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Expanding Perspectives on the Poverty Trap for Smallholder Farmers in Tanzania: The Role of Rural Input Supply Chains

Department of Logistics and Operations Management, HEC Montréal, Montréal, QC H3T 2A7, Canada
Department of Management, HEC Montréal, Montréal, QC H3T 2A7, Canada
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(9), 4971;
Received: 3 March 2022 / Revised: 29 March 2022 / Accepted: 13 April 2022 / Published: 21 April 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Sustainable Rural Futures)


Smallholder farmers across rural landscapes remain trapped in a vicious cycle of endemic poverty where interconnected challenges limit their ability to improve their livelihoods. Our study of smallholder farmers’ relationships with suppliers and several stakeholders across the Tanzanian rural agro-input supply chain offers an extended perspective on the persistence of endemic poverty and broadens the discussion on the future of sustainable food production and smallholder livelihoods. Through interviews and focus groups, we use a grounded theory methodology to develop a systemic approach to understanding the complexities of this landscape as related to smallholder agro-input sourcing activities. Our causal loop diagram framework provides a unique perspective on the poverty trap experienced by smallholder farmers in this context. Our findings may be useful in targeting practical and sustainable directions towards overcoming the poverty trap, ultimately enabling smallholders to increase wealth and improve their livelihoods through sustainable practices.

1. Introduction

Smallholder farmers in developing countries play an essential role in food supply chains, where over 70% of global food requirements are generated by small-scale producers [1]. However, they remain overwhelmed by endemic poverty, often living on less than $2 per day [2]. It is puzzling that these major contributors receive so little value for their efforts. Their entrenchment in poverty poses a risk to their own subsistence while directly (or indirectly) supporting the subsistence of others. This trend is common across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Tanzania as our area of study.
Poverty, poverty traps and the factors influencing them are a well-studied and arguably controversial topic [3,4,5,6]. Although multiple causes, effects, and solutions have been offered across a wide variety of disciplines, there is still room for further research into their origins. Notably, our study offers a unique perspective by focusing on input supply chain components and processes as the unit of analysis. This enables us to offer novel insights into the nature of the endemic poverty trap facing smallholders and how the risks to their subsistence are perpetuated and reinforced in problematic supply chain interactions.
Our study aimed to develop a deep understanding of the current environment experienced by smallholders rather than testing an a priori hypothesis. Over an intensive one-month period we conducted a qualitative grounded theory study of the agricultural crop input supply chain of Meru District, Tanzania, a setting that is likely typical of conditions in a broader range of regions and countries where smallholder populations encounter similar challenges, thus offering the possibility for broader application of our findings. Our study aimed to address two research questions: (1) How does the organization of smallholder rural agro-input supply chains contribute to the poverty trap for smallholder farmers? (2) How might the challenges experienced by smallholders be overcome to promote sustainable rural livelihoods?
A “poverty trap” is defined as a self-reinforcing situation where those affected by poverty are unable to escape; in essence, poverty begets poverty which can be brought on by a variety of macro and micro stressors [3,4,5,6]. Poverty traps are problematic in that they lock smallholders into their current position where opportunities to improve on-farm productivity necessary for growth, increased revenue, and investment into more sustainable technologies, inputs, and practices may not be readily available or accessible. In fact, the United Nations had identified ending poverty as the first of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and as crucial to sustainable development, with their second goal (Zero Hunger) being, in part, oriented towards promoting sustainable agriculture [7].
Notwithstanding research that explores the diverse aspects of poverty traps, market dynamics and associated smallholder participation, and the existing body of literature regarding inputs, [3,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16], we see a need for more in-depth investigation into supply chain dynamics with a particular focus on the challenges that are still restricting smallholders from accessing improved inputs, how this contributes to the poverty trap, and how these challenges may be overcome. This aligns with the premise presented by Chambers and Conway [17] where they note the importance of an integrated and holistic approach to the discussion of sustainable rural livelihoods with capability, equity, and sustainability as core concepts given the complexities associated with rural development. Using supply chains as the basis to conduct analysis on the poorest socio-economic demographics—particularly within rural communities in developing countries—can offer a valuable link between two very different research streams and promote sustainable and practical solution spaces for the various stakeholders involved [18,19].
When characterizing the smallholder agricultural environment within a supply chain nexus as being a feedback system comprised of an input component (i.e., materiel, equipment, and resources required to produce agricultural outputs) and an output component (i.e., market), we note that many scholars have placed emphasis above all on the challenges smallholders experience in relation to their market-related activities as one cause of endemic poverty [14,15,16], explaining how poverty traps may be generated and propelled. In this study, we instead focus on the activities associated with the smallholder agro-input supply chain, which we argue plays as significant a role within the system as the market in terms of its contributory effects on smallholder poverty, even before market considerations come into play. However, smallholder farmer input supply chains, and their effects on the poverty trap, have not received the attention they deserve in the literature.
Our system-based approach offers two main contributions. First, we examine the rural agro-input supply chain itself, providing insight into the experience of smallholders and allowing us to present an original conceptual framework in the form of a causal loop diagram reflecting the complexity of their challenges. Second, we suggest areas where targeted and collective action could be taken (e.g., by governments, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and industry) to improve the lives of smallholders over the long term.
Following the literature review and description of our methods, we present a detailed review of supply chain participants and then progressively develop of our causal loop model of the input supply chain poverty trap drawing on our data. Finally, we describe ongoing efforts to address the challenges and opportunities for sustainable action suggested by our analysis.

