We need a much wider array of technologies

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Interview with Simon Winter

Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation, Simon Winter, emphasises the benefits of both public and private sector actors for agricultural growth and development, as well as the need to develop localised solutions.

Why is the private sector often viewed as having a critical role in boosting productivity and food security?

It is accepted now that if we are going to help smallholder farmers get out of poverty traps, market systems have a very important role to play. Within the market system we have different types of private sector actors who can provide assistance. We have the farmers themselves, who are of course part of the private sector, or can become part of it if they have the right tools, technologies and business models. We have the businesses that supply those farmers with the technologies and the inputs that they need to improve their yields. Then, we have bigger private sector organisations, such as downstream food processors, which supply consumers in urban areas.

We can mobilise more investment through bigger agribusinesses, whether they are input suppliers or downstream food manufacturers. The hard part is improving access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which work directly with smallholders, as well as financing the smallholders themselves – this is quite a complex task. So, there is also a role for financial institutions to provide the necessary financial support to farmers and SMEs to enable them to develop and grow.

Which technologies is the Syngenta Foundation investing in to promote the mechanisation of agricultural value chains?

One of the things that I liked about the recent Malabo Montpellier Panel report, Mechanized: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture Value Chains, is that it takes a very broad range of technologies and classes them all as mechanisation. Commonly, we think about tractors, but actually we need a much wider array of technologies. The technologies that the Syngenta Foundation is focusing on include tractors and harvesters, but also the tools and implements that sit behind them. Tools that do the planting and ploughing for instance, as well as associated technologies like laser levelling, which ensures that irrigated areas of land are flat enough to facilitate water flow.

In a joint project with CTA, we are using some of these technologies and focussing on rice production in the Senegal River Valley and the Niger River Valley in Mali. We are working with tractors and an array of planting and land management tools, but we are also supporting the supply chain for spare parts and building a network of trained maintenance experts.

How can engaging with stakeholders at the policy level help to provide smallholders with sustained access to mechanisation services?

Infrastructure, which is typically provided by the public sector, needs to be financed and well managed to support the transportation of large machines. We are working with CTA on introducing mechanisation in a set of rice irrigation schemes, so public sector backing, through public-private partnerships, is a very important part of our policy framework. There is also the need for digital infrastructure, ensuring that good quality cell phone and data networks are in place so that ICT-enabled services can work effectively.

Secondly, the public sector needs to provide incentives for the adoption of quality machines. For instance, subsidies for importing specific equipment can be put in place. We don’t want machines to be given away, but in China subsidies have stood at around 50-70% of the capital value of the equipment and mechanisation spread rapidly. Incentives behind ‘Uber-like’ hiring services are also needed. In the past, part of the challenge was that smallholders themselves could not afford to buy the machines. However, cooperatives have begun to purchase machines that can be shared between their member farmers, which is the model that we are working with in Mali and Senegal. Additionally, entrepreneurs are buying machines and providing hiring services to farmers. The right combination of smart-subsidies will encourage the growth of more hiring services.

Since you joined the Syngenta Foundation a year ago, which areas have seen the most progress and what remains to be done?

One of the things that I first observed when I came to the Foundation was that we were doing excellent work in relation to seeds, insurance and product delivery, but we weren’t necessarily bringing it all together and strengthening the local ecosystem. We want to further understand how we can adapt these technologies, tools and practices to a local context and combine the innovations for greater impact. We are strengthening the capacity of our country teams to better integrate solutions and pull together local partners for replication and scale-up.

We have also been doing a lot of work with young people, getting them to become agripreneurs who can provide inputs and training, as well as aggregation opportunities, to farmers. It is much easier for them to become agripreneurs if they have good technology platforms to work with so we have just launched a study with EY to look into this. In India, we have developed a rapidly growing network of agripreneurs, supported by a common digital platform, which allows the agripreneurs to offer tailored solutions to their communities. Currently, there are 600 agripreneurs serving 120,000 farmers. We have a vision to get to 100,000 agripreneurs in India by 2025, but we also want to bring this approach to Africa, because we are not seeing the necessary support at sufficient scale for local, adaptable business solutions or community-level agripreneurs who can be supported to become change agents in Africa.