Why soft skills are a core part of agricultural innovation


How linking collaboration to innovation is boosting livelihoods in tropical regions

Agricultural innovation is just as much about soft skills like communication and collaboration as it is about technology. ©FAO/Fredrik Lerneryd

05/07/2021

“Moving from being farmers to agro-entrepreneurs is a complex process and requires new skills. And this is where we needed help,” explained Edgar Somacumbi, a farmer from Kwanza Sul, Angola. “When I first heard about the Capacity Development for Agricultural Innovations Systems project two years ago, I knew immediately that it was just what our group of farmers was looking for.”

Agricultural innovations have boosted many rural livelihoods in recent years with the introduction of new technologies, digital tools and broader availability of micro-financing as just some examples. Yet progress in many rural areas is still limited. In fact, sometimes, irrespective of which new technologies are made available, smallholder farmers do not always adopt them. So why is that?

Whilst accessibility and affordability are likely to be a factor, one thought is that there is also a lack of ‘soft skills’ necessary for the process of change, including the ability to share new knowledge, communicate clearly and collaborate with other food system actors, negotiate with buyers and engage in policy dialogue processes.

To address these gaps, FAO collaborates with partners through the Tropical Agriculture Platform (TAP), a G20 initiative started in 2012 and hosted at FAO to facilitate and improve capacity development programmes and knowledge sharing with the end goal of strengthening agricultural innovation in the tropics and sub-tropics.

As part of TAP, FAO implemented a project on Capacity Development for Agricultural Innovations Systems (CDAIS) in partnership with AGRINATURA and the European Commission (EC). Now, FAO is carrying out a follow up project to scale up capacity development through the TAP project in nine countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America with funding from the EC. These projects use a community-based participatory approach that works through reflection, group learning and engagement, co-creation of knowledge with farmers and helping them to better adopt innovative methods. So, has it worked?

Edgar would say it has. He took part in one of the very first CDAIS projects to bring new land into cultivation and attract young farmers to this rural area of central Angola. He was one of 60 farmers given a 250-hectare plot of unused land. Most of the agricultural equipment is communal, and they must agree on who will use what and when. 

“Of course, we have problems,” says Edgar, “but we have learnt to see them as positive, and we work together to find appropriate solutions.” 

Access to finance and markets are also recurrent problems for farmers in the area, so the project provided training on agri-business skills, including creating farm business plans, establishing and managing producers’ groups and implementing advanced farming techniques.

Edgar explains with pride that, through the CDAIS project, 9 000 hectares of land were cultivated over a five-year period, creating hundreds of jobs. “And with new skills, we can only grow,” he says.

In Angola, CDAIS has supported farmers in learning agri-business skills, while in Bangladesh, the project has helped smallholder pineapple farmers improve their communication and negotiation skills, boosting their income. ©CDAIS

Better together in Bangladesh

Soft skills such as capacity to collaborate, communicate, reflect and learn to adapt and respond to innovation are equally important to another type of agricultural endeavour: pineapple cultivation. Despite pineapple being one of the most important commercial fruit crops in Bangladesh, farmers working on their own often earn very little. Growers’ associations are rare which results in lower bargaining power and limited market access for individual farmers. 

To help smallholder farmers boost the pineapple industry in Bangladesh, FAO and AGRINATURA, through the CDAIS project, used the TAP approach to coach farmers in the Chittagong Hills, a prime producing area. Farmers attended sessions on leadership skills, building trust, effective communication and participatory decision making.

Having addressed the problems and capacity gaps, the group agreed upon a long-term plan that included forming a new pineapple growers’ association to help farmers achieve better prices and to have a platform from which to communicate with government officials, buyers and intermediaries.

“After CDAIS coaching, we formed the Bandarban Pineapple Growers Organisation,” says Jessi Chakma, the organisation’s treasurer. “I learnt how to work in a group, the rules and regulations, networking and benefits for getting fair prices and bargaining.”

Where before farmers worked alone, now they have become accustomed to taking actions and decisions as a group, resolving problems together as they go.

A CDAIS project has opened up avocado farming as a new profitable livelihood opportunity for farmers in Guatemala. ©FAO/Rubí López

Making a change in Guatemala

Change is not always easy but having the right skills to manage it can help. Traditionally, farmers living near Lake Atitlán in central Guatemala have grown maize and beans, but some years ago, they heard about a new variety of avocado that could grow well in their area and boost their income. However, at first, many farmers found it difficult to make the transition. This was until FAO-AGRINATURA’s CDAIS initiative helped unite local farmers, encouraging avocado cultivation as a livelihood.

The EC-funded CDAIS project facilitated a series of meetings between farmers to share tips and tricks in growing this new crop. After a while, news of their success sparked interest among farmers from all around the lake. Over the course of a year, a new group of would-be avocado farmers emerged and used CDAIS meetings to implement an action plan and form its own growers’ association. 

Sergio Coroxón, president of this new growers’ association, the Association for Integrated Development of the Altiplano (AIDA), remarked that he saw a big difference in the farmers’ income after the implementation of the CDAIS project. 

“The greatest achievement of the CDAIS initiative has been the consolidation of AIDA as a representative association of avocado producers from all around Lake Atitlán,” Sergio comments. “But this did not happen overnight, and it was only possible thanks to the many meetings that CDAIS has facilitated since 2015.” 

Don Andrés, fellow avocado farmer, agrees. “Since CDAIS came, so many things have changed. They helped us come together, like a large family of growers now working in partnership for the common good,” he says.

To successfully boost the agriculture sector through innovation, there are two types of capacities: technical and functional. However, the latter is often overlooked. FAO supports farmers in both of these areas, aiming to make farmers more successful and agricultural livelihoods more efficient and sustainable.

Building on the experiences from the CDAIS project since August 2019, FAO has been scaling up the TAP common framework through the project "Developing capacities in agricultural innovation systems” in nine countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America with financial support from the EU’s DeSIRA (Development Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture) initiative.


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