A majority of the companies provide agronomic training for smallholder farmers, but few do so in all countries where they are present. Companies pay limited attention to the development and training needs of next-generation and women farmers.
Extension services build the capacity of smallholder farmers to adopt improved varieties and sustainable agricultural practices. Companies can offer these services themselves or through partnerships.
India is a clear regional outlier in terms of capacity building: 83% of the companies present in the country provide some form of extension service. In the context of the regional seed industry, this is perhaps unsurprising given the high concentration of seed business activities in the country and the fact that eight companies are headquartered there. One of many examples of capacity building in India comes from Nuziveedu Seeds, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the Government of Uttar Pradesh to carry out collaborative extension work on rice and maize production with 40,000 farmers in 25 districts.
In contrast, none of the companies present in Afghanistan provide capacity building. Lal Teer Seed and Advanta are the only companies that report employing technical staff for this purpose in Nepal and Laos respectively. Given the relatively immature nature of the seed sector in these countries, the absence of quality training is a cause for concern. In other somewhat neglected areas, companies are showing the value of investment, both financial and non-financial, in extension. In Sri Lanka, Bayer offers smallholder cucumber growers greater access to export markets through its Food Chain Partnership; and in Vietnam, the Syngenta Foundation provides smallholder farmers with integrated training on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). Given that these examples are among the few reported, there is clear room for improvement in extension by all companies.
The use of ICT is on the rise in agriculture, and offers fast and relatively low-cost ways of improving productivity for virtually any farmer. Although, historically, the application of ICT among smallholder farmers has tended to be low, with questions regarding the suitability and scalability of these technologies, seed companies are quickly establishing linkages with these farmers across the region. Ten of the 24 companies (41%) have ICT programs targeting smallholder farmers. The majority of these programs take the form of mobile apps or simpler call/SMS services, through which smallholders can access information relating to company products, agronomic practices or weather updates. In Bangladesh, BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise operates a call-back service for which farmers can register to receive answers to specific questions; Monsanto’s Farm Rise app in India saw its user number rise to 4.2 million in 2017; and Syngenta’s Farmforce app, which is available in Thai, Hindi and Vietnamese, helps smallholder farmers gain greater access to output markets. Advanta, East-West Seed and Mahyco also offer a variety of services in this area.
Monsanto’s Farm Rise app, developed with its subsidiary the Climate Corporation, is just one example of the importance of partnerships in developing ICT tools for seed companies. The most notable of these partnerships is a collaborative project between Bangladesh-based Lal Teer Seed and Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW). Lal Teer Seed, along with East-West Seed, also identified the adaptation and use of technology as a crucial factor in encouraging next-generation farmers to take up agriculture. Other programs, such as Charoen Pokphand’s Crop Watch, use satellite images to track and evaluate rice-growing conditions; and Kalash Seeds’ SeedFlow delivers a variety of crop data to buyer/market end users. Despite being notable, these applications do not explicitly state how smallholder farmers benefit.
The measurable success of tools already in place and evidence of several more in the development stage, as reported by East-West Seed and Nuziveedu Seeds, suggest ICT will be an increasingly crucial area of capacity building and smallholder productivity in the coming years.
According to the World Bank, women farmers make up almost half of the agricultural labor force, but their production is limited by barriers to finance, inputs and extension services as well as land tenure and ownership rights. Companies regularly allude to the crucial role that women play in agriculture, both in seed production and as clients. However, this role is not reflected in dedicated activities, and overall companies perform poorly in this area. Nine of the 24 companies have capacity building activities that involve women, but only five of these explicitly target women farmers. Of the companies with non-explicit activities, Advanta states that it ‘believes in gender equality’ and attempts to ensure fair representation in extension services. Kalash Seeds and Lal Teer Seed report that just 2% and 20% respectively of participants in their activities are women.
The activities that explicitly target women are notable but still limited in scope. In 2016, Monsanto partnered with the Provincial Government of Bukidnon in the Philippines for a two-day seminar on agricultural finance management and digital literacy, which was attended by 300 female farmers. BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise trained 3,280 women farmers on product features and nutritional factors through its Promotion of Nutrition through Vegetables program. Similarly, East-West Seed, one of the few companies to detail capacity building activities in Myanmar, has partnered with MEDA, an international economic development organization, to launch ADVANCE Myanmar in Kayin State to train 60 women lead farmers over a two-year period.
Two companies provided evidence of multiple or larger scale activities. In addition to its SPARSH project on livelihood skills in India, Syngenta launched its Farm Family Training on Stewardship in Bangladesh in 2014. The training, which involves farmers and their families, focuses on better solutions for the challenges farmers face and offers information about the safe use of modern agricultural technologies. By 2017, the company had reached 27,810 participants. Bayer is involved in the Affordable Nutritious Foods for Women (ANF4W) project, which operates in Bangladesh and trains women farmers in ways to increase the nutrient content of crops at various stages of production, including new methods of handling agricultural inputs. In India, the company has strongly focused on women’s empowerment by providing training on child health and financial/legal literacy through its Integrated Rural Development Program as well as building the participants’ entrepreneurial skills through vocational training. It has also helped to create several self-help groups, whereby an experienced Bayer development manager leads regular conversations on agricultural issues. Activities that target women farmers commonly also include a focus on nutrition security.
While all these activities address key challenges to women’s involvement in agriculture and effectively track the number of people reached – often disaggregated by gender – they are limited in scope as programmatic/local-level activities. Additional programs are reported to be in companies’ pipelines, such as East-West Seed’s plans to build on its experience in Myanmar by launching a similar project in Assam State, India. However, there is a clear need for more company-wide commitments to and dedicated programs for women smallholder farmers.
In each measurement areas activities or approaches are identified that stand out or can be considered innovative in the industry. They contribute to the score of a company through leadership indicators.
An example of innovative capacity building is Bayer’s shrimp-rice project in Vietnam. The project is a collaboration with the College of Aquaculture and Fisheries, Can Tho University and the Center of Agricultural and Fishery Extension Centers of Bac Lieu, Ca Mau and Kien Giang provinces.
Saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta has created a new ecological niche, with company research showing the positive environmental and economic impact of rotating shrimp production with rice production. Some 180,000 hectares are currently being farmed under this new method. Bayer is providing and training smallholder farmers in the use of its saline-resistant Arize B-TE1 rice hybrid variety.
A leading ICT practice is Lal Teer Seed’s collaborative program with G4AW, which targets smallholders with less than 0.5 acres of land in 14 districts in northern Bangladesh. Lal Teer Seed’s extension staff are seen as a crucial channel to the farmers, who are provided with weather-related information and specific agronomic advice on pests and diseases, based on geo- and spatial data.
The targeted smallholders are expected to become technologically independent over time. Lal Teer Seed also earns recognition for employing technical extension staff in Nepal – the only index company to report doing so – although it is encouraged to provide more details of its ongoing work and projects there.
Namdhari Seeds’ business arm Namdhari Fresh is a leading example of how a company can connect smallholder farmers to domestic and international export markets.
The company formalizes these relationships with contracts for the farmers to grow and sell produce at a fixed price.