Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers

by Ertharin Cousin | | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 27 October 2014 13:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

WFP's Purchase for Progress initiative supports smallholders to increase yields of high-quality crops

In eastern Rwanda’s Bibare village, Generoza Mukamazimpaka rises early to work on her family farm in the fresh morning dew. After six hours of hard manual labour in the fields, she collects firewood and water, and carries it back home. Then it is time to begin the long process of preparing dinner.

Generoza doesn’t get weekends off – she must work without rest to squeeze a living for her family out of her small plot of land in eastern Rwanda. She is not alone. This is the daily routine for most smallholder farmers, especially women.

Family farmers working small plots of land produce most of the developing world’s food, but they make up the majority of people living in poverty. Due to the many difficulties they face, most profit very little from their hard labour. Many lack the equipment and knowledge they need to produce quality crops for sale.

They also lose much of what they grow to mould and rot during harvest and storage. Poor road networks and transport services mean they are unable to bring the remaining crops to markets for sale. As a result, many farmers sell for low prices directly at the farm gate. The low prices they are paid mean they rarely have enough income to last until the next harvest.


Family farmers are key to addressing many of today’s social, economic and environmental challenges. However, they need our help to overcome the barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their potential.

To support farmers like Generoza, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) launched the Purchase for Progress (P4P) pilot initiative. Through P4P, over the past five years, smallholders have been supported to increase their yields of high quality crops and to take part in group sales to WFP and other markets. Thanks to this practical experience, they are now selling their crops to other buyers such as hospitals, food processing companies and supermarkets. Today, these smallholder farmers are better equipped to feed themselves and their communities.

We also fully recognize the critical role of women, who make up the majority of smallholder farmers worldwide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if women in rural areas had the same access to productive resources as men, the number of hungry people would be reduced by 100-150 million. Today, Generoza still works hard, but she is profiting from her work. Through her involvement in P4P, her new skills allow her to earn enough to support her family. Now, she can ensure that her children attend school, and that her family receives medical care. She has even used some of her profits to buy a stove, which reduces the time she must spend preparing food.

Through P4P, in just five years, we have supported over one million farmers in 20 countries. This is just the beginning. As we move away from traditional food assistance, how and where WFP buys its food is becoming more important. We know that sourcing commodities from developing countries and particularly from smallholder farmers’ organizations is crucial to bringing the greatest benefit to local economies, allowing community markets to flourish.

By purchasing more food in ways that benefit smallholder farmers, we ensure that our work has lasting impact. In many countries, through WFP procurement programs smallholder farmers sell their food for use in school meals. Community members perform a leading role in these projects, by appropriately tailoring them to their own needs.

For example, in Malawi WFP partners with committees composed of community members, parents, teachers and pupils to provide more nutritious school meals by purchasing a variety of fresh foods directly from local farmers. As a result, today farmers who were once dependent upon food assistance from WFP are self-sufficient business people.


As a UN agency contributing to the fight for a world free of hunger, we must provide small family farmers with the attention they need and deserve. We must not only make the requisite agriculture value chain improvements. All farmers, particularly small farmers, must maintain access to identifiable and reliable markets. Today WFP purchases over one billion dollars in commodities.

As a next phase in the evolution of Purchase for Progress, WFP has committed to purchasing 10% of all our commodities from small holders. Through these purchases, we will assist those facing acute hunger and requiring food aid, while simultaneously creating economic opportunities for small and too often poor family farmers to feed their own children.

In the years to come, WFP will continue developing, implementing and advocating for agriculture value chain improvements, including purchasing policies and practices. These are the building blocks that will best benefit smallholder farmers and create a zero hunger world.

Ertharin Cousin is executive director of the UN World Food Programme

As the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund are co-hosting an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This will highlight how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read more: 

How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR

The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP

Progressing crop research to impact at scale -  Marco Ferroni, Syngenta For Sustainable Agriculture

The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID

Delivering on Norman Borlaug’s call to action - Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund

Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food secure world  - Tony Hall,  Alliance to End Hunger

New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO 

Tending the future - Pamela Anderson, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University

Africa will feed 9 billion by 2050 - Pedro A. Sanchez, Earth Institute, Columbia University