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Support for smallholders in Nepal – are community business facilitators the answer?
CBFs are local citizens living in farming communities who are capacitated and trained to provide agricultural services to smallholder farmers locally, within their communities. In addition, some of the CBFs were trained as plant doctors (CBF-PDs) through CABI’s Plantwise programme to provide improved and quality crop health diagnostic services to farmers.
Thus, both CBFs and CBF-PDs primarily offer agriculture services as input supply (linking farmers with agrovets) as well as producing and selling planting material (seed/seedling). These services help to connect farmers in remote areas to markets, guarantee them the provision of agricultural inputs and provide agronomic advice. So CBFs/CBF-PDs bridge last-mile input supply chains and fill a critical gap in extension services that is missing or weak, especially for isolated and hard to reach communities in Nepal, while concurrently supplementing their own income and livelihoods. Additionally the CBF-PDs provide farmers with advice on integrated pest management (IPM) as well as good agriculture practices, and they demonstrate to farmers the usage and application techniques of micronutrients and bio-pesticides.
The smallholders themselves do not have to pay anything for the services. Rather, the CBFs/CBF-PDs receive a commission of seven to twelve per cent for the products they sell to the smallholders from the agrovets. This establishes commercial motivation for the CBFs/CBF-PDs to understand the needs of the smallholder and respond effectively to them. And this also encourages them to focus their efforts to helping farmers to produce high value agricultural products that meet market demand. With their advisory activities, CBFs/CBF-PDs provide information to farmers and give them insights on various options for overcoming their challenges. Farmers themselves must then decide on which option to take. CBFs/CBF-PDs can use the role to introduce new technologies, practices, and products to farming communities, thus contributing to improving their clients’ livelihoods and reducing poverty.
Long-term success depends on the ability of the CBFs/CBF-PD to build a consistent client base in their local area. Findings show that most of the surveyed CBFs and CBF-PDs (63.3 per cent and 72.8 per cent) typically provide services to farmers in their own ward, or ‘tole’, as it is called in Nepal. Linkages with a growing private sector and the agricultural input supply industry ensure that CBFs/CBF-PDs can consistently supply their client base with required inputs and products.
Since 2010, in Nepal, a total of 771 individuals have been trained as CBFs. As a precondition for the training, all CBFs/CBF-PDs have prior experience in agriculture, must reside in the community in which they will operate and must hold a Nepal School Examination Education (SEE) certificate (which is equivalent to grade 10). This ensures that the approach makes use of local knowledge and relationships with CBFs/CBF-PDs able to bridge the gap between agricultural service providers and smallholder farmers. Furthermore, because they live and work close to potential clients, they reduce the cost of doing business with smallholder farmers, and are able to develop stable, long-term and trusting relationships with them. The school certificate is to guarantee that the trainees have at least some educational qualifications to undertake trainings and effectively provide services thereafter.
After their training, CBFs and CBF-PDs provided a wide variety of agricultural services to an average of 144 and 163 farmers respectively in their local area, although the numbers varied depending on the district – with fewer farmers reached in the hilly district of Kaski compared to other areas.
Business earnings per month, during the cropping season were, on average, USD 120.5 (NPR. 15,897) for CBFs and USD 125.5 (NPR. 16,552) for CBF-PDs. This income was derived from various sources, including the sale of seedlings, inputs, extension services, market linkages and other activities. For both CBFs and CBF-PDs, the highest sources of income were sales of seedlings and inputs. Average income tended to be higher for those aged 40 to 50 years as compared to those less than 40 years of age, for those trained as plant doctors and for male CBFs/CBF-PDs as compared to female individuals. In terms of sustainability, 42.98 per cent of the CBFs and 75.76 per cent of CBF-PDs were still active at the time of the study (i.e. self-generating income from provision of their services).
CBFs and CBF-PDs whose sole income source was from the commission generated by agro-input sales were less satisfied with incomes they earned than those who would have multiple ways to generate income (i.e. sale of agro-inputs and advisory services) – and these were mostly those trained as plant doctors.
The survey found that most respondents, including 85.1 per cent of CBFs and 81.8 per cent of CBF-PDs, did not believe that their gender played a role in how they were perceived by the community. In focus group discussions, farmers highlighted that the effectiveness of service delivery was not determined by the gender of the CBF/CBF-PD, but rather by the quality of service, problem-solving ability and willingness to provide assistance when required. There was a preference for CBFs/CBF-PDs from the local vicinity as it was easier to interact with them compared to those from distant locations. However, despite this, in the Terai region, women CBFs or CBF-PDs often discontinued their services because in the more traditional Hindu communities, women’s roles tend to be more limited to domestic duties and subsistence farming.
Competition influences sustainability
Survey results show that 36.8 per cent of the CBFs and 36.4 per cent of the CBF-PDs perceived local agrovets as their rivals. This was mainly in the Terai, with farmers directly linking with the agrovets in their vicinity. In hilly areas however this was not the case, with agrovets and CBFs/CBF-PDs working in a complementary way to meet farmer needs. In this regard, agrovets in Kaski and Dadeldhura even shared that they were keen on hosting more CBFs and CBF-PDs in the future, as they brought business from hard-to-reach areas.
Challenges and areas for improvement
The approach is not without its sustainability challenges, with many CBFs/CBF-PDs only able to generate a satisfactory level of income during the cropping season. In addition, a few of the CBFs/CBF-PDs had ‘successfully’ exited the initiative and found gainful employment using the skills they had gained in the programme. CBFs and CBF-PDs in hilly, remote areas of the country – which are further from agrovets and other services – were more likely to remain active after their training and to have high demand for their services, thus being able to generate regular earnings throughout the year. Other operational challenges that were cited include struggles by younger CBFs and females in convincing the community of their ability to deliver high quality services; with resistance mainly from older (more experienced) farmers.
The CBF approach in Nepal has been demonstrated to result in the establishment of income generating opportunities for rural people who may ordinarily be under- or unemployed. This is the case while gap filling for weak extension services, especially in hilly, hard to reach areas. For sustainability, promoters need to ensure a healthy pipeline of entrants, as CBFs may ‘exit’ into gainful employment using skills gained in the programme. There is also need to ensure that training packages are able to deliver multiple skills, thus allowing CBFs to generate income from multiple sources, throughout the year. Equipping CBFs with additional skills, such as plant doctor training, is one way to ensure sustainability. Finally, to sustain the effective engagement of women as CBFs, more research is needed to determine the best business model for engaging women while they concurrently fulfil their domestic/household roles. Last-mile service provision, such as the CBF approach in Nepal, definitely has potential to gap-fill for agricultural extension services, to contribute to the establishment of entrepreneurial activities and, in some cases, generate opportunities for gainful employment.
Rakesh Kothari is the Monitoring and Evaluation Lead for International Development Enterprise (iDE). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kritika Khanna is a Business Development and Communications Officer based in the CABI India Centre. Contact: email@example.com
Dannie Romney is the Senior Global Director, Development Communication and Extension based in the CABI Africa Centre, Nairobi, Kenya. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pooja Koirala is the Founder/Director of Progress Inc. Contact: email@example.com
With contributions from Mariam Kadzamira, Senior Researcher – Agribusiness, CABI UK Centre and Vinod Pandit, Programme Leader, Development Communications and Extension, CABI India Centre. Contact: M.Kadzamira@cabi.org