The Smallholder Market Access Program

Agriculture is vital to the livelihoods of millions of families across Central America. In Guatemala and Nicaragua, nearly one-third of working adults are employed in the sector, with the majority of farmers in the region tending small plots of land.

For many of these smallholders, farming is a precarious business: covering their families’ basic needs every year depends on their ability to produce a good harvest and sell their crops at profitable prices. This can be challenging even at the best of times, and it is only getting more difficult as climate change threatens the quantity and quality of their produce, and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts markets.

With grant funding support from the Walmart Foundation, TechnoServe launched the Smallholder Market Access Program in 2019 to help vegetable and fruit farmers in Guatemala and Nicaragua earn higher, more dependable incomes by integrating them into high-value commercial value chains.

In its first phase, the program reached 8,852 farmers–28% of whom are women–in the avocado, vegetable, passion fruit, mango, dragonfruit, and banana sectors. It provided agricultural training, strengthened farmer producer organizations, forged linkages with agricultural exporters, and worked across the value chains to make them more inclusive for women farmers.

The impact has been significant. To date, the program has:

  • Helped 82% of participating farmers adopt regenerative agricultural practices, such as planting cover crops or using natural traps to control pests
  • 5,196 farmers completed the agronomy training program
  • Supported farmers to improve their yields by an average of 11%
  • Strengthened operations at 22 farmer producer organizations
  • Facilitated sales from 3,714 farmers to commercial exporters
  • Boosted farmer incomes by an average of $422, representing an increase of 17%

This multimedia case study highlights the approach and impact of the program across five key themes.

Increasing farmer incomes by strengthening producer organizations and cooperatives

The overwhelming majority of farmers in Guatemala and Nicaragua cultivate small tracts of land that yield relatively low volumes of crops–too low, in fact, to directly supply commercial buyers that require large volumes. Instead, farmers are forced to sell to intermediaries or onto informal markets, where prices are less stable and the lack of contracts make it difficult for farmers to receive credit or inputs.

However, farmers can access more profitable commercial markets by participating in cooperatives or other farmer producer organizations. These groups aggregate the produce from their members and sign commercial agreements with buyers. They also provide a number of additional services and facilitate access to credit.

To unlock the opportunities presented by greater cooperation, the program has worked to strengthen the operations of farmer producer organizations (FPOs). To date, the program has supported 30 such organizations in Guatemala and Nicaragua. The Smallholder Market Access Program’s technical support for producer organizations covers a range of vital topics, including business administration, designing packing facilities, management of packing facilities, planning and logistics, cost analyses, selection of input suppliers, complying with buyer volume and quality requirements, convening corporate buyers and organization members, management of credit requests, financial analyses, and loan payments. 

The program has also supported cooperatives on improving social sustainability and has delivered women’s leadership training in Nicaragua.

The program’s support for the FPOs has benefited their 3,000  members. Through the commercial connections that these producer organizations have forged with large commercial buyers, farmers have earned more stable prices for their crops, with fewer fluctuations driven by short-term market gluts and shortfalls. Farmers can also often receive higher prices by selling through cooperatives; In Nicaragua, a cooperative engaged in the program paid passion fruit growers 12% more than what local traders and intermediaries offered.

The program has also helped 17 FPOs to access loans from a variety of public and private institutions. It helped 2,503 farmers–31% of them women–access credit for on-farm investments.

Improving environmental sustainability through regenerative agriculture

The changing climate in Central America is already impacting smallholder farmers. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the region is experiencing more frequent droughts, extreme rainfall, and high-temperature events, forcing farmers to confront crop diseases, pest infestations, soil erosion, and other threats to the quantity and quality of their harvests. These impacts will only become more frequent and severe in the decades to come.

However, through the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices, farmers can simultaneously increase their yields, make their farms more resilient to the effects of climate change, and help to restore and rejuvenate natural resources. 

To help farmers learn and adopt these sustainable farming practices, the Smallholder Market Access Program has delivered both remote and in-person training. The curricula are tailored to each specific crop, focusing on the most important practices for increasing productivity and produce quality, building resilience to the impacts of climate change, and restoring natural resources like healthy soils.

For example, in Guatemala, vegetable farmers learned to improve their production and adapt to the possibility of extended dry seasons by using cover crops and other methods to retain soil moisture. Farmers also learned techniques to combat erosion caused by rainfall and wind, preserving the soil through the construction of barriers, the planting of “living fences,” and other techniques. In Nicaragua, fruit farmers received training on how to handle harmful pests through the use of sticky traps and juice traps, rather than synthetic insecticides.

The mango, banana, and dragon fruit crops were cultivated using fully organic practices.

As a result of this training, the productivity and environmental sustainability of participants’ farms increased. The results varied by value chain: yields increased 63% for banana, 30% for dragon fruit, 25% for avocado, 9% for vegetables, and 6% for mango.. The dramatic increase in yields in dragon fruit is largely explained by the increased adoption of manual pollination, a practice that the program’s farmer trainers helped to promote among farmers in Nicaragua.

The program has also helped farmers to convert 5,781 acres (2,339 hectares) to sustainable cultivation by adopting regenerative farming practices. This will not only make the farms themselves more resilient to climate change, but will also help to preserve natural resources like soils, protect biodiversity, and combat climate change.


Boosting farmers’ climate and economic resilience

Recent experience has underscored the vulnerability of smallholder farmers to both economic and climate shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected the economies of Guatemala and Nicaragua, with gross domestic product falling by 1.5% in the former and 2% in the latter, as social distancing measures limited economic activity. Farmers were impacted by disrupted supply chains that made it difficult for them to sell their crops and purchase fertilizers and other inputs.

