The Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog has recently discussed the need to be more innovative in delivering essential information, products, and services to smallholder farmers in developing countries. In the blog, author Alina Paul-Bossuet from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, suggests that channeling mini-packs of good quality herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers to smallholder farmers – similar to the way that FMCG products such as shampoo sachets have been delivered to low-income consumers – could help ensure more sustainable farming practices. William Dar, the Direct General of ICRISAT, for instance explains that diversification is critical, and supplying mini-packs of fertilizer and pesticides, which meets a farmer’s budget, could educate a farmer on better farming practices.

Mini-packs of shampoo and soap have been a hit in India. Would a similar approach to fertiliser distribution help small farmers?

In India, every street corner has small shops displaying colourful strips of 1 rupee (about 1p) shampoo sachets, or stacks of mini soap bars. Creative marketing has even brought these sachets to isolated villages, draped on the back of camels.

Hindustan Unilever was behind this “adapting to the poor” approach. Realising their soaps and shampoos were too expensive for poor people, they repackaged them into small, affordable sachets. These were initially sold door-to-door by “shakti ladies”, who received microcredit to become small entrepreneurs. The 1 rupee range is now a significant part of the company’s revenues and stimulates a healthy network of small retailers.

Given that most smallholder farmers do not reach their maximum yield potential – in Africa, for instance, yields are only 20% of their potential and could be increased as much as threefold if farmers had access to existing technologies – could the widescale success of shampoos be translated to agricultural development? Solving the current food crisis is not necessarily about inventing new technologies. It could be about new marketing or dissemination approaches that give smallholder farmers better access to existing solutions.

I asked some of the companies at the World Agricultural Forum in Brussels, which ran from 28 November to 1 December, if the mini-pack revolution could help smallholder farmers get better quality and variety of seeds and fertilisers to improve yields.

Some already supply mini-packs. Like Bayer and BASF, Syngenta has developed small kits including mini packets of herbicide, pesticide and fertiliser designed for farmers with less than a hectare. The idea is that it’s affordable for the smallholder farmer and will boost harvests sufficiently to provide a quick return on investment. Sometimes, mini-packs are also more economical and ecological as farmers tend to overuse products like fertiliser. The technique of precisely applying a small capful to the plant roots (microdosing) has been well researched by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) and found to increase yield significantly.

But smallholder agriculture faces many challenges. Different soil types, weather and water access are among several factors that mean simply supplying small kits is no panacea. Tailored advice is needed to help farmers make informed choices.

As Arvind Kumar, from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, put it: “Farmers listen to agro-dealers, but they are often poorly educated. So how can we ensure that, as well as adapting technologies to smallholder needs, we also provide the right training to help guide farmers to make the right decisions?”

Global solutions do not apply when it comes to farming, which means extension services are key. ICT is increasingly used to deliver advice – about everything from sowing time and market prices to pests and weather forecast – through mobile phones. Each district in India now has a farm science centre to support farmers using new methods such as mobile services.

Modern methods may not always be the ideal solution for smallholder farmers. Using local resources such as manure, ecological farming methods such as crop rotation, and planting legumes such as pigeonpea and chickpea to enrich the nitrogen content in soil, are all methods that can bring results.

William Dar, director general of Icrisat, highlighted the need for diversification. “Given the alarming malnutrition in Africa and India, where 28% and 42% of children respectively are malnourished, we need to focus more on diversifying crops,” he said. “One way is to ensure farmers have the tools and motivation to grow a mixture of legumes and cereals as well as vegetables to provide a balanced diet.”

In an effort to ensure more farmers grow pigeonpea, which is naturally protein-rich, Icrisat is involved with the national food security mission in India. Each state government identifies farmers and provides a mini-kit of seed, fertiliser and pesticides. Since over 65% of Indian farmers own less than one hectare of land, downsizing the packaging suits the smallholder’s budget as well as need, and therefore encourages production.

Sometimes, ecological farming and biotechnology can join forces to help smallholder farmers. For instance, the Danish biotechnology company Novozymes partners with CleanStar Mozambique, which supports smallholder farmers to produce more food and energy through sustainable farming practices. One initiative is to make clean cooking gels by working with farmers to grow cassava to feed into a biorefinery.

As John Barrett, from the UK’s Department for International Development, says: “Given the 9 billion to feed in 2050 challenge, it is clear we need to support innovations that will help smallholder farmers grow more and better food.”

In the end, it’s the farmer who decides whether or not to adopt innovation, and this depends on many things. Agriculture is risky, made even more challenging by changing weather and degrading land. And risks cannot be taken lightly when you have to worry about having enough to feed your family tomorrow.

  • Alina Paul-Bossuet is a communications specialist for Icrisat