Swisscontact's FarmNetX Helps Uncover How Dominant Farmers May Influence Agricultural Progress and Sustainability

Sustainable agriculture
A new study by the University of Sydney and Stockholm University conducted with Swisscontact reveals that centralised social networks among cocoa-farming villages may hinder the adoption of innovative agricultural practices.

Recent research published in People and Nature, a collaborative effort by the University of Sydney and Stockholm University, and conducted with Swisscontact, has brought to light intriguing dynamics within rural farming communities on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Indonesian cocoa farmers having a discussion about their recent harvest. 

This study, focusing on cocoa-producing villages, suggests that when a few individuals hold most of the sway in social systems, it could inadvertently stifle the introduction of new ideas and sustainable practices in agriculture. “When combined with power hierarchies in which those who are less central are not listened to, it can crowd out innovative voices, sometimes swaying entire communities one way or another. In the case of fertilisers, this is a problem because too much can threaten the environment and too little can impact food security,” explains Associate Professor Petr Matous from the University of Sydney’s School of Project Management.

Understanding “hub and spoke” social structures

Matous and his co-author, University of Stockholm’s Professor Örjan Bodin, call these “hub and spoke” networks. They occur when one or two individuals become superfluously influential, usually due to being dubbed as lead farmers in sustainable agriculture projects, influencing a general trend that most other farmers would follow their approaches. Such setting, according to the researchers, brings a potential impediment for innovation, because of the lack of variety of roles being explored by the farmers to approach problems from various perspectives.

Figure 1: Comparison of how cocoa farmers in centralized (left) and decentralized (right) information-sharing networks use fertilizers in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

“If you've ever watched a group of kindergartners play soccer, you'll know that they run after one child who has the ball at the same time. It's a bit like that – you really need to foster innovation. People need to play a variety of roles and approach a problem from different angles,” Matous said.

Redefining leadership in sustainable agriculture

However, the study reveals that influential individuals face limitations in effectively advocating for specific practices. This suggests that initiatives focusing solely on well-connected “lead farmers” may have adverse consequences, resulting in a low adoption of desired practices. This is a particularly critical finding, because for the sample in the study, the practice is the absence of fertiliser use entirely.

"As we advocate for a nuanced approach to sustainable farming initiatives, we caution against programmes that elevate a select group of farmers based merely on the fact that these farmers have been the conduit for outside interventions in the past. This can simply reinforce traditionalists and therefore, the status quo."
Ross Jaax, Swisscontact’s Southeast Asia Director for Sustainable Agriculture

Furthermore, Professor Bodin adds, “While these individuals may hold sway in the short term, our findings suggest that top-down interventions risk undermining the social fabric of communities, potentially hindering adaptive capacities in the face of evolving agricultural and environmental challenges.”

The decentralisation of cocoa farmer networks can help fostering innovation by ensuring that no voice is left behind.

The implications of these findings extend beyond agriculture and may have relevance in other leadership contexts. Rather than focusing on a singular strong leader, the emphasis should be on understanding socially distributed forms of leadership, where decisions and influence are shared broadly. This approach seeks more effective ways of involving communities in projects and programmes.

Therefore, implementing sustainable agriculture programmes by championing a small number of established farmers above others should be done cautiously, as it might skew community structures. Not only may these individuals not effectively support intended goals, but the programmes can also contribute to a more centralised social fabric, which may be less conducive to the necessary community adaptation in the future.

FarmNetX reveals social networks that foster innovation

These findings resonate with Swisscontact. Its tool, Farmer Network Analytics or FarmNetX, reveals the social structures that may facilitate or impede farmers to more widely innovations. The FarmNetX tool assists companies or donor programs to better target and develop farmer networks that foster innovation. It was initiated during the implementation of the Sustainable Cocoa Production Programme (SCPP) in Indonesia, which concluded in 2020, and is now a promising tool for Swisscontact's sustainable agriculture initiatives.

Sustainable agriculture, Trade
Sustainable Cocoa Production Programme
Over the course of ten years, the Sustainable Cocoa Production Program (SCPP) has grown into an initiative reaching 165,000 farmers and engaging the entire cocoa industry in Indonesia. The legacy of SCPP spans a spectrum of areas, such as productivity increase, poverty reduction and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions-at a time of significant upheaval in the cocoa sector in Indonesia.