Around the world, nearly 450 million people earn most of their income by working on their family smallholding.

They are vital stewards of the environment, playing a crucial role in protecting and regenerating the land they know so well – and we all depend on them for food.

Yet smallholder farmers make up a large proportion of the world’s poorest people. Many live on less than $2 a day, and in places, smallholders are leaving the land to make a better living elsewhere.

They help feed the world. And they need our support.

The people who grow our food and ingredients are essential to our future. We need to make farming economically and environmentally sustainable, and we need to empower a new generation of farmers and smallholders.

That’s always been at the heart of our longstanding work with smallholder farmers, and it is a cornerstone of our new €1 billion Climate & Nature Fund, launched in June 2020. In the next decade, we'll invest in projects that restore landscapes, reduce carbon emissions or reforest and reinstate wildlife habitats.

Since 2015, this has also been the mission of the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF), a joint five-year initiative set up by Unilever, Oxfam and the Ford Foundation.

So as ELF comes to an end this year, we’re celebrating its successes – and taking the lessons we’ve learnt into our work to support the people who grow our food in the future.

In most of the world, the inclusion of farmers and smallholders in sustainable agricultural production is the single most important driver of change for halting deforestation, restoring forests and helping regenerate nature. They are the stewards of the land. We must empower and work with a new generation of farmers and smallholders in order to make a step change in regenerating nature.

Marc Engel, Unilever Chief Supply Chain Officer

Boosting resilience in an unpredictable world

Two women with large triangular hats and wicker picking baskets on their backs walk in a field of high green crops

Helping smallholder farmers build resilience has been at the heart of ELF projects

Extreme weather. Fluctuating prices. A pandemic.

Unpredictable events like these can hit smallholder farmers hard, especially if most of their income comes from growing a single crop.

ELF has supported programmes that build farmer’ resilience to shocks and fluctuations by helping them find additional sources of income, diversifying the crops they grow and sustainably increasing their yields. To qualify, all ELF projects had to minimise risk for the smallholders, empower women in the supply chain or improve conditions for workers, while also supporting our sustainable sourcing objectives.

Since ELF was launched in 2015, it has funded six project models, covering a range of crops in eight countries, and reached over 12,500 smallholder farmers growing our gherkins, tea, cocoa, ylang ylang, vetiver, coconut sugar, sugar cane and tomatoes.

Making a difference on the ground

So what did ELF projects look like in action?

Our first ELF project, working with gherkin growers in India, is a good example. In partnership with one of our supply partners, Marcatus QED, we supported a network of gherkin growers with farmer education, climate-smart agricultural practices, and family nutrition and hygiene guidance.

It used technology with recorded training materials to break down learning barriers for farmers who were less literate, meaning farmers could learn in their own time. And our evaluation showed a 24% increase in net income compared to a group of non-participants.

You can read more about completed ELF projects in the story carousel below.

Breaking down barriers for women farmers

Three women in bright saris smiling on sloping field of bright green plants.

51% of participants in ELF training and skills projects were women

A key element of ELF’s work was its strong gender lens. In sectors often traditionally dominated by men, 51% of participants in ELF projects were women, reflecting our wider commitment to enhancing women’s access to training and skills.

This commitment went to the heart of the way projects were designed – for instance, arranging timings so that women were free to attend training.

Better incomes and a brighter future

We wanted farmers’ incomes to rise – and while programmes like these are complex, we’re encouraged by the positive average impact on people’s income, from almost all the ELF-supported projects.

What’s more, all the programmes are continuing in some form, so we will continue to see more growers and farmers being empowered in our supply chain. And where ideas have worked well, we will scale them up. We’re doing this now in our cocoa supply chain, using the model we developed with 448 cocoa smallholders in Côte d’Ivoire. That partnership, with our supplier Barry Callebaut and implementing partner One Acre Fund, aimed to improve smallholders’ livelihoods by diversifying their household incomes and increasing their ability to invest, and included training and supervision with a particular focus on including women farmers.

Building on what we’ve learnt

A close-up of hands holding a trowel tending a row of green plants in a field

The lessons learnt through the ELF project will form the foundations for the next phase of our work with smallholder farmers

We know we have more to learn, and more to do, as we plan the next phase of our work with farmers to make their livelihoods, and our supply chain, more sustainable.

We’re carrying some key lessons from ELF into this future work.

One is the importance of closely involving the smallholders themselves in the design of the projects, so they always stay relevant. That helps build the trust that is a vital element of a successful project, and also helps make sure there are clear business drivers behind our work.

Another is the value of supporting growers with alternative crops – provided it is managed well – and making sure farmers are supported through access to finance and good training in sustainable agricultural practices.

And we’ll be sure to build on the success of our gender-empowerment model, so our supply chain keeps creating opportunities for women as it becomes more resilient, more prosperous and a stronger foundation for our business.

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