2. Literature Review

2.1. Agricultural Crop Inputs in Sub-Saharan Africa

Several Sub-Saharan countries experience low agricultural productivity, which, according to the literature, is linked in part to the “inadequate use of modern inputs” [8,9,13]. As such, it is recommended that modern inputs, such as fertilizers, improved seeds, and various chemicals, be used more frequently to counter the challenge of low productivity and provide higher profits to farmers [20]. For example, the use of and understanding of inorganic fertilizer application has been shown to offer a solution to the productivity challenge [21,22] and can be used in combination with improved seeds to aid in increasing crop yields, eliminating poverty, and improving food security [23] while generating resilient incomes [24]. Additionally, the use of agro-chemicals (i.e., herbicides) can contribute to increased crop yields and can compensate for a deficit in human labour and challenges associated with soil erosion in the agricultural sector while also offering food security benefits [25,26]. Through increased use of improved inputs, there can also be a reduction in the production and operating costs and an improvement to planting and harvesting timelines. However, to achieve this, inputs must be sourced in an effective manner and used correctly [27] with adequate follow-up and monitoring [23]. This can then enable agricultural growth, which would promote regional economic development and lead to poverty reduction [28].
With so many potential benefits from improved inputs, one might ask why they are not being used at every opportunity by smallholders. Snyder et al. [29] suggests that, although there is a focus on technical aspects of yield gap analyses, the broader social, political and environmental context which may encourage or discourage farmers from making decisions and taking action is often ignored [30]. Although other studies have noted a wide range of possible factors that can impede the adoption of improved inputs, they tend to focus on a single factor or a small number of factors including issues such as capital, cost, forecasting, and supplier distribution [8,22,23,31,32], rather than the full spectrum of interconnected challenges. This does not lend itself to presenting a complete picture of the complex environment in which decisions are made. Furthermore, while cooperatives, larger farmer organizations, and NGOs have attempted to overcome smallholder problems of access to input markets, this issue remains prominent across the smallholder environment. By using a wider lens and perspective, as opposed to focusing on a particular crop, input, or explanatory factor, our research provides insights into the complex set of reasons why improved input use remains a challenge.

