Supporting smallhoder agriculture: what are your experiences in using evaluation?

Supporting smallhoder agriculture: what are your experiences in using evaluation?
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Supporting smallhoder agriculture: what are your experiences in using evaluation?

©FAO/Luis Tato / FAO
©FAO/Luis Tato / FAO

Dear Community of Practice,

I have been working for nearly 40 years with smallholder farmers and their communities and have witnessed some recurring flaws in projects that aimed at supporting them. Evaluation could help address these flaws if the evaluation questions are the right ones that allow comparing alternative solutions. I am not sure this is always the case and would like to hear your comments and examples:

  • Do you see the same issues repeating across projects targeting smallholder agriculture, and undermining the intended support?
  • Has evaluation helped or not in addressing these issues?

Here a couple of examples I can bring from my side.

One is about oversight in timing requirements in projects aimed to extend small plot research/demonstration results across a field, farm or smallholder community. Bad timing can result in failure of the field operations and delays in crop establishment, for instance because of shortage in labor and in diet restricting the workday that may occur during the time allocated for the project.

Another area where good evaluation questions could steer programs to more effective innovation concerns the emphasis on group enterprises. In a project aimed at promoting cooperatives, the garri processing initiative designed as an income generation activity for a group of women ended up being virtually abandoned. At the same time, just 100 meters across the road there was a woman-managed garri processing operation going at full capacity. A good evaluation would have included questions to non-beneficiaries and their enterprises, which would have shown that individual enterprises have a much higher success rate, and they are more effective in serving a smallholder community than group enterprises. Also, including questions on basic business parameters would show that the overhead costs of cooperative exceeds their financial benefits so relying on cooperatives could easily force the beneficiaries deeper into poverty.

Thanks for sharing your feedback!

Richard Tinsley
Colorado State University

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  • Hi Richard,

    I wish to share with you reactions from my colleague project staff, pertaining to your observations and comments on the Farmer Cooperatives which were supported by our project in The Gambia. It reads as follows:

    Dear Paul

    Thanks for sharing.

    Very interesting reading and insights on cooperatives from a competitive business model standpoint. The writer has made some assertions to be true, based on the historic characteristics of cooperatives. However, I feel he/she is using a 'one size fits all' assumption and not seeing the innovative approach that can be adopted in enabling rural cooperatives and producer organisations to thrive as sustainable business enterprises. In the past cooperatives had a negative connotation because they were initiated and managed by the state. Producers were forced to become members and were obliged to sell their products through the cooperative marketing organisation.  In many countries, these organisations were used by the elite as vehicles for individual or partisan political enterprises. The state domination, low efficiency and even fraud that accompanied many of these organisations has led to a deep distrust among producers of any collective organisation. To reduce some of this distrust, the word ‘cooperative’ is no longer used in some countries, even as collective organisations are now reappearing. Governments had tended to address some of these problems by temporarily assigning trained officers to help manage the cooperative business, but this approach hasn't worked very well. It has only created more cooperative dependency on outside support, and I guess this is were the writer's argument is focusing on. However, rural cooperatives and producer organizations do not only play a crucial role in the eradication of hunger and poverty, in the promotion of social harmony and in the achievement of more equitable economic growth, but also view their activities as a competitive business model that will uplift them from poverty and not necessarily sink them deeper as he/she asserts.  The key elements of our strategy therefore as a Government project includes promoting rural producer organisations (POs) and developing their entrepreneurial capacities to help them become more profitable. The bottlenecks (administrative costs) that the writer points out is worth noting, but in our present context, especially within the Nema cooperatives, these are not so huge that they will be consumed by the overall financial benefits. This is why the entrepreneurial skill and business development training is crucial - something that was missing before. Nonetheless, the detailed cost benefit analysis will still be useful as a guide to evaluate the business success within cooperatives.


    Just my pennies summary!





  • Hi Richard,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on the sustainability issues to look out for in smallholder farmer cooperatives, as per my set of comments on this forum.

