Unleashing the potential of millions of smallholders with vegetables

More than 550 million farms are family farms run by smallholders on less than two-hectare plots. 

Two women working in a rice field in sri lanka.

Small farms produce about half the calories consumed in developing regions of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In Latin America, small-scale operations are equally crucial to food security and are also the backbone of a region that depends on net agriculture exports. These growers play a crucial role in eradicating hunger, and high-quality vegetable seeds are one of the most important inputs needed to produce quality food. So, how can smallholders get good vegetable seeds?


Risky business

Farming is a high-risk business. A good harvest can be the difference between having food or going hungry – between feeding the family and selling produce at market or losing out on the income for a season (imagine not getting paid your salary after investing all year in your work). The risk increases if smallholder farmers don’t have access to seeds that can withstand extreme weather conditions, like droughts or new pests and diseases that affect the crop. And the challenges faced by smallholder farmers are different to those on larger commercial farms.


For smallholders, producing quality vegetables, reliably, on less than two hectares of land, is difficult considering the limited resources and lack of cohesive infrastructure to deliver fresh produce to market. Located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, smallholders also need access to resources such as financial services to secure essential inputs to grow healthy crops and training to protect and maximize the yields as well as to gain access to market. They need to make produce, feed families, and make money – maximizing their income while minimizing the risks that they are exposed to each season. So how can we overcome these challenges and reach more smallholders with the resources they need to grow their business and feed communities?


Addressing challenges and mitigating risk – strategically and sustainably

At Bayer, we are strongly committed to providing solutions that mitigate the risks for smallholder farmers, placing their needs for access to seeds and resources at the center of smallholder business operations.

Our smallholder strategy and approach to sustainable agriculture is how we plan to reach 100million smallholder farmers by 2030 with the tools, training, and resources they need to grow their businesses sustainably. Yes, it's about unleashing the potential of millions of smallholder farmers. It's also about fulfilling our global potential to grow food for a growing population while respecting planetary boundaries and conserving natural resources.
Cristiane Lourenço
Global Vegetable Sustainability Lead at Bayer

Bayer’s commitment to this customer-centric approach is reflected in its Vegetable Seed organization strategy which focuses on smallholders as one of four key customer segments. The shift from a product focus to a customer focus shines a spotlight on delivering value through access to seeds for its smallholder customers. Customer-centric governance guiding the way to reach more smallholders means identifying and addressing smallholder needs via expertise and partnerships that support these farmers with the resources to develop and apply their farming knowledge, mitigate risk, and optimize yield quality and quantity. Bayer’s dedicated global and regional teams work on delivering solutions that meet the unique needs of smallholder farmers to, on, and beyond the farm.

Placing our smallholder customers at the center of our Vegetable Seeds strategy is part of a much bigger approach to enabling sustainable food security and promoting sustainable efficiency throughout the food value chain. When smallholders improve yields with good agricultural practices, it creates the opportunity to work with important food chain companies. Integrating smallholders into the food system means facilitating infrastructure and market linkage through diverse solutions, so smallholders can sell produce at good prices while it’s fresh, supporting food chain partners with planning, storage, and logistics, and ultimately getting food to people while reducing food waste.
VK Kishore
Global Head of Vegetable Seeds Smallholders & Sustainability at Bayer

Bayer is also tracking the progress of its strategy against defined metrics centered around the changing needs of smallholder customers. This way it can identify what works and what can be improved, with the aim of constantly refining its approach and continuing to reach even more smallholders with access to essential resources, such as seeds.


What difference do good vegetable seeds make?

Smallholder farmers usually produce a wider range of crops to diversify their own diets and to mitigate the risk of possible disease or pests affecting crops. Diverse seed types and varieties or hybrid seeds can further minimize the risks farmers are facing today. Seeds that are designed to resist certain pests and diseases or extreme weather conditions can contribute to the use of fewer or more precisely applied agricultural inputs, such as crop protection products and water, and helping to enable a more robust harvest.

Modern seed varieties can enable smallholders to produce larger and heavier fruits, also inviting better prices at market and a higher income. Extra-firm fruits can even reduce post-harvest food losses. For example, the Xaman F1 tomato seed variety is disease tolerant, needs less water to grow, and matures early so reduces the cost for smallholders growing them in Africa.
JD Rossouw
Global Head of Vegetable Seeds Research & Development

Another seeding innovation is the variety of Yellow-Gold Watermelon, which comes with a thicker rind making it especially beneficial for long-distance transport and helps curtail food loss.


Understanding smallholders' farming requirements enables seed companies to cater to their smaller plots and more diversified crops. Small farms need smaller quantities of seeds, so Bayer supplies 10g packages, but also provides 1g and 5g packages to reflect the needs of smaller growing plots and to align with local government regulation. QR Codes printed on seed pouches also help Bayer to monitor the seed movements and run commercial campaigns that are customized to meet smallholders needs.


Smallholders as part of the supply chain

An effective way to strengthen smallholder harvests and business through better access to seeds is by involving smallholders in the beginning of the supply chain. Over 3,000 smallholders in South East Asia, specifically in India and Thailand already collaborate with Bayer to produce vegetable seed crops such as tomatoes, peppers and watermelons. They are supported through third party seed suppliers, cooperatives, grower coordinators and through direct access to farmers. Smallholders who have access to good vegetable seeds can generate more seeds through their supply-chain integration with seed companies, and in turn more income that can be used to invest in further resources to improve their daily farm work. Vegetable seed production is the main source of income for these smallholder farmers. In India, farmers grow different seed crops for Bayer throughout the year, creating further access to seeds and resources within this regional infrastructure and providing a sustained source of income for growers living there.


