Did you know: Around the world, about 500 million smallholder farmers manage just 12 per cent of agricultural land. And yet these farmers produce more than 80 per cent (in value terms) of the food that we eat.

Smallholder farmers are defined as those that manage very small pockets of land. In Bangladesh, for example, the average size of a smallholding is about half a hectare (half the size of a football pitch).

And because these farmers offer the foundations for many of the products we enjoy so much in the developed world – from coffee and tea, to cocoa, soy and palm oil – their productivity, health, wellbeing and output is more important than you might think.

Virgin Unite, Changing business for good, Farmers, Bangladesh

In sustaining a plethora of sectors, commodities and companies – as well as life as we know it on planet Earth – they are an incredibly important group. It’s a view shared by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Its latest Commodities and Development Report 2015 says smallholder farmers deserve more attention from policymakers in order that they can unleash their full potential.

The trouble is smallholder farmers are up against it.

Many of them are located in corners of the globe that are facing political unrest and poverty, across Africa, South East Asia and beyond.

Virgin Unite, changing business for good, climate change, cocoa, farmers

They are also at the mercy of erratic weather patterns caused by our changing climate. A lack of rainfall can destroy crops, as can soil eroded by mudslides caused by flooding. The number of environmental, social and economic hurdles they must jump just gets bigger. And as UNCTAD argues, global poverty affects smallholders disproportionately.

Thankfully, smallholder farmers are slowly getting the attention they deserve. More and more big companies are now looking at what happens along their supply chains. Waking up to the risk of not being able to create products or stock shelves, businesses (and their shareholders) are suddenly interested in how farmers are performing – and whether they will be able to continue supplying their raw materials in the future. Whether it is to safeguard the long-term security and sustainability of their business, to reduce the carbon impact of suppliers (a matter which is certainly en vogue in the wake of the UN climate agreement signed in Paris at Christmas) or to boost brand image, taking action to help support the wellbeing of smallholder farmers increasingly makes good business sense.

Virgin Unite, changing business for good, Cotton Farmers

The good news is: there’s loads of potential to unlock. Generally, smallholdings are a family affair, run in a rudimentary and inefficient way. A small improvement to the productivity of 100 farms – via training or giving access to better fertilisers – can have a huge impact.

The bad news is: it’s tough. The large majority of smallholder farmers operate on their lonesome on lands which are isolated and cut off from towns and cities. They are really hard to reach, let alone help and engage in conversation.

More and more firms are getting it right by introducing new finance mechanisms to help farmers access loans and plan for their future. Farmer training is working wonders at boosting productivity too. The work of Nestlé in cocoa, tea and coffee (working with NGOs such as TechnoServe), as well as John Lewis in cotton (working with CottonConnect), spring to mind as good examples.

But there is still so much that can be done. So far, too many companies have ignored this increasingly vulnerable tentacle of their supply chains. Maybe 2016 will be the year that smallholder farmers get the attention – and support – they need to build resilience and sustainability for the long term.

– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

Comment