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March 21, 2012

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March 21, 2012

What have we learned from trying to help poor farmers use markets better?

March 21, 2012
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After some pretty rarified policy wonkery on agriculture and development last week, Erinch Sahan, an Oxfam private sector adviser, summarizes what we Indonesia - Flores - Cocoa3have learned from our work in the field  (for once, the right expression). And no, there doesn’t appear to be much obvious overlap with the topics covered in the earlier posts, but I think it’s there if you dig a bit.

Like most NGOs, Oxfam has lots of ‘livelihoods programmes’ that try and find ways to use markets to improve people’s incomes and economic security. Usually, this is around agriculture, as we see the huge potential in smallholder farming. Recently, we’ve been trying to capture the underlying philosophy behind this work. By ‘we’, I mean a bunch of livelihoods advisers, led by markets guru David Bright. I’m not sure there’s a definitive set of interventions that constitute an ‘Oxfam approach’ to ‘gendered market and enterprise development’ (sorry), but we have found that our philosophy doesn’t fit neatly with the standard models floating around in this field, such as value-chains, sustainable livelihoods and making markets work for the poor (M4P). This is because, at its heart, Oxfam programmes are sceptical about getting just any kind of economic growth. We’ve seen that this can leave the poorest behind and fail to address inequality between men and women. However, triggering the right economic opportunities for poor people is tricky and the approach can look very different in different contexts. So having said all of that, here’s where we’ve got to on an alternative:

1. Intervene to rebalance power in favour of poor producers, particularly women

Sounds good, but how can it be done?

a) Support producer organisations. Ok, there are probably as many bad examples of collectives, co-operatives and other producer organisations as good ones, with most excluding women, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Collective market action is a great way to get to the volume of production you need to interest buyers, and also means you have the power to get better deals on inputs and services. There is a plethora of research on this and we wrote a book that attempts to describe what good ones look like, as well as running a research project on women’s collective action.

b) Support specialised enterprises that help smallholders trade. We love smallholders here at Oxfam and think that businesses that try to help them are just as super. If we can create a business that goes and finds different market options for smallholders, we’ll support this business with financing, training, information, machinery or whatever is needed to make it viable. These businesses can also provide services to ensure women and other marginalised smallholders can access markets and help them get their product quality right. All this can really empower smallholders to choose the best deal, rather than take whatever is on offer. Sometimes money can be made by doing these things, but the enterprise must be focused on being an intermediary for smallholders. It’s even better when smallholders themselves own these enterprises.

c) Give direct support to allow the poorest to make a start. Especially to small businesses that are creating jobs and market opportunities for poor people. This can be a crèche so women are freed to participate in business or sometimes it’s providing finance, such as match funding for a harvesting or processing machine. Where possible, we want the business, business partners, markets or the local government to provide support for these things, but where these fail, we are willing to step in to get things going. However, the end goal is always to create a business that can stand on its own feet. The challenge is doing it sustainably, so the asset (e.g. easily repairable machinery) is used to generate a revenue stream, rather than being left to go rusty.

d) Change the rules of the game. That means helping poor people gain a voice with their governments or in how a company operates. It could mean setting up the right forum for them to talk or getting people to speak collectively, so the many small voices become one bigger voice. It could be about building coalitions with those who share their interests (including local businesses). It could be as simple as having somewhere to resolve contract disputes between a company and a farmer or working to ensure women can take higher value roles beyond the low or unpaid roles customarily considered ‘women’s work’. Here’s an example from Colombia.

e) Build on catalytic events. It’s as much about the when as the how. We do this by being opportunistic and jumping in when something big has happened to shake things up. That can be a new government that is changing the regulatory landscape, a major new investor who’s challenging existing monopolies or even a natural disaster that means much of the local economy is being rebuilt. These are situations where we can take the ‘market systems approach’ (see below) and look for ways to shift the balance of power in favour of small producers

women rice farmersf) Ask the question at every opportunity, how is this empowering women? The focus needs to be on women right from the very beginning (starting with research on the roles women play in the market and the home).

