Small-scale farmers in many ACP countries have inadequate access to markets. Their lack of access to information and market data leads to inefficiencies, both on the farm and in the marketplace. The result is large differences in what is produced and what is demanded by consumers. This, in turn, results in shortages or surpluses of produce on the market, creating instability in the prices of agricultural goods and consequently farmers’ incomes.
Farmers need to know what the market demands in order to determine what, when and how much to produce. They need access to information about prices, trends in the market, and quality standards in order to capitalise on market opportunities, increase incomes and enhance food security. It is imperative that we integrate the production of agricultural commodities with marketing if the farming community is to get the best from its efforts, achieve the maximum use of scarce resources, and realise sustainable livelihoods.
Our experience at the Caribbean Farmers’ Network (CaFAN) shows that farmers in the region benefit greatly from working in ‘clusters’. Clusters are organised either geographically, where the group of farmers live close to each other, or thematically, where they share an interest. The farmers set up and maintain their own clusters, and they involve other individuals, businesses and organisations that are involved in the market chain.
Through clustering, farmers can cooperate and share technical skills and experiences. They take advantage of, and plan for, new market demands, and develop greater bargaining and lobbying power.
CaFAN’s network comprises 30 member organisations that, in turn, represent over 500,000 farmers in 12 countries. Due to this geographical separation, we rely heavily on Skype (a voice internet application), e-mail, and our website to build and maintain relationships with members, and execute our projects. We use e-mail and our website extensively to post information on upcoming events, best practices, and news. As many farmers in the Caribbean region have access to cell phones, we also use text messages as one of the primary ways to communicate directly with farmers. We will soon expand this service to include production information, which will further improve farmers’ access to markets.
We are currently working on an agricultural production and marketing information system (APMIS). This will consist of two databases: a production information system and a marketing information system, which will be linked to each other to allow the collection, analysis, and dissemination of relevant and timely market information. The system will be kept current though the submission of data to CaFAN via text messages or e-mails from farmers and marketing representatives.
Among other things, the system will store data related to: individual farmers; farm locations; type of crop produced, quantity and date planted; marketing clients and; the crop quantity, and expected price. This system, which gathers information from a wide group of farmers and markets spread across a large geographical area, can smooth fluctuations in agricultural produce prices, and link production and marketing information to enable farmers to capitalise on market opportunities.
An APMIS enables farmers to capture more value through the production and sale of their goods, thereby improving access to markets for farmers, and closing that gap between production and demand. A production planning system also allows farmers’ organisations to obtain data on aggregate supply and demand, which can inform strategic decisions, particularly in the event of a surplus or shortfall of fresh produce. The system can show where appropriate action can be taken to mitigate the negative impacts of disparities between supply and demand.
CaFAN and its members – farmers’ associations and cooperatives – help to develop agriculture by building the skills of farmers and strengthening farmers’ organisations. Fostering connections, sharing information, and training among farmers puts them in a better position to respond to the challenges facing the agricultural sector, particularly when marketing produce to domestic, regional, tourist and agro-processing markets.
We have seen that collective action in these areas results in better access to resources such as agricultural inputs, credit, transport, and information. It can also reduce financial risks and help in certification processes overseen by external agencies promoting goods to specialised markets, such as fair-trade or organic.
Cooperatives and similar organisations can do a lot to improve food and nutrition security, foreign exchange earnings, and foreign savings. The pooling of resources and the collective marketing of products reduces the high transaction costs that many farmers incur when acting alone. When operating as a group, farmers are able to make the marketing process more efficient and save money that would otherwise be lost along the market chain.