The year 2014 has been declared the UN Year Of Family Farming.  In the age of “bigger is better,” small is set to make a surprising comeback in the agricultural sector. Simon Stumpf and Julia Koskella share the latest innovations from across Africa, as seen by Ashoka’s global network of social entrepreneurs, and show how small famers can seize on these big opportunities. 

Generations of small farmers around the world have been fighting a losing battle with big; bigger machines, bigger industrial farms, and bigger paychecks for fewer and fewer farmers. However, in the face of rising social, environmental and economic challenges, social entrepreneurs are creating large-scale solutions that challenge conventional agriculture and help small farmers compete.  

The biggest trends paving the way for a small-farming comeback come in two very different sizes: micro and small.  You’ll see them pop up throughout this post but let’s call them out now: a growing recognition of the importance of micronutrients across the food system, and innovations in aggregation and access that help small farmers compete.

Now, here are five tools you’ll need in order to take advantage of those emerging trends: 

Image courtesy of Flickr/ United Soybean Board

A soil sensor: $6 in Kenya

Decades of depending on petrochemical fertilizers to prop up our soils has contributed to degradation of overall fertility.

Over time, soils enriched with inorganic fertilizer alone, actually become less micronutrients-dense and diverse. But now the tools for measuring the full spectrum of absolutely essential micronutrients in soil , food, and our bodies are becoming increasingly accessible to average consumers, and are set to fundamentally change agricultural markets.  

African farmers will soon be able to buy Soil IQ, a wireless soil sensor that turns a reading of soil heath into practical farm advice sent directly to mobile phones.  

A money-back-guarantee: $0

Thanks to Soil IQ, you now know that your soil is too acidic for maize but just wet enough for French beans.

But what can you do when your local supplier is out-of-stock or selling expired seeds? Farm Shop is a franchise network of new and converted agro-dealers in Kenya  that is training and upgrading rural shops so farmers can access transparent, reliable products every time.

Leveraging economies of scale and greater efficiencies, they also offer promotions and money-back guarantees for happy customers!

Image courtesy of Flickr/ Piotr Szymczak

A bank card: $0

With customers finally in a position to demand more micronutrient-dense food, small farmers who manage diverse, dense plots are well-positioned to meet this growing, global need. But small is still inefficient. Enter Akili Holdings, an organization working all the way along a product’s value chain.

Networks of Akili farmers, transporters, processers, and distributors swipe Visa-enabled bank cards when moving produce along the value chain, thus immediately getting paid and building a digital work history. With fewer intermediaries, a greater share of the profits from key products like fresh milk or nutrient-dense moringa powder make their way to the smallest farmers.  

A mobile phone: $20

There are more than 33 million family farmers in Africa. Most of these farmers are producing food at subsistence levels only and not all of them will link exclusively to single-product value chains like those created by Akili.

Thankfully M-Farm is creating the equivalent of Ebay, or Etsy, for smallholder farmers in Africa. By creating a mobile-marketplace and a network of collection agents, farmers – no matter how small – are now able to fill large orders for big buyers.

Image courtesy of Flickr/ Coanri Rita

2 black-and-white copies: $0.15

Supplying large orders can come with large upfront costs to buy seeds, tools and technology upgrades. But banks aren’t yet looking at small farmers as big customers for loans. ScopeInsight is set to change all this, with a new credit rating tool to assess small and medium-sized farmers. 

The tool assesses the strengths and weaknesses of farms, producing an easy-to-read 2-page business profile and bridging the gap between big banks and small farms.

Big isn’t necessarily bad. Our hungry world has depended on technological advances in agriculture to meet growing global demand for food, and economies of scale have contributed to declining food prices for much of the past 45 years.

But, the social and environmental costs of big farming and cheap food have started to take their toll, making an alternative to mainstream farming increasingly attractive. In light of greater demand for micro-nutrient dense food and innovations in aggregation and access, small farmers are set to have a big year.  

We’re hoping they succeed, in sustaining their family farms and also in providing increased employment, biodiversity and micronutrients to the world. 

All the projects mentioned were founded by Ashoka Fellows, Jason Aramburu, Madison Ayer, Haron Wachira, Jamila Abass and Lucas SimonsDo you know any other examples of inspiring social entrepreneurs transforming the world around them for the better? Nominate them!

-Simon Stumpf grew up in rural Minnesota (USA) and is currently the Regional Director of Ashoka East Africa. He was previously a program manager with Ashoka’s global Rural Innovation and Farming initiative. Julia Koskella is the Venture Manager at Ashoka UK in London and an aspiring urban farmer

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