Securing the income of smallholder farmers and strong commitment from the side of the seed company is important to engage growers in seed production. In Chile, smallholder farmers are mainly engaged through direct contracting. Bayer requires production coordinators in those regions to close written contracts with growers, so all parties’ commitments are secured. Minimum guaranteed payments are set for crops that carry higher production risks.


Good growing goes beyond good seeds

In addition to seeds, on-farm practices are vital for ensuring reliable harvests: The right type and quantity of crop protection and its timing, effective irrigation, and mechanization have a strong impact on farm productivity. Reliable access to water and irrigation lead to significant increases in yields: Irrigated land is twice as productive as rain-fed land. Bayer’s vegetable seed production organization in India therefore facilitates access to infrastructure, such as irrigation systems, to enable successful crops. In this region, Bayer has transitioned all its irrigation from gravity to drip, contributing significantly to the technification of local growers in the Bayer supply chain and enabling higher yields and preservation of their soil and water resources.


Teaming up with industry partners for last-mile delivery

Seeds can only support farmers with their challenges if they’re easily accessible through their local markets. That’s why it’s important for international seed companies to collaborate with local companies or organizations to reach smallholder farmers through the right distribution channels. Bayer entered into a long-term strategic agreement with East-West Seed to support local seed accessibility and also works with East-West as a distribution partner in many countries in Asia.


Collaborations to breed seeds that meet the specific needs of smallholder farmers, while ensuring there is a diversity of crops and a wide variety of seeds worldwide, calls for seed companies to establish successful public-private collaborations within the industry. When seed companies and organizations work together, they benefit from their expertise and multiply their impact, especially for these small-plot farms. For example, as a part of its vegetable seeds organization smallholder-centric approach and global commitment to reach more smallholders with resources, tools, and training for capacity building, Bayer collaborates with The World Vegetable Centre in Asia and Africa, an international non-profit research and development institute. The institute’s mission is to reduce hunger by increased production and consumption of vegetables. One way to reach the goal is by providing germplasm to partners like Bayer that can develop improved varieties for smallholder farmers. Another example is Bayer’s collaboration with the Asia and Pacific Seed Association (ASPA) which strives to promote develop, research, and market quality seeds within the region and globally. These collaborations can improve product quality and increase the access to modern, and relevant seed varieties for millions of smallholder farmers. Boosting smallholder business, while improving the quality of inputs and access to resources that support food security for our growing global population.

Knowledge that grows smallholder business and sustainable practice

Developing knowledge in your field of expertise is an important aspect of improving any business. Likewise, transforming good seeds into plentiful harvests means growing knowledge about sustainable practice, understanding soil, ways of responding to erratic climates, and applying agronomics.


For smallholders, this means gaining access to agricultural advisory support and training on good agricultural practice that saves time in the field and conserves valuable natural resources, such as water. For example, through Pragati Diwas, Field day events in India, smallholder farmers learn about hybrid seed varieties that are suited to their climates and soil type. Training in association with Fair Planet shows smallholders how to best grow hybrid vegetable seeds. This combined with sustainable practices reduce inputs and costs for smallholders and save time while improving yield quality and increasing income.


Smallholder Jemberu, based in Butajira, Ethiophia, harvested 7,400kilos of tomatoes on his one-hectare plot of farmland after the training from Fair Planet. Jemberu’s harvest earned him 1,141 USD (30% more compared with the baseline annual income of 800USD for the region). When asked what he would do with this income: “I will grow more tomatoes. With the profits I make, I will pay for my children’s education. School for the youngers and university for the older.” Training in safe use of crop protection products, and good agricultural practice (G.A.P), means that smallholders are equipped with climate-friendly knowledge that will also help them grow their family farming businesses sustainably in the longer term and promote sustainable practice among the next generation of growers in their local farming community.

I will grow more tomatoes. With the profits I make, I will pay for my children’s education. School for the youngers and university for the older.
Smallholder farmer in Butajira, Ethiopia

Reaching more smallholder farmers with the resources they need to thrive

As part of its wider sustainability strategy, Bayer is scaling up its support for smallholder farmers globally, building on the success of programs that reflect its commitment to reach 100million smallholders by 2030. One example is through its UN commended Better Life Farming (BLF) initiative, that is enabling a structured network of partners to facilitate resources that smallholders need to grow their businesses. Dedicated expert agronomists, who run Better Life Farming Centres at the heart of these networks, facilitate knowledge transfer and advisory support for smallholders located in the most remote rural parts of smallholder regions. Bayer collaborates with local and global public and private sector partners in active regions, such as India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, to provide outreach services, including digital farming solutions, spraying services, irrigation systems, microfinance, insurance systems, credits, tailored cost models and optional collective bargaining and purchasing for smallholder farmers, working with regional teams to deliver the best practice available beyond Bayer solutions with the overall aim of improving industry standards. The wholistic approach is connecting smallholders with the expertise they need to thrive, from farming inputs to market linkage. Interlinking this growing network of BLF Centres will enable individual farming success to develop into an ecosystem, through millions of farmers and service providers working together to achieve sustainable agricultural practice throughout the food value chain that strengthens food security each season.

Better Life Farming is an effective example of how clearing roadblocks to enable success for individual smallholders ultimately contributes to the ecosystem success. Smallholders equipped with the seeds, tools, and knowledge to unleash their potential are in turn empowering their neighbors and neighboring smallholder communities to do the same.
Inci Dannenberg
President of Global Vegetable Seeds at Bayer


That’s how smallholders will continue to generate reliable harvests and income and enable their contribution to global food security for generations to come.

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