Transforming Food Systems Through Professional Farmer Organizations

By Casey Harrison, Livelihoods and Agribusiness Director, Nuru International

Featured Image Caption:  Genda Farmer Cooperative Savings Committee Meeting in Ethiopia (photo taken prior to COVID-19 pandemic)

Localizing Professionalism within Food Systems

Nuru Kenya, Nuru Ethiopia, Nuru Nigeria, and Nuru International view the merging of business professionalism and the local context as a necessary prerequisite for shifting the power of food systems. To this end, Nuru focuses it’s locally-led development model on building self-sustaining farmer organizations that unlock the economic and social potential of subsistence farmers. Within the Nuru model, a self-sustaining farmer organization is a farmer-owned and maintained agribusiness that is financially sustainable, managed efficiently and fairly by its leadership, and provides socio-economic benefits to its community. Often taking shape as farmer-owned and farmer-led agricultural cooperatives, these farmer organizations are offered training and coaching services grounded in the seven cooperative principles, as well as, the Minimum Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality

Supporting the development of profitable and professional farmer organizations acts as a sustainability engine, a force that helps people in the most vulnerable communities around the world adapt to new and not yet imagined challenges to their ways of life. Moreover, they support local food systems by generating better yields, higher incomes, more savings, and local dialogues for small-scale farmers. As the farmer organizations become more professional and profitable, they build resilience through unity and trust from within and between communities, governments, and the private sector.

“Professionalism” is an elusive term that can be wrought with bias and vary greatly depending on the context. To limit this expectation bias, Nuru local NGOs (i.e. Nuru Kenya, Nuru Ethiopia, and Nuru Nigeria) lead the day-to-day and implement the Nuru model. The local NGOs incubate and coach start-up or struggling farmer organizations in marginalized communities to ensure that the journey towards better access to markets, finance, and sustainability is fair and practical. Moreover, the Nuru local NGOs collaborate and partner with international organizations like the Agribusiness Market Ecosystem Alliance (AMEA), national level institutions, the private sector, and local leaders. They work collaboratively to ensure local and regional food systems are informed by competitiveness and trust.

Measuring progress towards inclusive food systems 

The progress emerging farmer organizations are making toward more sustainable local food systems requires a determination. A determination of whether the farmer organizations are able to sustain the meaningful choices they bring their farmer members. In the Nuru model, profitability and professionalism form the foundation of this determination by assessing 1) net profit via financial statements, and 2) organizational maturity via SCOPEinsight assessments. 

Achieving profitability is certainly the easier of the two indicators to understand: do the farmer organizations make enough money to cover their expenses? The second indicator is more elusive as it is tied to a standardized 90+ indicator SCOPEinsight assessment that is collected by certified enumerators supported by SCOPEinsight. This assessment is linked to a database with over 4,000 comparable farmer organizations operating across 40+ countries. 

The comparability and consistency provided by the SCOPEinsight database helps farmer organizations benchmark their business performance and maturity with similar businesses around the world. Nuru local NGOs play a key role in this continuous improvement process. They summarize, translate and deliver the SCOPEinsight reports back to the leadership of the local farmer organizations so they can be actively applied to their operations. Moreover, the consistency and comparability helps to limit bias and allow Nuru local NGOs to develop a shared business language across different contexts. This common business language helps emerging and established farmer organizations to understand and meet the demands of financial institutions and market actors, and vice versa, creating greater trust and competitiveness within local, regional, and national food systems.

Results building inclusive food systems

So, how effective is the Nuru Model in delivering results based on these profitability and professionalism indicators? 

In 2020, Nuru Kenya achieved the following results:

  • 76% of supported farmer organizations achieved net profit
  • Cumulative SCOPEinsight score of 3.4 out of 5, which was above the agricultural average of 3.3 in 2018. 

In 2020, Nuru Ethiopia achieved the following results:

  • 80% of supported farmer organizations achieved net profit 
  • Cumulative SCOPEinsight score of 4 out of 5, which was above the agricultural average of 3.3 in 2018. 

Food systems that create value for farmers and their families

The seven cooperative principles offer a framework for inclusion of farmers and their families. For example, the first three cooperative principles are 1) voluntary and open membership, 2) democratic member control, and 3) member economic participation. All of which act as a foundation of good governance within Nuru-supported farmer organizations. 

In an effort to measure the value these principles generate for individual farmers, Nuru partners with the University of Texas Austin Ray Marshall Center (RMC) to analyze and publish annual household impact reports. For example, in the most recent 2020 Nuru Kenya report farming families that were supported through farmer organizations experienced a 24% reduction in under-five child mortality, 38% increase in crop yields, 57% increase in milk yields, and $98 USD of extra household income compared to 2018. These findings support the idea that the merging of business professionalism and the local context can yield benefits to small-scale farmers and the food systems they feed. However, generating and scaling these impacts requires collaboration at multiple scales that remains grounded in local economies and livelihoods. Even as COVID-19 challenged every person on the planet, Nuru farmers, their cooperatives, and their food systems continued to stand resilient. 

Nuru is actively seeking partnerships to build bottom-up agribusiness professionalism that supports inclusive food systems in new and existing geographies. This piece was adapted from an original version published on the Nuru website here.

Casey Harrison, Livelihoods and Agribusiness Director, Nuru International

Casey joined Nuru International in 2016 and guides agribusiness and livelihoods impact programming across a network of Nuru local organizations in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria with a focus on scaling in the Sahel region of West Africa. As a member of the Agribusiness Market Ecosystem Alliance (AMEA) he leads the Agricultural Technology working group that aims to accelerate the development of rural SMEs and farmer organizations globally. Casey received a dual M.A. in Natural Resource Management and International Development from American University in Washington D.C and the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Prior to Nuru, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia as an agricultural extension agent, and worked with World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) for 4 years developing inclusive value chain approaches to conservation and development challenges.