Cultivating change for climate-resilient farming

Kristina Mastroianni

Kristina Mastroianni

Agriculture Sector Lead

In this Insight piece, NIRAS Agriculture Sector Lead Kristina Mastroanni delves into the intricacies of behavioural change in the realm of climate-smart agriculture. From challenging traditional norms to fostering climate-smart innovations, learn how systematic approaches in agriculture development are sowing the seeds for a sustainable future.

November 29, 2023

It is not easy to change people’s behaviour, even when it is in their best interest. Human beings generally have an inherent aversion to changing from the familiar to something new. ‘Better the devil you know’, the saying goes, even if you and your family aren’t currently getting what you need.

Resistance to change is particularly a barrier in the fight against climate change, which often necessitates shifts in individual and collective behaviour. Altering lifestyles or consumption patterns is one thing, but our perceptions around convenience and lack of understanding of the urgency for change can also impede the success of sustainable practices even when they are clearly the most advanced solution and even make economic sense.

We face many challenges when promoting climate-resilient solutions in our agriculture sector programmes, irrespective of the country or value chains NIRAS projects are supporting. I have learned from experience that it is not the new climate-smart technique itself that spurs a farmer to apply it but rather other factors that makes her change her behaviour or adopt a new technology. More often than not, the farmer’s decision is based on the social situation, traditional values or competing priorities for labour resources rather than pure economic, production or market opportunities. Consequently all of these must be taken into account when promoting climate-smart solutions.

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MASAP stakeholder meeting in Chipata, Zambia

Systematic approaches

As NIRAS Agriculture Sector Lead, I am involved in two Market Systems Development (MSD) programmes where stimulating behavioural change for adoption of climate-resilient solutions is central: the UK FCDO-funded Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusinesses (CASA) programme and the Swiss SDC-funded Markets and Seeds Access Project (MASAP). Both apply systemic approaches to ensure adoption of climate-smart technologies and techniques.

CASA was initially focused on stimulating investments into smallholder agriculture systems but, due to changes in UK policies and direction, we needed to pivot and deepen our approach to promote climate resilience within our interventions. We refined our Climate Change and Environment (CCE) strategy and CCE assessment toolkit and conducted audits of our previously implemented interventions to assess where we had addressed climate resilience, but this time from an investment perspective.

MASAP has been designed to stimulate smallholders in drought-prone areas to move away from maize and cotton production to more climate-resilient crops such as sorghum, millet, cowpea and groundnuts. The farmers feel climate change acutely but lack markets, quality inputs and knowledge on how to convert these traditionally subsistence crops into an income-generating activity.

Both programmes apply similar approaches to stimulate local private sector actors to source more from the smallholder communities in their region. We support these private actors in building up and maintaining a reliable supply chain through aggregation and capacity building of smallholder farmers who we connect - through contracts - with processors and agribusinesses. By demonstrating climate-resilient solutions and enabling the smallholders to access these through co-financing grants, we help them improve their quality, reduce pre- and post-harvest losses, and provide them with a secure off-take market to generate higher income. Income is the key driver for all market actors but if climate-smart approaches can be built into the system and longer-term investments can be stimulated at all levels, this can have a very positive effect on their adoption rate.

What is Market Systems Development?

MSD is a holistic approach that aims to improve the overall functioning and efficiency of agricultural markets, fostering sustainable and inclusive growth by addressing systemic constraints and promoting market-driven solutions.

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According to CASA a central bank mandate in Nepal requires financial institutions to invest 15% in the agri-food sector. But most funds are invested in processing rather than directly in production.

What does climate-smart innovation look like in farming?

Climate-smart agriculture is not only about technical innovations. There are many contributing factors to building climate resilience such as resilient incomes, reduced waste, and good agriculture practices to get higher production of better quality product per hectare – these basic resilience contributors are often not really appreciated when a climate target is created and too much focus is given to climate-smart innovations. Of course these are also good contributors, but the basics are essential and getting these ingredients right is what can really drive behaviour change among smallholders, translating into more sustainable agriculture practices and resilient livelihoods.

We are often requested to report on how new innovations are being successfully adopted by smallholder farmers, but what actually is an innovation to the farmer? In MASAP, we are aiming to establish markets for farmers to get back into the crops that were traditionally grown in these areas and for good reason. Is that innovation? Well the crop isn’t, but the market system we are supporting to build around these certainly is – as the pull effects from this enables farmers to re-inject these traditional crops into their crop rotations. The simpler technical solution is often the easiest to adopt, particularly when it can be combined with a market that can be sustained beyond the project.

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Rome wasn’t built in a day - change involves patience

Time is another important aspect in behaviour change. Building resilient markets and proving, through demonstration, that climate-smart solutions will bring the smallholder an improved livelihood requires repetition. In agriculture, we only get one chance per season, so once or maybe twice per year, we can prove to the farmer that an innovation works so that she can adopt it. Basic agronomic facts such as this are often overlooked in programme design. I’ve heard it stated many times that donors’ programming cycles are too short, but that’s not true for all. SDC has 12-year programming cycles, with 3 x 4-year contracts. I strongly encourage other donors to look closely at how SDC successfully work with longer project planning cycles, particularly in agriculture where nature runs according to its own timetable which, of course, we cannot change.

Changing our own perspective

In behavioural change at the farmer level, it is important to understand all the factors that need to be considered when making an important decision on the farm. Most smallholder farmers we work with are women so I’ve made a conscious choice always to use the female pronoun when talking about smallholder farmers in general. This places our thoughts and understanding of her situation with her responsibilities for the household and children in a different place and can help us design interventions more relevant to her situation. I’d like to urge all of us working in agriculture development to change the narrative and start referring to the smallholder farmer as “her” – it really could bring about some systemic changes and would definitely be a behavioural change in the practitioner community!

Kristina Mastroianni

Kristina Mastroianni

Agriculture Sector Lead

Stockholm, Sweden

+46 8 545 533 32