If we think that one in three people around the world make their living as farmers and that 70% of the food that we consume globally is produced in farms of 10 acres or less, we quickly realize that the potential of bringing Lean Thinking to small-scale agriculture is immense. Indeed, feeding the world’s growing population will require us to embrace innovative approaches to farming and change the narrative that currently exists around small farming as a system that is not competitive and a backward model to move away from.
We are finally seeing this thinking change, partly because of the pandemic, which has showed that small farmers are often more resilient and adaptable. So, why not help them develop into lean enterprises so that we can change agriculture once and for all?
In this article, we will talk about an inspirational project we have been involved in that represents a great example of how lean can be applied to small farming operations. USAID, the US government’s agency responsible for administering foreign aid, has been interested in applying Lean Thinking to agricultural projects in Nigeria – under its Feed the Future Nigeria Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services Activity – to boost the productivity in the sector. Winrock, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. and Little Rock, Arkansas, is the implementing partner, and Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) is a funding partner. USAID owns the lean work we describe below.
It’s often assumed that lean concepts are purely Japanese, but in truth every culture around the world has an efficiency tradition. No culture naturally tolerates waste, especially native ones. Throughout the world, we see a “lean ethos” that we have tried to channel to improve the lives of Nigerian smallholder farmers.
CONVENTIONAL THINKING VS LEAN THINKING
Our project to improve outcomes for Nigeria’s smallholder farmers was based on three key ideas on which conventional thinking and lean thinking differ.
First of all, whereas conventional thinking believes that more is more and that to increase farming output you need to increase input, lean thinking believes that less is more and that to achieve productivity gains you need to strive for waste reduction and value-adding work improvements. Indeed, lean teaches us that, in every endeavor we might observe, there are two types of activities: those that add value and those that generate waste. The idea of focusing on cutting waste to increase productivity works well with smallholder farmers, who don’t have lots of resources and are typically risk adverse.
With this in mind, the first thing to do is analyzing costs and waste in your agricultural operation. Such low-hanging fruit should be targeted before farmers are asked to take on any risks or new investment.
Secondly, conventional thinking follows an agronomist first approach. In other words, it believes in bringing in outside experts to tell farmers what to do. In agriculture, research institutions are the most common source of improvement ideas and innovation. They share the agronomically ideal way (Best Agronomic Practices) to produce a certain crop and offer a way to realize it. Conversely, lean thinking teaches us that those who are putting the seeds in the ground are best placed to identify pain points in the farming process and suggest improvement ideas. Farmers know the work and the waste in the value stream like no one else does. They are nuanced market actors making logical business decisions based on complex, highly particular and constantly changing environmental, economic and social conditions. We believe that their input should be the starting point, not an afterthought.
Finally, conventional thinking tends to quickly move to solutions, even to complex, large-scale problems like poverty. Lean, on the other hand, forces us to slow down and get a deep understanding of the current state before any decisions are made. The solution to global poverty doesn’t lie in sweeping generalizations or quick fixes, but in particular solutions to particular problems – in getting the details right. The right small changes can have a huge impact.