    I find your insights interesting and I have already shared with the Project Management Team for their reactions, which I will happily share as I receive them.

    If nothing much, I can assure you that some of the lessons and arguments shared in the links will be used to inform our exit plan with the Cooperatives.

    Best regards

  • Paul,

    Thank you for your second set of comments. What you describe are massive cumbersome administrative procedures, not only to facilitate the initial project establishment but also to sustain it as a viable competitive business model, that will continue to serve the smallholder community well past any external financial support and advisory facilitation. Administrative producers create overhead costs that a usually greatly underestimated and rarely included in evaluations. For the cooperative business model to be sustainable these costs will eventually, after the initial donor assistance ends, have to be paid for by the farmers and come from the bulking differential you mentioned as the financial benefit of the cooperative model. Can that be done? I seriously doubt it and would expect the overhead cost will exceed the financial benefits you mentioned. When this happens relying on your cooperative model will only force the farmers deeper into poverty. Thus, my question to you is to take 30 minutes to an hour and do the detailed financial analysis to clearly demonstrate that the cooperative business model you advocate and can provide sustainable financial benefits to the smallholder farmers once the donor facilitation support ends.

    I think this will be very difficult to obtain as the overall suppressed economy puts tremendous downward pressure on consumer prices to only 1/3rd to 1/5th that of the USA and seriously limiting the profit margins of most competing private service providers. Thus, your bulking advantage will be too small to cover the overhead costs associated with the more cumbersome administrative procedures required for running a cooperative. Disturbing to me is the continued promotion the financial benefits without ever mentioning how much that is and what the costs are to obtain it. This still does not address the inconvenience of consignment sales in a society in which the basic financial management strategy is to retain goods in-kind selling only what is needed to meet immediate cash needs but needing immediate cash. This also prolongs the marketing season to 10 months after harvest.

    Please review the following webpages and provide the detailed cost accounting to clearly demonstrate your cooperative model is not only socially desirable but also competitive, sustainable past donor assistance, and relying on it will not force farmers deeper into poverty. You might also add a detailed cost of doing business comparison with the competing private service providers. Why these basic business parameters are not included in the evaluation process is a mystery to me. I do think when done it would prove embarrassing. It these parameters were insisted upon 30 years ago the evaluation process would have successfully identified the non-competitive failure of the cooperative model and guided the poverty alleviation effort to more effective means of assisting the smallholder farmers. Without such a business analysis I am inclined to conclude that the development community is more interested in imposing on smallholder farmers what might be a socially ideal business model that is more likely to push them deeper into poverty, despite the massive rhetoric to the contrary, then sincerely assisting them out of poverty.

    Thank you.


  • Emile

    Thank you for the interesting comment. I am not certain I fully agree with you. I think what you may be referring to a ridged “way of life” is a result of the limited capacity of smallholders to adopt innovations intended for their benefit because most innovations are more labor intensive, while the farmers are severely labor limited and already substantially overextended. This is compounded by access to only half the calories needed for a full day of manual agronomic field work. There is a rather ugly word for expecting people to routine exert more energy than they have access to. The word is genocide and yes, we have had a genocide component in the smallholder development effort for about 40 years. This is an oversight that has fallen into an administrative void between the agronomists, who do an excellent job of determining the physical potential of an area, but say nothing about the operational resources, such as labor and contract mechanization, needed to extend their small plot result across the rest of the field, farm or smallholder community, and the social scientists who may determine the labor requirements, but stop short of determining the availability of the labor and most important what are the rational compromises smallholder farmers have to make in adjusting the more labor intensive innovations to their limited available labor and energy.

