Rebranding the Business of Farming

How a new perspective on an ancient occupation could give farmers a leg up

A common narrative about smallholder farmers in the developing world is that they’re desperately poor, have limited access to quality seeds and fertilizers, few skills, little entrepreneurial, or creative drive and no real shot at outplaying the miserable hands they’ve been dealt.

It’s a pretty dim view of an estimated 2.5 billion people, one made all the more depressing considering that smallholder farmers—those working small plots of land and who rely primarily on family labor—produce about 80% of the developing world’s food.

At IDEO.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of poor and vulnerable communities through design, we’ve heard this story a lot. And after working with smallholders across the world, we just don’t believe that it’s true. 

Here’s why.

On a recent project in Zimbabwe, two of our designers met the Muteros. A married couple living in Mazowe, the pair works three acres where they grow tomatoes, potatoes, and raise a few cattle, goats, and chickens. The Muteros consider themselves “serious farmers,” those dedicated to steadily improving their craft, and the middle-aged couple does it in just about the same way that your favorite tech behemoth might optimize its efforts: they collect and interpret data.

For years, the Muteros did it the old-fashioned way, keeping studious notes in an old ledger about what they planted, when, how it fared, any news of the animals, and how they made their income. After years of this practice, the Muteros have dialed in their approach and put themselves on the path to a steady income. Recently, their daughter sent them a basic smartphone and they quickly realized that the Notes app could liberate them from the heavy book, suddenly making distant markets and far-off fields new sites for gathering more data.

What’s so inspiring about the Muteros’ approach, and the reason that it upends what we hear so often about smallholders, is that it shows not just a desire to innovate, but a clear capacity. And the pair is doing it with basic tools.

So the Muteros, and loads of other farmers we’ve met after years of working in agriculture, have us asking why, when the international aid community and social sector have devised so many farm products, business tools, and training methods aimed at improving the lot of smallholders, aren’t more of them thriving.

We think it could have to do with how smallholder farming is perceived. And not just by the aid community and social sector, but by farmers themselves.

After looking across our portfolio of agricultural design projects, and sitting down with industry leaders like Technoserve, we’ve come to the view that designing a more compelling vision of farmers’ futures might actually spur them to respond to innovation, to test new ideas, and to adopt new in-field techniques. Moreover, that same story could drive a shift in behavior from the organizations looking to help.

Illustration by Jess Zhang

We’re talking about redesigning the brand of smallholder farmers.

Imagine the power of a new narrative, one that lionizes people like the Muteros as creative problem solvers who are comfortable with risk, who adopt technologies like mobile phones and mobile money and use them to access networks of markets and suppliers. We’re talking about farmers who choose farming not as a profession of last resort, but a career that they develop and refine over a lifetime.

We’ve seen new narratives drive new opportunities before. The green collar jobs movement in the US has outlined a promising path for American manufacturing—one of innovation, social good, and redressing the harm industry has done to the environment. Rosie the Riveter was a potent symbol of women in the workplace during World War II, and today, Teach for America tells a story not of how recent college grads can gain work experience, but the future of American education itself.

What if the farm tools, business services, and advanced farming techniques that the social sector works so feverishly to devise came paired with a story of promise and opportunity? We propose a narrative starring smallholders across the world sharing their stories of innovation and success. It’s time to flip the smallholder script, reframing the efforts of billions of people not just for the social sector but for those who live it every day.

There is any number of stories you could tell to improve the lot of smallholders, and though we have a few ideas, what we’re certain of is that the current story just isn’t working. Imagine national campaigns targeted at creating pride in local farmers, the importance of farming to the economy, and innovation driving smallholder agriculture. The UN reports that in Africa some 200 million people are between the ages of 15 and 24. How might a new narrative around farming harness the energy and drive of that demographic?

Here are a couple ideas:

National Product, National Pride

Certain crops have outsized impact in the way we imagine a nation’s production. Think of cheese in France, coffee in Ethiopia, or acai berries in Brazil. Whether his vineyard is 10 acres or 10,000, every vintner in Napa Valley benefits from the perception that his region produces some of the world’s very best wine.

Imagine a rebranding of broken rice farming in West Africa. Not only could a newly desirable product help feed more West Africans, but it may it find its way onto European plates too. Could it become a brand unto itself, a crop that not only fuels a region, but breaks down national borders as a coveted export? And no one better represents the promise of broken rice than the farmers who grow it every day.

Off the Farm

Another story — one that we’ve seen work, but rarely heard told—focuses on a wider ecosystem of opportunity adjacent to the farm. Processing crops, working logistics, teaching new techniques, and providing access to markets all offer the chance for a bright future. By rebranding agriculture as a career with many paths, how might we encourage struggling farmers to make good by putting down their plows and getting to work in the industry at large?

In our project work at IDEO.org, we’ve seen smallholders innovate, take risks, and chase new opportunities. In Senegal we met a group of women who, with minimal investment, formed a juice-making cooperative, processing fruit that would otherwise spoil. Restless innovators, the women swiftly saw that they could make their materials stretch further by cutting and repackaging the straws that come with the juice that they sell.

With the right narrative, one supported by the lives and livelihoods of smallholders from across the globe, today’s farmers will see themselves differently and embrace the tools and technology needed for change. Buoyed by compelling stories and the energy and support of the aid community, is it too much to imagine a new generation of smallholders emerging? They’re younger and better networked; they’re at home with mobile money and access to market information thanks to new technologies; they’re creative and entrepreneurial, finding ways to mitigate the risks inherent to their trade.

Skilled-up, savvy, and optimistic, this new crop of smallholders will have every reason to bet on its future.


Illustration by Jess Zhang. This story originally appeared in reForm.

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