Promoting producer agency in agricultural value chain contracts: peer learning (in a pandemic)

Thierry Berger and Emily Polack summarise highlights from a recent learning event on the role of contracts in promoting the agency of agricultural producers – and reflect on the process of sharing experiences virtually.

Emily Polack's picture Thierry Berger's picture
Insight by 
Emily Polack
Thierry Berger
Emily Polack is senior researcher and Thierry Berger is an associate, both in IIED's Natural Resources research group
16 December 2020
Line of women walking through a field. One carries a basket on her head.

Women producers in Guinea. In commercial agriculture, contracts are key in promoting the agency of producers (Photo: UN Women/Joe Saade, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The parameters of all relationships throughout the agricultural value chain are determined by contracts. Yet despite their importance, contracts in commercial agriculture and the options they offer to promote producer agency are little understood.

To clarify these value chain options, IIED organised an event to bring together practitioners and value chain actors from across Asia and Africa to share experiences and learning, as part of the 'Empowering Producers in Commercial Agriculture (EPIC) project.

The event was a follow-up to a three-day international learning workshop on sustaining rural producer agency in agricultural value chains, which took place in Blantyre, Malawi, in November 2019.

It had been due to take place in Nepal, with opportunities for field trips like there were in Blantyre, but the advent of the COVID‑19 pandemic and related travel restrictions meant that it had to be held online, with participants attending remotely.

Sharing experiences virtually

Despite the difficult context, producer organisations members, academics and practitioners from across Africa and Asia took part. Using an online platform, these participants shared concrete examples, drew out critical issues and identified further questions for debate and possibilities for learning and networking.

Participants could contribute in different ways – directly during plenary sessions or sub-groups, in ice-breaker exercises (such as sharing what contracts in agricultural value chains mean to them) and in response to virtual polls.

The discussion was rich, and the polls revealed interesting insights, like the fact that 40% of participants had been involved in negotiating agricultural contracts (and of these, half thought that they had been able to successfully promote the position of producers).

A rich discussion on practical issues

Contracts in time of crises

Earlier in 2020 participants of an IIED webinar had discussed key considerations for sustaining the agency of coffee producers in the context of COVID-19.

The issue affected some producers more than others – for instance cotton producers had already harvested their crops in Zambia when lockdowns began – though of course as the pandemic continues, situations change. During the event, participants found that contracts often do not include provisions that protect the position of producers during pandemics and other disaster situations.

When contracts are of no help, governments may be able to support producers. Although at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic some governments and local institutions were unprepared and disorganised, they have subsequently addressed some of the key issues affecting producers, including by lifting certain restrictions on producers and providing access to alternative markets and financial support.

Addressing power imbalances

Contracts are one-sided because producers do not input into their development. One reason for this is the absence of producer organisations, or weak producer organisations that are unable to effectively negotiate on behalf of the producers they represent. One solution could be ‘group contracts’ whereby small groups of producers come together for contracting with a buyer.

However, negotiating as a group does not guarantee that producers will be able to deal with buyers as equal partners; they may need additional direction on, for example, market conditions and negotiating tactics.

The importance of legal frameworks

Sometimes, a country’s national legal framework can be instrumental in sustaining the agency of producers. This has been the case in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), which began regulating the sugar sector over 50 years ago and, by ensuring production costs were accurately calculated for instance, created an enabling environment for producers.

The government of Eswatini also created an agency to train farmers so that they understand the relevant regulatory frameworks and have the skills to manage their own businesses.

Promoting and sustaining the agency of women producers

During the event, limits on women’s access to land and finance emerged as major barriers to be addressed. Even where there are progressive laws on women’s land rights (such as in Kenya), local patriarchal customs and lack of awareness about women’s rights mean that many such laws have failed to improve women’s situations.

Until women producers have meaningful access to land and finance they will likely remain weakly positioned to negotiate with buyers and other relevant actors in value chains. Participants also identified other factors to promote the agency of women producers, which included enabling greater legal awareness and stronger organisations through which to represent themselves.

Reflections on remote learning

Running events remotely is becoming easier and increasingly common, particularly in the context of the global pandemic, but we are still learning what works.

Online learning events may create opportunities for wider participation, especially for those who are normally unable to travel, but they are also likely to be shorter, particularly if run across multiple time zones, which may limit the time available to cover related issues in sufficient depth.

To improve remote learning and further research on the complex challenges that rural producers face, IIED is innovating, testing and honing approaches for online peer exchange as part of this work.

IIED’s 'Empowering Producers in Commercial Agriculture' (EPIC) initiative is funded by UK Aid from the UK government through its 'Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness' (CASA) programme. EPIC aims to empower rural producers and wider communities to influence public decisions and private sector conduct for locally beneficial and more sustainable investments in commercial agriculture.