    I am inclined to consider most societies to be more dynamic than you imply. I have a difficult time thinking smallholder farmers are content with their life style as it implies limited food security, normally a couple bouts of malaria each year, limited life expediency, infant mortality, etc. I think once we start conceptualizing on the limited operational resources available to smallholders and address this issue you will find the smallholders lifestyle will be very dynamic even if headed toward the Western Materialism which appears the more desire lifestyle. Without addressing the limited operational capacity, the farmers will remain entrenched in their impoverished lifestyle that you described.

    Unfortunately, the evaluation process does not normally include a timing component which would quickly identify the operational constraints and encourage looking at how to address them.

    Please review the following webpages:

    Thank you,

    Dick Tinsley

  • Dear Richard and all,

    At the IFAD funded Nema Chosso Project in The Gambia, we are trying to make a difference in smallholder agriculture by pursuing the 4Ps of IFAD, i.e. Public-Private, Producer Partnership building, as a strategy for empowering the smallholder to participate effectively and sustainably in agriculture value chains.

    Our approach is that we formed smallholder farmers' communities into clusters, engaged a consultant to conducted an assessment of their potential in terms of their capacity to form a cooperative and participate in the agriculture value chain, as well as key challenges and opportunities to promote processing and marketing, being the upstream VC activities, which are highly under-developed. Thereafter, we provided training using local experts in topics such as group management and leadership, record keeping, basic bookkeeping and financial management, the cooperative approach and how to manage farmer cooperatives. Gambian smallholder farmers have had some good and bad experiences about farmer cooperatives and so we made sure the assessment exercise went further to identify possible causes of the collapse of the former cooperatives, which, to a large extent resulted from political interference and influence of local but powerful stakeholders at the community level. The diagnostic exercise identified key lessons, which we used to strengthen our approach.

    Once the cooperatives were formed, the project provided support in terms of membership passbooks, as well as linking them to a public agency which supplies fertilizer to farmers on behalf of Government. This linkage allowed the cooperatives (6 of them) to negotiate deals with the dealer and agreed on credit buying of fertilizer with the project providing collateral. The project went further to pay upfront 50% of the total cost of fertilizer for the smallholders' cooperatives, so they only owed 50% of the total cost of fertilizer they received from the dealer.

    The 50% paid by the project is a grant. This is to allow the cooperatives to sell the fertilizer at cost (i.e. with margin) to their members and beyond, and use the proceeds to defray the remaining 50% owed to the dealer and save the balance in their bank accounts, which the project facilitated them to create with local banks near them. By the end of the first season, all the cooperatives were able to pay up their loans with the dealer. We repeated this for the second year running and after the cooperatives had paid up again, they reported average savings in excess of US$200,000.00.

    In addition, the project provided each of the 6 cooperatives production equipment (e.g. tractors, power tillers, transplanters, harvesters) and processing equipment (e.g. milling machines and threshers) so as to boost production and processing capacities. Each cooperative developed a management framework for their equipments. The equipments will be managed by youth groups residing within the same communities on a commercial basis and providing vital services to the members of the cooperative at a reduced cost, thus creating access to smallholders for increased production. Processing equipment would also follow similar arrangements, so that post-harvest loss is reduced and value is added for increased incomes.

    After the first two years, these cooperatives are have obtained the capacity to operate as economic operators who can buy produce in bulk, process and package these and then sell to bulk buyers in the city. Interesting performance figures are already beginning to emerge. Now that the equipment are provided we can expect greater success. The challenge now is to closely follow and monitor the cooperatives to ensure financial proceeds are judiciously managed and that all members are well informed and participate in decision making, key features which are typical of cooperatives. We are also cognizant of the need to keep the cooperative principles working at full force: for instance, non-members should have no say in the affairs of the cooperative; all members have equal power and control. These ensure community leaders do not use their influence to break down the cooperatives as they did in the olden days.

    You can access a story on this initiative by the Nema Chosso Project on the link below:…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on the possible follow up initiatives to sustain these cooperatives.



