Chains, loops, pillars and bridges – building resilience into agricultural systems.

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

UN Photo Logan Abassi

Credit: UN/Logan Abassi

As meteorologists report that the El Niño Southern Oscillation is ending and a La Niña may be developing, spare a thought for smallholder farmers. Erratic rainfall, short growing seasons, prolonged droughts and flooding mean that crop yields suffer, and so do the livelihoods of those who rely on farming as their main source of income. And because agriculture does not only provide food, but also provides important environmental services, employment, and economic opportunities for local communities, it is not just the farmers and their families who feel the effects of the unpredictable weather that is becoming increasingly common all around the world. With increasingly global food systems, we will all suffer the consequences.

Despite the volatile weather, the food must grow on. Globally the growing population demands more, and more varied, food, to be grown with ever scarcer resources. However, current agricultural techniques have a voracious appetite for resources, consuming about 70% of all freshwater and using ever more land. But there are other viable ways of farming that are less resource intensive. In the recent submission to the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 44), A4I advocated for the practices of Sustainable Intensification (SI) for agriculture. SI integrates innovations in ecology, genetics and socio-economics to help build environmentally sustainable, productive and resilient ways to produce more food with less, ensuring that the natural resources on which agriculture depends are maintained and even improved for future generations – also take a look at the A4I SI database where there are explanations and more than 80 case studies to highlight some of the best practices of SI.

EC slash ECHO Maria Olsen

Drought. Credit EC/ECHO Maria Olsen

But there is not just the problem of growing more food, but also of access to markets to sell the produce and improve incomes. What may appear from the outside to be a simple problem is, in reality, an incredibly complex muddle of linked constraints. A wide range of issues feed into the tangle, including barriers to accessing inputs and finance, poor storage and transport infrastructure, lack of education or training, and gender inequality, to name but a few. As the new World Economic Forum (WEF) publication Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A roadmap for stakeholders, points out, “the scale of the challenge will require everyone to step up their efforts.” Because agricultural systems can be complex, progressing towards resilience and sustainability is not simple either.

Generating a virtuous cycle

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Gaps can be found all along agriculture value chains, such as barriers that constrain access to inputs, deny finance to rural people, or prevent the flow of information to those who need it most. These gaps can be opportunities for entrepreneurs to find ways of bridging them, creating employment and added value along the way. For example, SESACO Food Company in Uganda processes produce such as soybeans, groundnuts and sesame, turning them into a range of products including soy-based beverages and nut butters. The company employs 80 people and the products are sold in Uganda and surrounding countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi. In this way, the company forms a bridge between the agricultural products and regional markets, adding value to the produce and creating jobs en route.

However, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Value chains need to be reinforced with supportive policies and investments in infrastructure that can help to strengthen every link. Poor physical and digital infrastructure jeopardise and discourage investment by private sector partners, due to the inevitable logistical inefficiencies that they cause. Therefore, governments need to make infrastructure a priority if they are to attract investors to their countries.

If private sector investments are going to work and be sustainable, governments need to build frameworks that work for and protect their citizens and their natural resources. According to the WEF report, the private sector is keen to partner and invest in sustainable agriculture, but it will struggle to do so alone. “Partnership among stakeholders, and effective government leadership in particular, is critical to success.”


Credit: Trevor Samson/World Bank

Furthermore, the very people that the private and public sectors seek to work for need to have a voice. Rural people will be both the workforce and part of the consumer base, so addressing their needs and preferences is essential. The forces of supply and demand need to be respected if a healthy and sustainable market structure is to be built. This will require empowered local leadership and an approach to development that integrates local structures and includes vulnerable people, such as women and young people, whose voices may not be heard otherwise.

What emerges is a loop, where no one actor can be successful without impetus and support from the others. SI can drive sustainable agricultural development when built upon the mutually reinforcing pillars of ecology, genetics and socio-economics. If sustainable agricultural development is to form the foundation of sustainable and resilient livelihoods, the public sector, private sector and civil society need to be mutually reinforcing too. The benefits of growing a higher yield risk being squandered if produce doesn’t get beyond the farm gate and fails to generate prosperity for many along the agricultural value chain.


  1. Good point, and thanks for raising this – postharvest loss and the input loss gap are certainly challenges in the chain that need to be addressed!

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