Vulnerability Assessments: Working with Smallholder Coffee Producers

By Jessica Frank, Twin

Twin works in partnership with over 50 farmer organisations world wide, facilitating market access and helping to build business and organisational capacity. We are currently developing our strategy to support smallholder producer organisations to effectively plan adaptation interventions with their members; an initial project with Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative Enterprises in Uganda is already underway.

Gumutindo: Climate Change is Here Now.

Members of Gumutindo Cooperative live in the upland valleys of Mount Elgon, where they produce high quality organic and Fairtrade certified coffee. Climate change presents a serious threat to smallholder coffee farmers since coffee trees are highly vulnerable to changes in their environment and only thrive within a narrow temperature range and under the right rainfall conditions. In Uganda, coffee farmers are extremely worried about the future since they are already suffering from increased climate variability including longer drought periods and heavier rainfall leading to poor quality cherry, low yields and severe erosion. In March 2010 following extremely heavy rains, a devastating landslide killed over 300 people that live and farm on Mount Elgon. This season farmers suffered from an unusually long drought season and extremely late rains, threatening food security.

Having carried out background research to understand the sensitivity of the crop and the specific geographical location, we started to work more closely with one of Gumutindo cooperative’s 11 primary societies. Together with local field staff and coffee quality officers we conducted transect walks and interviews with farmers in order to provide a detailed background of the local context. Over a period of 3 days, we visited 12 farms in the Bududa District with the main objectives being to:

•       Identify and understand links between topography, vegetation, cultivation and other human activities

•       Identify major areas of risk due to environmental degradation, climate change, and natural resource pressures

•       Ascertain the extent of local climate change observation and understand local perceptions of environmental risks

•       Learn about local farming practices and processing techniques

Following this field work, a 3-day workshop was convened to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change and identify major livelihood threats facing Gumutindo’s members. This vulnerability assessment employed a number of participatory tools and took an approach which many development NGOs might use for community-based adaptation (CBA) initiatives. This included using cause and effect chains to identify key environmental risks facing the community and how these could be exacerbated with the onset of climate change. The following issues were identified as posing the greatest risk to farmers’ livelihood: soil erosion and landslides, loss of soil fertility, drying up of springs and rivers, proliferation of pests and diseases, and decreasing coffee quality.

Having identified these issues, farmers then worked on developing adaptation options to combat these specific challenges. By first discussing strategies currently employed either on their own farms or by neighbours, and then examining those factors which limit people’s ability to employ these techniques (e.g. insufficient training, lack of disposable income or access to credit to purchase tools and other materials, poor availability of inputs and equipment, limited labour etc.), the participants arrived at a number of project ideas. Further expertise and support were fed into the process by the participation of field extension staff, quality officers and Gumutindo staff.

The 2 projects which were prioritised by the group above all the others were a cow share venture, to combat soil erosion and loss of fertility through provision of organic manure from cows, and a tree nursery and training scheme, to enhance soil stability and reduce the risk of landslides through reforestation and increase coffee quality by increasing shade.

Since a reforestation project (funded by a separate project) was already beginning in the area, the farmers decided that they would start by implementing the cow-share venture. Because Gumutindo farmers are certified organic and cannot use chemical fertilisers, access to manure is critical to maintaining the health of their crops which in turn makes them less susceptible to extreme weather and pest/disease attacks. Furthermore, ownership of cows also offers rural families an opportunity to diversify income sources and improve family health from milk. A local NGO, <a href="">Send-a-cow Uganda</a> is delivering this project, providing the necessary training and expertise, with financial support from Twin and Gumutindo.

Good, but good enough? 