2. Look at the whole market-system

The points above are key to our livelihoods programmes, but how do you choose where or how to intervene? We do this by putting on a market-systems lens. We’re most like M4P in this respect and least like value-chains (which essentially focus on connecting producers to buyers). By market-systems I mean spending time to understand all the things that surround poor producers and their enterprises, including government, infrastructure, and hidden forces such as cultural beliefs and practices. It’s about identifying and ‘unlocking’ hidden problems that cause the whole market-system to fail for poor people. An example is providing finance for remote, rural and women-owned enterprises. We also try and work out who is going to ‘drive’ that new service or change the policy or grow the trade in the system when we withdraw. We often have to help out to pilot the new service or prove the benefit of changing the policy etc. 

3. Also intervene outside the market system

Poor people don’t only interact with the market system but also with their household system and the eco-system. Women in particular are heavily constrained by what happens in their homes as well as the market and everyone can be held back when nature stops cooperating (e.g. soils becoming infertile or rivers running out of water). Often, we intervene in all three systems. For instance, a programme may try to free women up from onerous chores at home (intervention in the household system, such as installing local water standpipes to avoid a 2 hour daily walk), while helping a new producer-owned business get off the ground (intervention in the market system, such as helping locals demand a new road), and also teaching new ways of conducting sustainable agriculture (intervention in the eco-system, such as knowing how to adapt to heavy but infrequent rain). We’ve found that intervening in one system alone while ignoring the others can be ineffective.

4. Intervening directly where facilitating is not an option

If we find a way to play a direct role to help poor people, we’re happy to play that role. This could mean giving cows to women with absolutely no other assets so they can get on the ‘first rung’ of the economy to produce, consume and sell small amounts of milk. But what we can do on our own is always going to be a drop in the ocean, so we search for ways to get those already in the system to play this role. This could be a local bank lending people money so they can buy their own cow, or a local company who’ll benefit from the improved productivity agreeing to provide farmers with training. However, too many of the people we want to help are too poor for those in the system to bother doing business with them. And where we can’t find a way to get markets to work for the poorest, we’re open to intervening directly. This may be as simple as paying for analysis to show how women producers are key to a business. This is probably where we disagree most with the M4P crowd (we agree strongly on the systems stuff).

These are just snippets of things we’ve noticed in the programmes we like best. Feel free to comment/add your own.


  1. Hi Duncan,
    Thanks for this thoughtful review of what can work for gendered market and enterprise development. It is, as you make the point, a complex situation. There is no one right answer, no silver bullet, no single approach that can get it all right.
    As you imply, upfront research and analysis is critical to understanding the context, the market system, the household economic system etc. to ensure that an intervention will have the desired impact and lead to sustainable and ultimately dynamic improvements. And, being action oriented is also key so as not to get bogged down in information collection and review.
    The frameworks you reference – M4P, VC, SLA – all have their place. We are fortunate that we can build on the huge intellectual weight and deep field experience that has gone into developing these frameworks. For the most part, any practitioner of these approaches no longer sees them as a neat solution but as an approach or entry point for analysis and programming. A structured place to start.
    However, as with Oxfam’s phrase – gendered market and enterprise development – life is messy, it defies being packaged up too tightly, and we have to always look for improvements to our work. My previous (women’s) smallholder /enterprise work with the Aga Khan Foundation and MEDA in Asia and Africa have certainly underlined the complexity and variation across contexts. But, field teams do find approaches, toolkits, and checklists helpful – and therefore assists them in being more productive. So for me the question is how can we be flexible, take the best from different approaches and still support the people in the field to get their work done. Always a challenge, but lots of interesting work on women’s empowerment emerging.
    Thanks for your thoughtful contribution.
    Linda Jones
    Coady Institute’s International Centre for Women’s Leadership

  2. What kind of evidence do you have for the effectiveness of all of these approaches?

    I might be totally wrong, but it seems to me that there has been very little dialogue between the “livelihoods” approaches developed by practitioners, and economists doing rigorously evaluation on similar kinds of programs, but calling them “micro-business development” or whatever – Dean Karlan at Yale/IPA and David McKenzie at the World Bank being a couple of key examples.



  3. This is really interesting. We did a similar exercise at CAFOD, and reached some of the same conclusions: http://bit.ly/GNtzND
    We also found we had little in common with preceding approaches to “Making markets work for the poor”. Moving from “livelihoods” thinking to serious reflection on how to support poor men and women to turn a profit and be successful in markets is something NGOs and policy-makers all need to get better at.

