How to do better on smallholder agriculture: learning from a CARE workshop

by 24th Feb 2014
A school food programme in Lesotho A school food programme in Lesotho © CARE

Leaving aside outcomes and outputs, and M&E plans, and monitoring and analysis tools, and all that comprises a workshop, by far the most immediate, energising and perhaps memorable outcome is the opportunity to learn from colleagues in ways that advances your understanding of your bit of the world.

Groundbreaking workshop

This week, 40 of us from 25 CARE offices in Africa, Europe and North America met to articulate CARE’s approach to our work on smallholder agriculture in a changing climate, as a new CARE theme team, Acres. This brought together practitioners and advisors across agriculture, climate change and food security. This was a seminal moment in CARE – some of us had been waiting for 30 years for this workshop. But, before we start announcing our approach, our impact groups, our targets, this is just one story that grabbed me this week, listened to on a windswept walk along Lake Malawi, at the end of a particularly long day.

Lessons learned

Mountain Integrated Conservation Agriculture, Phase I, is a multi-country project, which works with youth in schools, to address issues of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), gender, environment, agriculture and climate change. CARE’s project is in Lesotho, where we implement a variety of activities integrated into the agriculture curriculum already existing in schools.

For the conservation agriculture component, it brings children and parents together at schools, where they can meet with community extension agents to improve crop production for sale, grow vegetables for students’ consumption and identify model farmers in what is a variant on the farmer field school. The schools grow carrots, beetroot, spinach, greens, beans, onions, apples and peaches. To complement the growing techniques, on the nutrition side, the government’s extensions services trained the schools, students and parents in how to preserve and prepare food. And alongside this, were links to local nurses, who spoke about mental and physical health and how nutrition affects well-being.

The DRR component targets adolescent girls in the community and trains the community in disaster awareness, disaster mapping and local risk analysis so that the community can identify hazards and ways to mitigate them. The focus is on reducing risks and hazards faced by adolescent girls, so for example they might identify sexual harassment as one type of hazard they face. Ways to mitigate this included training in self-defence and establishing a mechanism to report offences to local chiefs and the police anonymously.

While impacts so far are only observed, from a food and nutrition security perspective, here are three that sparked my attention: in the 14 primary and secondary schools where the project operates, the school gardens produce enough food to provide the students with fresh fruit and vegetables for all school meals; sales of surplus produce have enabled the schools to repair their roofs and windows, to purchase sports kit for the children and to give fruit and vegetables to orphans and vulnerable children; and the surrounding communities have adopted similar practices and the government is looking into replicating this approach. All of us who heard about it were equally impressed – whether from climate change, food security or agriculture backgrounds.


Capturing impact

But the project – which falls within both our conservation agriculture and climate change work – revealed a deep flaw in our thinking to date. This project was designed specifically because of dwindling land fertility which was similarly decreasing the ability of households to produce sufficient and nutritious food. Clearly there are intended nutrition and food security impacts from the interventions, as well as improved ways of working with the land. The outcomes so far suggest too that there may be positive nutritional impacts.

But we’re not measuring this. The project appears to have tangible positive results on food and nutrition security, and yet, we will be unable to talk about these impacts.

Why? Because this was articulated as a conservation agriculture project, not a food and nutrition security project and with this we blinded ourselves to the spectrum of impacts that we were likely to see. It highlights to me a problem that was increasingly exposed over the week: we have integrated climate change and DRR and agriculture – which come from similar schools of thought based in science and research but, until this workshop, we have not effectively considered food and nutrition security.


This is likely due to nothing more complex than the disciplines that the proposal writers and project managers have come from and how the donor has articulated the problem. Our silo thinking extends beyond the analysis and planning. It is embedded in what kind of changes those creating the log frame/results framework or M&E system want to see.

This workshop was all about integrating climate change, agriculture and food and nutrition security. It exposed how the same interventions can be measured for different ends but there is a need to capture these varying impacts across what are traditionally different sectors.

Eventually, Acres will work towards its own M&E framework, but that is some way into the future. In the meantime, it is encounters like this that will have to shift those of us working in the sector, even if it is just one practitioner at a time.

Larissa Pelham

Larissa was formerly CARE’s Food Security Advisor responsible for providing technical advice on any aspect of CARE’s work that involves food security. Her role involved advising country offices on their food security programming; coordinating knowledge and response in food security with other NGOs and the UN system; and guaranteeing that CARE and others learn from how CARE’s work with climate change, adaptation and resilience, governance and private sector engagement impacts on food security, in order to continually improve our work.

Her previous work has covered research, programming and advisory roles across a range of NGOs, UN, multilateral institutions and think tanks. She has specialised in how social protection, safety nets and disaster risk reduction contribute to food security and poverty reduction. Her work has covered Asia, Africa and Latin America, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, in particular.