  • Il faut d’abord faire remarquer que les petits exploitants agricoles développent en général des systèmes de production agricole dans lesquels dominent les spéculations qui ne sont pas promues par l’Etat notamment ; des spéculations relevant de filières non organisées, donc peu connues. Il s’agit essentiellement des produits vivriers tels le maïs, le niébé, la patate douce, l’igname, la tomate et la mangue. Puisque ces filières ne sont pas organisées, les petits exploitants ne bénéficient pas d’un accompagnement en intrants. L’accès à l’encadrement est faible, de sorte que les activités développées sont peu compétitives. 

    Les rares interventions, notamment de l’Etat et les ONGs, sur les petits exploitants sont souvent inappropriées. La confusion est souvent faite de croire que l’on peut comparer in extenso l’activité agricole des petits exploitants africains à ceux des pays développés. La dimension duale de cette activité n’a souvent pas été bien saisie. En effet, l’agriculture a d’abord été un mode de vie pour les petits producteurs, avant d’être une activité de production. Or, c’est ce dernier aspect qui a souvent été perçu. Cette situation engendre des biais d’intervention qui ne sont pas suffisamment efficaces et dont résulte par ricochet la contre-performance de l’activité du petit producteur. Cette contre-performance est à la base du faible investissement dans l’activité agricole.

    En somme, les contraintes des petits exploitants à investir dans l’agriculture sont structurelles. Pour les lever, il faut repenser l’activité agricole pratiquée par ces derniers, en les associant au processus d’évaluation afin de bien prendre en considération les deux dimensions sus-indiquées. Concernant les petits producteurs, il faut prendre l’agriculture en tant que mode de vie et non simplement une activité économique. Une approche holistique est donc nécessaire, en prenant en compte à la fois toutes les fonctions de l’agriculture pour le petit producteur (fonction économique, fonction sociale et fonction culturelle). Autrement, le cercle vicieux dans lequel il se trouve ne peut être rompu.
    (Le fichier attaché pourrait fournir quelques compléments)


    It must first be pointed out that small-scale farmers generally develop agricultural production systems dominated by speculations that are not promoted by the State in particular; speculation in unorganized sectors, which are little known. These are mainly food crops such as maize, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, yams, tomatoes and mangoes. Since these channels are not organized, smallholders do not benefit from input support. Access to supervision is low, so that the activities developed are not very competitive.

    The few interventions, particularly from the state and NGOs, on smallholders are often inappropriate. The confusion is often made to believe that one can compare extensively the agricultural activity of African smallholders to those of developed countries. The dual dimension of this activity has often not been well captured. In fact, agriculture was first of all a way of life for small producers, before being a production activity. However, it is this last aspect which has often been perceived. This situation gives rise to intervention biases that are not sufficiently effective and the result of which is the poor performance of the small producer's activity. This poor performance is at the base of the low investment in agricultural activity.

    In short, the constraints of smallholders to invest in agriculture are structural. To advance them, it is necessary to rethink the agricultural activity practiced by smallholders, by including them in the evaluation process in order to take into consideration the two dimensions indicated above. Regarding small producers, we must take agriculture as a way of life and not just an economic activity. A holistic approach is therefore necessary, taking into account all the functions of agriculture for the small producer (economic function, social function and cultural function). Otherwise, the vicious circle in which he finds himself cannot be broken.

    (The attached file can provide further information)

  • Thank you Emem and Paul for your contributions. They are most appreciated.

    1. Enem, please don't think it is just Nigeria where joint enterprises have been mostly a failure, but it is really across the board for anyone who take a closer look. You might be interested that the garri example mentioned in the original statement is from Benue, Nigeria. The main question is how do we convey to the powers that control project design that joint enterprise are waste of good donor money, and might up that to a scandalous waste. I would hope that this money could be more effective when devoted to alternative activities. You might like to visit my website and look at several pages devoted to how ineffective they are and how they get perpetuated in the donors imposed program design. The website link is:

    2. Paul, you are approaching the problem from a more social scientist perspective that I, as a crop production agronomists, normal don't focus on. Have you ever looked at joint enterprise from a pure business perspective and computed the sustainable overhead costs including the time an effort for consensus building or conflict resolutions, and compared this to individual enterprises and their profit margins. I think if you did you will note that relying on joint enterprises would force the members more deeply into poverty.

