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The 450 Million Farmer Opportunity: A Conversation with the Skoll Foundation Team

By Raymond Guthrie - Global Innovation Fund, By Eric Cooperström - NatureVest

Eric Cooperström and Raymond Guthrie are Principals on Skoll’s Investment team and deeply engaged in the Foundation’s work in smallholder agriculture.

Q: Why is the Skoll Foundation focusing on smallholder farming interventions now? How does this work contribute to large-scale change?

Raymond Guthrie: Food security, rural poverty, gender inclusion, and climate change—all of these issues intertwine with the well-being of smallholder farmers and have been elevated on the global agenda. We are compelled to act on the basis of the critical, timely nature of these problems; the opportunities to scale and sustain the impact of equilibrium-changing solutions; and the growing appetite of actors across sectors to step out of the business-as-usual mindset.

These solutions have to incorporate rural communities, with a keen understanding of how they can engage—long-term and on the right terms—in these increasingly complex value chains. Only then can positive outcomes across the global agenda be truly attained, scaled, and sustained.

And scaling a solution doesn’t mean “just add water” (or more money). Context matters. Oftentimes such change models must adapt to new geographic contexts, crop characteristics, market actors, and political landscapes. It demands an agile approach to building and partnering—underpinned by continuous R&D, risk-taking, and learning.

Q: Can you shed a bit more light on that approach? How do you mix investments, research, and learning?

Eric Cooperström: This cohort of smallholder farmers is a great example of our trying to put our monetary and non-monetary resources to work in flexible and thoughtful ways. As an investment approach, it goes beyond what we are best known for—grantmaking and the Skoll World Forum—although these have been crucial in providing social entrepreneurs with financial backing and channels to reach new audiences and supporters.

For example, we have selectively made Program-Related Investment (PRI) capital available to advance and complement objectives over extended periods of time, after the initial Award.

We have also actively engaged our social entrepreneurs as thought partners, encouraging them to consider broader, sector-wide implications of their work.

Skoll has served as a founding funder and Steering Committee member of the Initiative for Smallholder Finance—an industry facilitator and intelligence provider.

But let’s be clear—it is far too premature to declare victory even though we are starting to see indications of progress across multiple actors.

Q: What still needs to be done?

Raymond Guthrie: We need more transparency and collaboration among funders. Some funders focus on research, some on building and testing models, and some on other things. If we know more about how those pieces fit together and where pieces are missing, we can create a value chain where everyone knows where they fit in, and where more time, attention, and other resources need to be invested.

We could all benefit from more collaboration with large development agencies, which we hope would turn to social entrepreneurs for their expertise with solutions developed from the ground up rather than the top down. In particular, Western development agencies would benefit from accessing and leveraging social entrepreneurs’ knowledge to change the way they go about defining interventions, and work toward a bottom-up approach.

Q: What are the most promising new developments you expect to see in the near term?

Eric Cooperström: Looking forward, we see broader forces at play. For example, we have seen progress in multi-national corporate sustainability commitments, great excitement around the measurement and pursuit of social progress as a complement to economic prosperity, advancement of African government capital commitments to agriculture, and potential for the Paris Council of Parties meeting later this year to generate pressure to address deforestation in key agricultural zones.

Digital technology—mobile phones, financial platforms, cloud-based services, etc.—is increasingly delivering timely, relevant information and capital to farmers and other value chain actors.

These forces could lead to a renewed surge in pre-competitive collaboration to advance commitments that cannot be achieved by institutions acting on their own. Public good platforms that translate, broker, facilitate, and host data, knowledge, and network collaborations in a trusted and neutral way, will be key to advancing these goals.

We see a unique opportunity for philanthropic capital—active and new sources—to support research and development, technical assistance, capacity development, and partnerships essential to these new models. Based on these building blocks, we also see huge potential for additional public and private capital to come into the sector.

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