Each location brings with it a new challenge or opportunity.
Because of this, almost all Rurality projects include one crucial component: personal, one-on-one coaching provided by our field agents and carried out on smallholders’ farms. What exactly is individual, on-farm coaching? And why is it important? Let Vail Miller, Rurality’s project manager in Ghana, explain how it works with palm oil farmers.
When the context calls for coaching
For most oil palm farmers in West Africa, their relationship with the company operating the processing mill is only transactional. A typical farm-mill relationship works like this. Farmers grow their palm trees and harvest their fruit. After the harvest, they might hire motorized tricycles or trucks to take the fruit to the mill, or sell the entire harvest to middlemen, who pay less but free the farmers of the hassle of coordinating transportation. This means that the farmers are generally paid on-the-spot by the middlemen, or they are paid in short order by the milling company.
For most farmers, this delivery-payment transaction is the extent of their interaction with the milling company. This one-dimensional relationship between farmers and mills has several disadvantages for both farmers and the milling company.
For farmers, the disadvantages include:
- Limited training: Often farmers have received insufficient training, or no training at all, in oil palm cultivation. Farmers might learn their knowledge from other farmers or by learning on the job. This means that they often don’t know about key practices that could help them produce more, while also saving both time and money.
- Limited resources: Palm oil is a labour hungry crop. In other words, it needs proper tools and equipment as well as fertilizers to grow. While large plantations buy these in bulk at discounted rates, individual farmers must pay the full market price, which is often beyond their means. Moreover, when deciding how to spend their limited resources, farmers often don’t have any guidance to help them prioritise and make the most of their investments.
- High Risk: Farmers that don’t have the support of an agronomist or an agricultural extension agent will not always have a reliable source to help them deal with urgent threats like pests and diseases. At the same time, without proper training from such professionals, the occupational risks from incorrectly handling chemicals, polluting water bodies, or mishandling cutting tools can be very serious.
For the mills, the disadvantages include:
- Poor quality: With no oversight of the farmers’ operations, it is possible that the mill receives poor quality fruit. Rotten or unripe fruit, as well as bulky excess fruit stalks, must be discarded at a loss to the company.
- Low yields: The difference between the productivity (or how much fruit volume is produced in a given area) on the plantation and on-farm is stark: in some cases plantations produce as much as 5 times more fruit per acre than small farmers. This is because plantations use the most updated practices and tools that farmers do not have knowledge of or access to.
- Side-selling: Without a strong relationship with the mill, farmers are likely to sell to other companies. If they lack farmer loyalty, companies run the risk of losing part of their supply base.
These are all serious challenges that we often encounter at the onset of Rurality projects in Ghana and elsewhere. One of the most effective ways that we have found of addressing them is by helping to bridge the gap between the company and the farmers by providing individual coaching.
How does individual coaching work?
Coaching begins by understanding the individual farm and farmer. At the outset of any project, we carry-out an in-depth analysis of the local context, by conducting interviews with farmers, known as the Rural Dynamic Diagnostic. At the end of this we get an overall view of the farmers we’ll be working with.
We’re currently carrying out individual coaching with over 140 farmers in Ghana. Through the RDD we learned the main challenges they face collectively and identified opportunities for improvement. This information helped us to design general programs, such as group training on specific topics like fertiliser use.
We’ve found that group trainings are excellent for introducing new topics, providing general information, and creating a platform for discussion. However, in terms of providing farmers with specific information that they can apply on their own farms, individual coaching proves much more effective.
Individual coaching visits generally entail one or more Rurality field staff meeting with the farmer and walking together to their farm. Once there, we observe the farm and assess it. Simply by walking around the farm, we can collect a lot of information, such as: the variety and age of the palm crops; their health and vitality, and the frequency and quality of key practices like pruning or weeding.
At the same time, we spend a lot of time speaking with the farmer and sometimes the labourers, if there are any, as this helps build trust. Through these conversations, we get a better understanding of important topics. We can come to understand the extent of farmers’ knowledge of different practices, what their aspirations are for the farm and the main challenges that they face, among other things.
With these observations, the field agents can then provide specific recommendations for the farmers, backed up by one-to-one training. This can cover a wide array of topics such as best practices, like pruning, or farm management. It’s all dependent on what we observe on each individual farm, and the farmer’s needs at that time.
What do Rurality farmers think of individual coaching?
“I am now doing circle weeding after receiving instruction from Rurality. This has been very helpful for collecting loose fruit, which I was unable to do before. I now know how to judge a buffer zone so that the chemicals do not go into the water bodies that pass close to the farms.” – Jacob Koomson, Adum Banso village
“I appreciate the training that I have received from Rurality over time. Now, my palm trees are under attack from beetles and I am looking forward to Rurality providing training on how to control these pests.” – Yaw Manso, Adum Banso village
“Based on Rurality’s instructions I have been able to make my farm more accessible for work by weeding and maintaining paths, this has made it easier to work on the farm compared to how it was previously kept.” – Margaret Baido, Dominase village