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Giving Nicaragua's sorghum farmers a boost

By Tom Connor May 05, 2016

Benefitting from a unique partnership between a global food and agriculture company and a nonprofit enterprise that employs business solutions to fight poverty, some 400 sorghum farmers in Nicaragua are adopting sustainable farming techniques to improve harvests and incomes from an important food crop.

In 2014, Cargill and TechnoServe joined up to develop IMPULSOR (Spanish for “driver or booster”), an initiative to help sorghum growers in Nicaragua adopt best agricultural practices and increase productivity in order to build a sustainable supply of sorghum. A cereal grain, sorghum is widely used in Central America as an alternative to maize; it responds better to drought and is used for feeding poultry and, in some cases, as an ingredient in tortillas and other staples.

“TechnoServe’s market-based approach and technical skills make it a strong partner for developing our programs with Cargill’s farmers,” said Maria N. Rivas, Cargill’s corporate social responsibility manager for Central America. “Our aim is to promote initiatives that are sustainable and that contribute to improving both our supply chain and farmers’ livelihoods. TechnoServe’s approach is a key component of our programs.”

Building a strong partnership to help farmers

Over a four-year period, the program aims to provide technical assistance, market access and financial support to 440 farmers, who produce about half of Nicaragua’s annual sorghum harvest. The two entities are also working closely with government and key private sector players to develop hybrid seeds, market and sell products, and improve farmers’ operations and lives.

Together, the two organizations are making a major difference for small farmers in countries where limited access to the inputs, services and markets can otherwise limit their opportunities. Since 2000, the two organizations have been working in Central and Latin America, Africa and Asia to help agricultural producers thrive.

“This project represents a classic win-win scenario for smallholder farmers and the private sector,” said Ryan Bathrick, TechnoServe country director for Nicaragua. “It has laid the foundation for long-term sustainability — even after our involvement has ended. We’re extremely pleased that a major agricultural player like Cargill is working with us on projects that make a real impact in this area.”

Innovating for the farm

A number of factors have traditionally made sorghum production in the region challenging, including inadequate agricultural practices and the seed that farmers plant. Large farmers typically use imported hybrid seed, which was developed and produced in temperate climates. While hybrid seed delivers higher yields than variety seed does, hybrid seed is significantly more expensive than sorghum variety seed, making it really only accessible to larger growers.

Using tropicalized germplasm originally developed by a regional sorghum project funded by the United States, and collaborating with local businesses, TechnoServe has already received approval from the Nicaraguan government for one new hybrid, called IMPULSOR, and hopes to gain approval for two new hybrids TechnoServe validated in 2015, which are more suitable to Nicaragua’s climate and more cost-effective for the country’s sorghum farmers, yet produce equal or better harvests. The company and TechnoServe are currently helping two local companies produce and market IMPULSOR seed.

The high-yield hybrid seeds — along with improved varieties of sorghum, no-till farming and better fertilization techniques — are on track to reduce costs by as much as 30 percent and give a competitive edge to some 440 small and large farmers, the majority of whom are first-time Cargill suppliers. By creating a new market for these farmers, Cargill is helping these producers commercialize their crops and develop their farm businesses.

Making an impact on a global scale

Similar programs are helping small farmers around the globe. Cargill has invested some $4.9 million in current active projects to support collaborations with TechnoServe in India and Côte d’Ivoire as well as Nicaragua. They have also collaborated with other public and private sector organizations — including USAID, General Mills, Bühler and Royal DSM — to form the nonprofit Partners in Food Solutions, which is working with small- and mid-size food processors in Africa to produce safe, nutritious and affordable food.

Although it is still too early to gauge the long-term success of IMPULSOR in Central America, the partners have reasons to be optimistic. “We are beginning to see positive results from the first experimental plots,” Rivas said. “But the main indicators of progress to date are the strong thrust and confidence in Cargill — not only as a buyer but as a partner.”

Adds TechnoServe’s Bathrick, “Currently three farmers [in Nicaragua] are using IMPULSOR seed to plant approximately 150 hectares. In July, we expect many more farmers to be able to plant over 2,000 hectares using the seed. If they are happy with the results, then we can expect IMPULSOR use to expand, benefiting potentially thousands of farmers.”

Tom Connor is a custom content business writer specializing in technology, entrepreneurism, health and wellness, and sustainability, among other topics.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.