange women from the UK in the pouring rain.

Spending time with Pak Wawan illustrated both the productivity and quality aspects of improving income. While Pak Wawan’s productivity had doubled in the last two years, his income has more than doubled, as he’s also improved the quality of the tea and was therefore getting higher prices for his leaf. This was mainly through plucking a smaller proportion of new growth – an approach that remains strange for many farmers in this area, who are used to plucking as much as possible so to maximise their incomes.

While it would be easy just to focus on success stories such as Pak Sarah with lead farmer Pak Wawan and trainer Pak OdihWawan, which we have seen replicated by other farmers, this trip has opened my eyes to the vast amount of effort and different interventions required to get to this point. One of the most impressive things for me about meeting Pak Wawan, was not his extraordinary productivity improvements, but the fact that through his motivation and position in the farming community he had influenced many other farmers to follow suit. Pak Wawan is a shining example of a ‘lead farmer’ and ‘peer-to-peer learning’ in the development jargon, crucial to most projects with smallholders. However, finding and supporting lead farmers is no easy task.

I met Pak Budy, who had been helping motivate and mentor farmers through the project. He came from the local area and knew some of the farmers already but explained to me how important the trust building process was. “I didn’t start by talking about tea farming” he said “we talked about all sorts of things – their children, politics, movies – and it was only when they saw me as some kind of friend that I could really understand what their challenges were in terms of their tea farming”.

He also explained how lead farmers did not always end up being who you might have thought in the first instance. He described one smallholder group leader who had come to all the training and was influential in the area but in the end implemented none of the changes. He was fairly old and Budy felt that his mind was closed, so in this case no amount of training would make a difference and was wasted effort.

Haji One, lead farmer Ciwdey showing us his demonstration plotBut it certainly seems that it is attitude, not age, that makes the difference. In another area of West Java we are working in, the greatest productivity improvements are being shown by Pak Haji One, an indefatigable 70 year old who drove us up seemingly impassable roads to show us his plots and sent us on our way with a large bag of strawberries which he also grows. Pak Haji One grew vegetables for 30 years before moving to tea and owns enough land to hire workers.

Having that bit more income and experience of other crops seems to have made him more inclined to try approaches that other farmers perceive to be risky or challenging – as they require consistent application of adapted pruning and plucking techniques and a two – three month period early on when farmers need to refrain from plucking, seen as a big risk when incomes are low and tea is chosen for its ability to provide income month in and month out.

So another strand to our project was micro-finance, both to help farmers overcome the temporary drop in income and enable them to buy inputs such as fertilisers at the right time – crucial to productivity and a common constraint for smallholders across the world. We were very fortunate that the Rabobank Foundation joined us for this aspect, since designing loan terms and the payback mechanisms that are appropriate for farmers’ needs and incomes in each area and gearing up farmers so that they can manage the loans requires specific expertise and experience. The Rabobank Foundation also worked with us in several communities to strengthen the co-operatives so that they could better support farmers and also support the loan repayments.

Nelia, our Indonesia Regional Manager has had to co-ordinate a web of people, relationships and approaches and find practical ways of overcoming a series of challenges, many of which would have been very difficult to predict before this project started.

Spending time with farmers and evaluating the results of the work has also challenged some of our original assumptions about the benefits of improving quality and productivity. We had made sure before we started the project that local factories had sufficient capacity to process increased leaf  volumes, and we knew that higher quality leaf attracted higher prices. However, the quality-income equation is more complex than we had originally understood.

As we went round the farms, Dushy, our Sri Lankan Regional Manager, an experienced plantation manager and tea expert, could see that with the soil and growing conditions there was still considerable potential to increase the leaf quality, with additional changes to plant management and plucking cycles, and couldn’t understand why the farmers were not adopting such a regime. After lots of conversations with farmers, traders, factory managers and buyers, the farmers’ approach is making more sense. At the moment at least, if farmers produced the quality of leaf that Dushy can see is possible, they would not get the prices for it that are achievable in other countries – as the factories and markets that most smallholders sell into will not be rewarding them for it.

So as Nelia, Dushy and I headed down the bumpy track away from the plots of tea, chili and cabbages nestling under the volcanic hills, and back onto the tarmac road to Jakarta and meetings with the Indonesian Tea Board, we concluded that helping smallholders improve their livelihoods was both simple and complex.

Simple, in that large productivity and quality improvements are possible if farmers apply fertiliser at the right time and improve their plucking and pruning techniques.  But there are a lot of dimensions that need to be understood from the quality-volume-income equation, to the approaches that will give farmers the confidence to change the way they have always farmed, to the credit and distribution systems that will enable them to purchase fertiliser on an on-going basis, which makes work with smallholders complex.

Complex but hugely rewarding. Because what I have seen over the past week, is that when the different strands come together then between us we really can make a difference to farmers’ lives.

 

 

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