  4. One thing that is rarely mentioned in discussions about the poorest farmers is that they do not participate in the markets all that much. I’m thinking about the poorest African smallholders, many of whom are women. They don’t bring their harvest to the market for the simple reason that they need all their crop for their own food. If they have nothing to sell, and are too poor to buy food from the market, how can they benefit from market reforms of any kind?

    These extremely poor farmers need help to get more output from their land, work and inputs. They need better yields, for that is the only way they can get better incomes. Their income from farming is all in kind.

    The solution is better yields. That can, as Malawi has shown, be achieved with making seed, fertilizer and better knowledge available at good prices. If the poorest people is the target, 10 more bags from the farm is better than any SMS based price information system.

  5. I agree with Oxfam’s synthesis on the lessons they learned from trying to help poor farmers use markets better and with Olof’s comments. Indeed, poor farmers – mostly women – don’t necessarily produce surpluses and when they do, accessing markets is challenging due to inadequate post harvest handling equipment, lack of appropriate storage facilities, poor road infrastructure, and high transport cost, etc….

    I take this opportunity to introduce ‘Purchase for Progress (P4P)’, a World Food Programme’s 5-year pilot project aiming at connecting farmers to the market in 21 countries worldwide. The project is improving smallholders’ capacity in grain quality improvement, post harvest handling and aggregation so that they can supply food commodities to WFP through pro-smallholder procurement modalities (soft competitive tendering, direct or forward contracting modalities) or to other buyers.

    After three years of project implementation, the challenge of involving women in the market has been acknowledged and varied in magnitude by country and by region in the same country. Through discriminatory action aimed improving women’s participation, we record positive change in attitude and perception on women’s role as market players. We do believe that using farmer (producer) organizations is one of the best entry points for WFP as a buyer and a catalytic approach for producers to attract buyers, improve their negotiation power for access to inputs and services. We value partnership and involve government departments, local and international organizations for the technical support needed by farmer organizations in agricultural production, group dynamics, marketing and resource mobilization, post harvest handling, market information…

    We might be interested in working with OXFAM on some of your analytical work in a few of the countries where we have P4P and OXFAM livelihood programmes co-existing. We have just begun to implement P4P with Oxfam in Equateur province (Bikoro) of DRC.

  6. This is an answer for Martin Kabaluapa: As Oxfam, we also have been working with P4P in Burkina and we had conversations with them in Guatemala some months ago. I’m attending the global meeting of P4P this June in Dar es Salaam, on behalf of Marta Valdés (who is in the technical panel review). We can take advantage of this meeting to talk about this possibility of collaboration that you mentioned.

  7. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the informative post on WFP’s P4P programme, and great to see your experience mirroring ours re: the power of producer groups – whatever challenges may exist in working with these – to offer a major channel for buyers and intermediaries.

    Two possible areas of mutual learning spring to mind: we have an upcoming think piece on the possible role the private sector can play in addressing food security which could benefit from insights from P4P programming, and I know that key Oxfam personnel, such as Gabriel and Marta, are engaged with P4P’s technical panel review.

    Additionally, it would be great to hear more detail on how ‘discriminatory action’ for involvement of women smallholders is managed on the ground in P4P. Oxfam GB is currently running ‘Researching Women’s Collective Action’ (parallel to research initiatives with CARE International USA and COADY Institute, among others). This project gathers much needed evidence about the conditions under which women benefit from collective action groups in agricultural markets – benefit here meaning: improvements in women’s incomes, control over assets and empowering women in decision making.

    Initial results are showing that:

    • – Women’s collective action is often about managing risks, and some risks are specific to women – like savings circles or funeral societies to deal with costs of illness, maternity, death and widowhood – for which women are often held responsible.

    • – In spite of some efforts to promote women in marketing to increase women’s economic returns and power in markets, research in our target countries indicates that most interventions supporting women still focus on production techniques and micro-finance – few address getting women into marketing and the women-specific barriers to this, such as mobility issues. This raises a pressing question for the development community of how to get beyond ‘credit and production training’ interventions for women, to interventions that will generate more value and power for female producers.

