A conversation with Sriganesh from LIRNEAsia

As the Design Public conclave is drawing closer, we are reaching out to experts to develop our four challenge tracks. In this process I interviewed Mr. Sriganesh Lokananthan, Senior Research Manager at LIRNEasia, a regional information and communication technology, policy and regulation research, and capacity building organisation active across south Asia. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Bubbal Makker: In your opinion what are the major problems faced by small farmers?

Sriganesh Lokananthan: Given that average landholding size in India is about 1.3ha and that 81.8% of all landholdings in India are under 2ha, when we talk about Indian agricultural producers, the vast majority are smallholder. They face a number of problems. One important problem is that they cannot respond to the market conditions nimbly. They cannot switch from production of one crop to another easily, with the change in demand. This is to say that their produce mix wasn’t dictated so much by demand conditions as much as via their traditional choices. Another major problem is that they lack ability to negotiate.

To develop solutions to these problems, a host of services can be provided to these farmers. A plethora of them already exist. What needs to be assessed is their sustainability. This is because with regards to small farmers there is a lack of stability of services. Through these services, the farmers need to be ensured two things, one ability to negotiate and secondly quality of production.

Smallholders often have trouble proving the quality of their produce. Buyers often assume that smallholders give lower quality produce, since they are resource constrained and lack economies of scale. Furthermore lack of standardized scientific quality metrics and especially the lack of scientific quality testing (since the smallholder’s small lots make scientific quality testing costly) all adversely affect the price received by farmers. This penalty imposed on the farmers is what is known as a “smallholder quality penalty” which dis-incentivizes them to invest more to produce better quality produce. The small farmers need services that can assure quality of their produce. Traceability can also help these smallholders by allowing them to track how their produce’s quality was graded by downstream purchasers of their produce. This will incentivize them to improve their quality.

B.M: What cross sectoral partnerships are capable of bringing about innovative solutions so as to aid the small and marginal farmers?

S.L: There are host of infrastructure services which can be provided to the small farmers. The ICT industry is one minor cross sectoral partnership that is possible. Telecom is like a connecting tissue, which can bring together a range of services on one platform. The right solution would be to aim for a holistic development, whereby all sectors can participate. Holistic implies including all those who you consider to be the major stakeholders.
The Government needs to create an enabling environment where all these sectors can participate and develop new ideas.

B.M: So are implying that we need to remove the middle-men?

S.L: Removing middlemen is not the solution. Middlemen provide important services for smallholders, and you cannot remove them, till the time you can provide viable alternatives to farmers for the services provided by middlemen (which also often includes informal loans for farmers for a crop as well as personal expenses). Though one can say that their roles are changing as value chain structures change.

B.M: What initiatives are you aware of that are geared in this direction?

S.L: India is a large country, so various initiatives are taking place in different parts of the country. Like an initiative started in Kadi, Gujarat where farmers could avail of warehouse financing to ride over periods of gluts. Whilst this was a good example of where ICT acted as a connective tissue amongst required additional services for small farmers it has unfortunately recently been called off. But such initiatives are necessary, especially for small farmers. There are also a lot of other services that provided market price information, weather and crop advisory for farmers via mobiles. A lot of similar government initiatives are also there.

One advice for the nimble agriculture challenge track. You should first develop a future vision for agriculture, then walk back from there,identify the stakeholders and see what can be achieved.

This is the first of a series of interviews with experts working in agriculture-related issues. Stay tuned for more!

Read some of LIRNEasia’s research reports here:
Smallholders and Micro-enterprises in Agriculture

Leveraging Mobile 2.0 in India for Agricultural Market Access

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