Scaling up sustainability in smallholder-dominated agricultural sectors

There is an increasing number of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) in the market. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) tasked IIED, NewForesight and Aidenvironment to explore how VSS could be scaled up to improve agricultural sustainability in developing countries. The research produced a model for sector transformation.

2013 - 2015

Somboun Saiborkeno farms coffee on his smallholding on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos. Smallholders in the region are being encouraged to grow high quality and organic coffee for export (Photo: Asian Development Bank)

Phase one of the project reviewed the scope and impact of VSS to date, and asked how VSS could best be scaled up – given that most agricultural sectors in developing countries are dominated by small-scale farmers who are typically unorganised and lack access to inputs, credit and technical assistance.

Phase one findings

The research conducted in phase one found that despite considerable growth in VSS in some sectors, their direct economic, environmental and social impacts are mixed.

And despite a number of positive indirect impacts which may be significant in the long term – such as providing platforms for dialogue and governance that brings multiple stakeholders together, developing assurance and traceability mechanisms, and delivering support to a number of small-scale farmers – no agricultural sector has reached the required levels of certification or verification that will enable an entire sector to reach full sustainability in the near future.

To achieve full market transformation, systemic change within a sector and its enabling context is required, and other instruments are needed to lay the foundations for certification.

Phase two: developing a model for transformation

Consequently, phase two of our research took a more comprehensive look at how to scale up sustainability in smallholder-dominated agricultural sectors by developing a model for sustainable sector transformation.

The model was developed and tested using a number of country-sector case studies: cocoa in Ivory Coast and Ghana; coffee in Vietnam; cotton in Mali; and palm oil in Indonesia.

The model consists of five building blocks:

  1. Sector alignment and accountability
  2. Strengthening of market demand
  3. Public sector governance
  4. Organisation of the production base, and
  5. Organisation of the service sector.

This model is intended as a framework for policymakers, donors and the private sector to develop roadmaps for sustainability for specific countries and sectors. 

For more information on the details of each of these building blocks, please see the publications listed below.