By Pascal Benincasa

 Model farmers and cooperatives are key to success for agricultural extension projects in the developing world. Model farmers are farmers elected as role models for neighboring households by local governmental institutions. Cooperatives are farmers’ organizations established according to the law of the country to address social and economic problems of their members whose activities are performed by not paid elected leaders. Both act as a gateway for smallholder farmers to access improved resources and technologies. The path to prosperity, however, does not come without controversy. Research shows that the long-recognized potential of cooperatives is outperformed by the superior level of performance attained by model farmers. The enormous difference that divides model farmers and cooperatives is rarely afforded critical scrutiny. This raises the question to find the apparent reasons behind model farmers’ alleged success.

Therefore, I conducted twenty-four semi-structured interviews with model farmers, cooperatives and smallholder farmers in Ethiopia from the CREATE project Ethiopia (Community Revenue Enhancement through Agricultural Development Technology Extension). The CREATE project is the result of a partnership between the European Cooperative for Rural Development (EUCORD) and Heineken International to reduce poverty in Ethiopia. The project aims to increase agricultural capacity in rural households and limit the dependency on imported commodities. Furthermore, by linking smallholder farmers to urban markets, agricultural production is rebuilt as well as food security increased.

I analyzed the model farmers and cooperatives’ performance based on the level of financial capacity, social recognition, and the services they provide to smallholder farmers. The results show that financial capacity and social recognition are predominant to define the success in the malt barley supply chain. Through larger access to capital and stronger social recognition, model farmers can provide customer-focused services and secure long-lasting loyalty within the local community. Active competition harms cooperatives that are not able to compete against model farmers, though they can deliver a robust service to their members. Despite assuming a crucial role in agricultural development, cooperatives’ low financial capacity and lack of social recognition make us question their real contribution to the broad picture of poverty alleviation. In contrast, model farmers are seen as a fast and safe feature for both knowledge transfer and profit considerations.

You can find the full research article here.