    Again you might look at the website mentioned above for some more detailed discussion.

    3. While I very much appreciate the comments on group vs individual enterprises, I noted no one as attempted to address the other issue. That of operational limit such as labor and how that impacts on timing of operations, decline in potential yield, and ultimately food security. Is the lack of comment to date a confirmation that operational limits still falls into an administrative void between the agronomist and the social scientists? Can we ever assist smallholder farmers out of poverty until this concern is addressed.

    Thank you,

    Dick Tinsley


  • Hello Richard and Colleagues in the Community:

    Thanks for initiating discussions on this very important topic. Smallholder agriculture is being pursued as the critical conduit for transformative agricultural development and realization of SDGs related to poverty alleviation, rural wealth creation and reduced impact of climate change. It is thus relevant that we have an exchange on how Evaluation can drive the attainment of results for smallholder agriculture.

    The National Agricultural Land and Water Management Development Project, which I work for, is a consortium of three smallholder agricultural projects being managed under one Project Management Unit. These projects are financed by IFAD, African Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank. Key value chains covered are rice, horticulture and livestock and major activities are land development infrastructure for upland and lowland cropping including rice and other cereals, horticulture production, commercialization of smallholder agriculture  and increased livestock production and productivity. I wish to share just a few examples of how we have used or are using evaluation to improve results:

    1. Community or Group v Individual targeting: establishment of smallholder ruminant schemes for rural households. After the first year of the schemes, we conducted an assessment of the effectiveness of the schemes and one pronounced result showed that individually owned schemes were doing better than the community or group owned schemes. Qualitative field questionnaire prepared and used targeted both beneficiaries and non beneficiaries and it was interesting some of the reasons advanced to determine likelihood of sustainability of each set or category of the schemes, including commitment, team work, joint ownership, etc. These findings of the assessment enabled the project team to review the targeting strategy for the schemes. Another important finding concerns the identity of the key actors in the schemes. It emerged that even though the women and youth were not targeted as direct recipients of the schemes, as they were not household heads, they participated more effectively in the upkeep and management of the schemes.

    2. We conducted a similar evaluation of the rice and horticulture schemes and the results were not different. Land ownership issues and cultural  factors emerged as key at dwarfing the project’s efforts to encourage women and youth inclusion in smallholder agriculture. Women form the majority of lowland rice and horticulture producers in my country but they don’t own land and so do not make the decisions at the household. Factors to help drive youth inclusion in smallholder agriculture were also identified including lack of access to productive land, capital to engage in upstream value chain activities such as processing and marketing. With questions designed to have respondents propose their solutions evaluations like this can help proffer initiatives to address key challenges of smallholder agriculture.

    The SHARP tool by FAO is an effective one to assess the resilience/vulnerability levels of smallholder farmers and provide important leads or indicators to support planning and decision making. Use of PRA tools like the Seasonal Agricultural Calendar, Most Signification Change (MSC) analysis and the Community Resource Map can be used to do these kinds of evaluations. Interesting results emerged, as highlighted above, which I wish to recommend for anyone interested.

    Once again thanks Richard for this topical issues. I look forward to reading more stories and experiences from the rest of the community.

    Best regards

    Paul Mendy

  • Dear Tinsley, 

    Your analyses are very real. I have taken unsolicited evaluative research on cooperative based agro and allied entrepreneurship in south south region of Nigeria. Particularly the National FADAMA world bank assisted project. It was massive failure. On monitoring and evaluation components which would have aided project effectiveness, there was gross deficiency in theory of change based evaluation planning and management. Sociologically, cooperative based entrepreneurship is alien to West Africa and southern Nigeria in particular.