As farmers were just starting to recover from the worst disruptions of COVID-19, Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck in November 2020. The severe winds and rains destroyed crops, and more than 700,000 farming families in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua saw their livelihoods negatively impacted.

The program pivoted rapidly to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic and equip participants with the tools and information they needed to navigate the crisis. During the months when they were unable to provide training in-person, program teams developed printed materials, created videos, and shared WhatsApp messages in order to communicate key messages to farmers.  


The program has also sought to improve the resilience of smallholder farmers to current and future challenges by strengthening their livelihoods and links to formal commercial markets. The program’s training curriculum includes modules on running a farm as a business, covering key practices like tracking agricultural income and expenses and planning investments. 

The commercial linkages forged by the program also make farmers more resilient to crises: signing a contract at the beginning of the harvest insulates farmers from changes in demand or prices, and these commitments also make it easier for smallholders to access financing.

The program enabled farmers to navigate the crisis. According to a survey carried out by TechnoServe, 40% of farmers participating in the program reported that they have access to emergency funds, and more than half are confident that their sales will increase in the future. 


The program’s support helped farmers reduce the amount of synthetic inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, insulating participants from the disruptions in global supply chains that have resulted from the pandemic. The cost of production per hectare for participants in the program’s first cohort fell between 21% and 58% between the baseline and close of the project. For the program’s second cohort, the change in average cost of production per hectare from baseline to endline also varied by crop, ranging from a decline of 11% to an increase of 21%, even as input prices in the region tripled.

Unlocking opportunities by improving crop quality

One of the best opportunities for smallholder farmers to improve their incomes is to sell their crops to premium buyers–often ones who supply international markets. However, in order to sell to these buyers and earn the more stable (and frequently higher) prices that they offer, farmers must deliver crops that meet their high quality and safety standards.

The quality of crops is influenced by a number of factors: the varieties and seeds selected for planting, the care given to the plants and techniques used by the farmers during cultivation, the method in which the fruit and vegetables are harvested, and how the produce is stored and transported.

The program’s agronomy training placed a heavy emphasis on helping farmers meet both the quality and safety standards set by commercial buyers. The program helped to standardize and communicate the quality requirements for each crop and provided training on techniques to achieve those standards. Avocado farmers in Guatemala, for example, received instruction on pruning the plant so that the fruit would grow larger and meet flavor and appearance standards, while in Nicaragua, farmers have started to remove the banana flower from the tree so that the fruit would grow to the proper size.

The Smallholder Market Access Program also provided farmers with training on food safety. Farmers learned how to identify potential contaminants and keep their plots free of them. The program also helped farmers reduce the variety of pesticides and fungicides they use and eliminate the ones that are banned in export markets.

By supporting farmers to improve the quality of their crops and comply with international safety standards, the program has helped to raise and stabilize the price they receive for their products, even as overall market conditions suffered amid the pandemic and hurricanes. In Guatemala, vegetable farmers earned an average of 12% more for their crops, while avocado growers saw a 19% rise. In Nicaragua, farmers in the second cohort saw the price for dragon fruit increase by an average of 47% and passionfruit by 134%.

Farmers also lost fewer sales due to quality-related rejections. In Nicaragua, fewer than 5% of bananas delivered by the assisted FPOshave been rejected. In Guatemala, losses in vegetable sales have fallen by 13%.

Supporting women’s economic empowerment and inclusive value chains

Women farmers in Central America face a number of obstacles that keep them from profiting equally from the region’s agricultural opportunities. While women are now involved in every aspect of fruit and vegetable supply chains, structural inequalities and imbalances in household decision-making mean that they are less likely than men to control the income from these activities or to receive the credit, technical assistance, or market connections to grow their farming businesses. For example, in Guatemala, studies have found that women hold less than 5% of the contracts to sell high-value crops like snow peas and broccoli. 

The program includes several components designed to make fruit and vegetable supply chains more inclusive for women farmers. At the farm level, the program has sought to proactively recruit women farmers to participate in the agronomy training, using inclusive language in the recruitment process and scheduling training sessions for times and locations that are convenient for women who have household responsibilities. In Nicaragua, the training program also included modules on family decision-making and gender dynamics in the household.

The program has also worked to strengthen women’s participation and leadership in farmer producer organizations. The program carried out a gender analysis of organizations in Nicaragua and Guatemala, interviewing men and women members and leaders, collecting information, and identifying opportunities to address gender gaps. The program has held women’s leadership training in Nicaraguan producer organizations and supported an organization of women producers in Guatemala.

The program’s approach has helped to make fruit and vegetable value chains more inclusive. Approximately 30% of the farmers trained by the program have been women. The program has also shifted household and family dynamics. In Nicaragua, a survey of farmers found that more than half of households now make decisions collectively between men and women.


The program has also had success in supporting women’s participation and leadership in producer organizations. 121 women members have completed leadership training in Nicaragua.


Looking ahead

Building on the success of the first phase, with continued grant funding support from the Walmart Foundation, TechnoServe is launching a second phase of the Smallholder Market Access Program in 2022. The new phase will continue many of the successful approaches from the program’s first phase and will also work to improve FPOs’ access to finance, engage key actors to strengthen the market system, and apply a gender lens to the operations of FPOs and commercial buyers.

By taking these approaches, TechnoServe will continue to build toward the shared vision of inclusive, profitable, and resilient value chains for smallholder farmers in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

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