Smallholder farmers are the mainstay of agricultural production in the developing world. It is estimated that over 2 billion people in the developing world depend on smallholder farms for their livelhoods.

However, smallholders face several barriers and challenges both for domestic production and production for export. Access to credit is just one of these and has long been a key barrier to production for smallholders, undermining smallholders’ abilities to invest in their farms and production, often leading to declining levels of productivity. In cocoa and coffee production – an important source of foreign exchange and income for many developing country governments and farmers –  a lack of access to credit (or at considerable expense) has meant that farmers have been unable to invest in new trees and have relied on older trees which have declining yields and, therefore, diminishing returns.

The UN has argued that access to credit and financial services is ever more important in the context of the financial crisis and declining levels of remittances, which serve as an important safety net for much of the world’s poor.

In April this year, the first ever meeting of G8 Agricultural Ministers took place. Kanayo Nwanze President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said at the meeting that:

“Protecting and increasing the access of poor rural people to financial services is even more vital now…the well-being of 2 billion poor people who depend on smallholder farms in developing countries hinges on it…that is why we are encouraging ministers to return home and make sure that in all countries, rich and poor, we work together to keep agriculture at the top of their national agendas”.

IFAD argues that private sector involvement in agriculture is more important than ever, particularly with regard to the provision of services such as finance and marketing. 

For many large businesses who source from smallholders in the developing world, sustainability concerns (related in particular to climate change) are driving projects to ensure that smallholder production is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. An example of this growing trend is the shift of two major confectionery brands – Mars and Cadbury’s – to using certification (in these cases, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade) as a means to bring about sustainable production. As part of these transformations, support services are also provided to the smallholders involved, a gap that developing world governments have often been unable to fill. For example Cadbury’s is implementing farmer education programmes that explore best cocoa management practices leading to improved quality cocoa and increased yields and offering enterprise loans to start up farming or small businesses. Several examples  have shown that investing in services for smallholders can be a win-win for businesses.

Let’s hope these trends continue and the recession provides ample evidence of the importance of private sector investment in agriculture.

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