•       The climate change workshops have increased awareness about the causes and impacts of climate change amongst one of the cooperative’s societies

•       The community in which we worked has an action plan of key activities to implement

•       Farmers from the society involved are receiving training in organic agriculture, animal husbandry and social development from Send-a-cow, in preparation for receiving livestock

While these are all valuable outcomes and reflect a well-designed CBA project, what are the broader impacts for the 6,000 members of Gumutindo? Although CBA offers a successful model for supporting communities to cope with climate change, most projects to date, including this one, have focused on a small number of beneficiaries and have been developed with significant external resource; an unsustainable approach given the sheer numbers of rural poor that will be severely impacted by climate change. Although Twin’s adaptation journey, and the process in Gumutindo, began with a highly participatory and resource intensive methodology, targeting adaptation interventions through farmer organisations and cooperatives offers an opportunity to enable adaptation more efficiently and at a much greater scale than this. Smallholder farmer organisations have memberships of up to several thousand people, often organised into smaller societies of community-based groups, affording an opportunity to channel cost-effective adaptation funding to a significant number of rural poor people while maintaining a focus on localised priorities.

An innovative 3-pronged approach

This presents Twin with an opportunity (and a challenge!) to develop a different methodology which remains participatory in its nature, and prioritises the needs of individual households and communities, but also leverages the social capital, infrastructure and technical expertise of the farmer organisation to reach many thousands of smallholders – albeit with a lighter touch. To work at scale, Twin intends to address the adaptation planning process at three levels to support farmer organisations to develop a well-informed and holistic strategy. These are:

•       Participatory vulnerability assessments with representative farmers from different societies

•       Expert agronomic landscape diagnostics

•       Business-level climate risk and vulnerability analyses

The landscape ‘diagnostic’ will involve assessing existing environmental degradation (e.g. deforestation or degradation of river banks) and examine how the broader geographical area being cultivated by the cooperative’s members may be impacted by climate change – taking into account larger-scale challenges such as risk of landslides and water availability. These ‘landscape’ hazards cannot necessarily be identified and adequately addressed at a community level but are central to designing an appropriate adaptation response nonetheless.

While lack of supply of good quality coffee owing to poor harvests is clearly the primary climate related risk to the cooperative’s operations, there may be other climate impacts at the business level which also need to be addressed.  The business risk analysis will look at how climate change may directly (and indirectly) impact the business e.g. through availability of resources or disruption to transportation. It will also help the cooperative to examine how climate risks relate to other business challenges, such as market volatility, to ensure that adaptation is adequately and proportionally addressed. By involving staff and members at all levels of the organisation, this approach will enable us to build a clear picture of the climate-related vulnerability faced by farmers and their cooperative, and to how best prioritise adaptation interventions.

Sustaining adaptation at scale

Working to deliver adaptation through networks of farming cooperatives offers a host of advantages including the technical agronomic skills that already exist within the organisation and the social networks and organised community infrastructure such as societies, village associations and women’s groups through which knowledge and information can be disseminated. Moreover, as a commercial enterprise, cooperatives have some of their own funds and where real priorities and needs are identified, can support smallholders without external support.

Partnerships are also an integral part of ensuring that adaptation is ongoing and sustainable. Collaboration between farming cooperatives, NGOs, local government and the private sector will be critical to source the necessary expertise, funding and political buy-in necessary for wide-reaching adaptation that moves beyond small-scale community-focused projects. Twin also aims to use the market links of producer organisations, to try and secure funding from within their own supply chains, for adaptation activities (for example through PES – payment for ecosystem services – mechanisms). Considerable funding is needed to support farmers to adapt to climate change, and the private sector has a responsibility to play a role in this.

As Twin builds on its work with more cooperatives, producing different commodities, we hope to take this methodology to scale to support adaptation for thousands of smallholders. The challenge is enormous, but we’ll keep you updated!

Jessica Frank works for Twin, a UK-based NGO which works with smallholder farming cooperatives across the developing world, seeking to positively redress unequal relations through fairer trade and build better lives for the poorest and most marginalised in the trading chain. Jessica is Twin’s Climate Change Project Officer and her main focus is working with partner organisations to support them to pro-actively adapt to future climate challenges. She holds an MSc in Environmental Science from Imperial College London and a BSc in Physics from the University of Bristol.