    • Finally, collective organisations that work for women are varied. They can be formal or informal, mixed or women-only – and often, women will opt to participate in a combination of these in opportunistic ways, as they derive different benefits from membership of different groups. This suggests that the right question to ask is not ¨are women-only, or mixed groups better for women’, but instead, ‘in this particular context, which combination of groups (mixed groups, informal or formal, or women-only) will work best for women’.

    These two areas: the possible role of the private sector in addressing food security, and the question of how to engage women producers to gain more benefit from agricultural markets, both seem like fertile territory for a conversation, so please do drop us a line (lkirk@oxfam.org.uk) if you’d like to discuss further.

  8. Hi Erinch,
    Thanks very much for the really informative blog post. It’s very interesting to read Oxfam’s philosophy, and to note how the emphasis on supporting the poorest interplays (and takes precedence) over other current approaches. This seems to allow Oxfam to take a more holistic approach, and select the type of intervention most likely to be of value, including direct interventions and interventions outside of the private sector.

    I would agree with Linda that models such as the value chain or M4P approach, are rarely used in an uncritical or non-context related way. Programmes often try to take the most relevant ideas from different models. Linda suggests more work is needed to help flexibility between models. On the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED) website, we aim to do this by listing resources and information, including donor and UN agency strategies, across the different models of private sector development- and we will be doing more work ourselves in this area.

    I was also wondering what Oxfam’s view on scaling up interventions is? Can it cause any tensions with other principles, such as focusing on the poorest smallholders? In addition, at times programmes have limited time and resources, and are pressured to select between the different principles you highlight. Does Oxfam have a way of prioritising between these key principles?

    Ashley Aarons, DCED Secretariat, http://www.enterprise-development.org/page/knowledge-about-psd

  9. Dear All,
    Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking commentary. As the Manager of the M4P (making markets work) Hub, I would nonetheless fully endorse the various bloggers concerns over the need for flexibility in light of the complexities that are the reality for the poor. I also do not believe that the M4P approach – any more than Value Chains, Livelihoods or any other so-called ‘approaches’ – is a panacea to development problems. My experience is that institutions and practitioners alike benefit from having a well-defined framework within which to work – because this gives them something against which to measure progress and effectiveness, and provide a permanent ‘sounding board’ for us all to keep us focused on the end game – i.e. sustainable poverty reduction. Whilst Oxfam and others have evolved their own approach to market-systems development that meets their priorities as an institution, they nevertheless presumably see value in having such a framework through which to maintain a focus on systemic, lasting change.
    I’d like to venture 3 brief observations. Firstly, Oxfam continues to support more direct interventions where is deems it necessary. The M4P approach does not contradict this – it fully endorses the need to use direct intervention where necessary and strategically expedient. Importantly, direct intervention must be a means to an end – delivering the kind of capacity or assets that leverage the poor into a position where they can fend for themselves. What we must all be mindful of, however, is that the way in which we chose to intervene (directly or otherwise) has implications for the system we are intervening in. Some direct interventions can be ‘transformational’, but some can and do engender continued dependency or undermine development of locally-based solutions. Every situation is of course different, but we should always be mindful of the long-term impacts of the actions we take.
    Secondly, whilst I acknowledge that there are poor farmers who are not engaged in markets (see comment from Olof Hesselmark), it is also the reality that those farmers will remain poor until and unless they are afforded better access to appropriate markets. These is precisely what M4P or VC systems thinking is all about – it is not suggesting that markets are serving everyone but quite the opposite – it recognises markets do not serve everyone and aims to address that fundamental problem. Olof is correct to identify the need for yield improvements – but that takes us nowhere without market access through which to exploit such improvements.
    Finally I would endorse Ashley’s question around scale. Scale (along with sustainability) is a critical priority in M4P and VC systems thinking. One might even say they are non-negotiable and as such have clear implications of decision-making in M4P programmes. However, in other fields one senses that compromises (a fact of life in development of course) often result in ‘scale’ being the loser. I take, for example, recent work of M4P Hub in exploring the M4P framework and its strengths/weaknesses in delivering on women’s economic empowerment goals (in which Linda Jones has been involved). In fact there are lessons to be learned in both directions here. It is apparent that the M4P framework can and should be more explicit about gender differences in market access and constraints. But it is also apparent that many gender development and womens’ economic empowerment initiatives have struggled to achieve scale and sustainability of impact. I wonder how other bloggers view the issue of compromise and prioritisation?

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