2.2. Two Sides of the Equation and the Missing Link: Contributions to the Poverty Trap

Research has noted the importance of market-based, downstream activities in poverty reduction, and efforts have been focused towards this area in the literature, where the smallholder is the supplier of crops. Barrett [16] suggests that market participation is the key to allowing smallholders to escape poverty, by generating sustainable income and encouraging more general economic growth [14,15]. Thus, a reduction in the costs of accessing markets, better organization of smallholders and improved access to production resources would benefit smallholders [16]. Much policy research has also been conducted on how to encourage smallholder market participation [33,34,35,36]. The literature has also focused on various aspects of smallholder market-based decision making, such as whether to send crops immediately to market or store crops post-harvest to gain potential benefit from later sales [37].
Given that the current research on market activities affecting farmers in developing countries is more extensive, there are also suggestions of practical and policy-driven mechanisms through which market relationships can be addressed. For example, market-enabling activities such as fair-trade [38] and certified organic production are gaining traction in some local markets across Africa [39]. However, these are primarily oriented towards exports and larger farming operations and are therefore not necessarily accessible to smallholders producing non-export crops, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa [40]. Contract farming is another example. This activity is based on an agreement between the producer and the buyer with stipulations on product quantity, quality, delivery, and price, whereby the buyer often provides inputs and other resources to the producer. Considerable research has been conducted in this area [41,42,43,44,45,46,47], and contract farming may offer one mechanism to link the input and output components of the supply chain [41]; however the benefits and circumstances under which welfare may be improved remain unclear [48,49,50]. Some literature points towards contract farming providing an opportunity to access quality inputs as well as a guaranteed buyer, and opportunities to reduce income variability, improve household welfare, and promote risk transference [51]. However, this does not offer a holistic solution to the various other challenges smallholders face when sourcing inputs and does not necessarily consider the complexity of smallholder input sourcing across rural environments. Further, while contract farming may offer opportunities for technology adoption and increased productivity, as well as the potential for smallholders to grow out of dependency, the literature suggests that they may also grow further into it from a market perspective and that contract farming does not always contribute to profit generation, increased income, and poverty reduction [47,52]. In some cases, neither fair trade nor contract farming offer a positive contribution to sustainable development or to the improvement of smallholder livelihoods. Indeed, contract farming may contribute to continued poverty or even poverty trap-generation [53,54], where there is a risk of self-exploitation in the case of contract farming [55].
Poverty traps may occur for a variety of reasons, such as unique constraints based on scarcity of resources which force certain decisions that reinforce poverty, weak policy and institutional factors, economic activity, various external factors, low risk tolerance, etc. [3,10]. Additionally, many types of poverty traps may exist and range from the macro (country-level) to the micro (individual or household level) [11,12], the latter of which will be our focus in the paper. While there is a range of discussion on poverty traps and their contributing factors, they are often viewed through a purely economic lens. Existing studies may not necessarily fully incorporate some of the important contexts that define rural and smallholder demographics which can have negative impacts on livelihood sustainability [56,57]. Furthermore, given the abundance of ways by which poverty traps may occur, and the variables that contribute to them, there is a need to continue to investigate their underlying causes and mechanisms [58]. As such, a study such as ours that analyzes the issues surrounding input sourcing within the agro-input supply chain and that incorporates the core concepts detailed by Chambers and Conway [17] can supplement existing market-based analyses as part of a more comprehensive and broader approach, in order to better understand why poverty persists in these communities.

2.3. Captivity, Risk and Power

Relationships are an important aspect of any supply chain and are particularly important within the context of smallholders, given their propensity to use informal, trust-based contracts [59]. While operating in an informal environment, gaps between individual expectations of accountability and transparency [60] result in varying levels of control within each relationship which depends on the relative power of each actor. Ultimately this can result in a series of complex relationships with varying levels of risk for every participant in the process [61]. Bensaou [61] describes the situation of buyer/supplier captivity, where one actor finds him/herself a captive buyer to one or a few established suppliers who wield greater bargaining power within a concentrated market defined by stable demand, minimal innovation, and limited growth. Bensaou [61] also notes that captive suppliers can be found in unstable markets with high competition and few buyers, leading suppliers to be heavily dependent on their buyers, and with reduced bargaining power.
The concept of captivity implies dependency, reflecting the tenets of Resource Dependence Theory (RDT) where high dependence on other actors (e.g., buyers and/or suppliers) for needed resources, and the apparent absence of alternatives, can create a trap from which it can be difficult to escape [62]. RDT offers an important theoretical lens for understanding this challenge. In particular, by focusing on supplier relationships, we can better understand the risks associated with dependency [63]. Power and dependency are inextricably linked within RDT where buyers’ and suppliers’ mutual dependency on each other confers power [64,65]. Where one partner controls access to resources for the other, they are placed in a dominant position in the relationship [66,67].
Thus, resource dependency can pose significant risks for actors in the supply chain who have few alternatives. Indeed, in the supply chain literature, risk is often presented in terms of supplier or customer relationships, or as internal and external challenges, and it is divided into various categories based on the drivers which define the events and conditions leading to potential losses and negative impacts on operations. These categories of risk posed to businesses include disruptions, delays, technological systems, demand forecasting, intellectual property, procurement, receivables, inventory, and capacity [68]. Within agricultural supply chains, there may be other risk categories which include risks related to weather, environment, disease, sanitation, natural disasters, markets, logistics and infrastructure, management and operations, public policy and institutions, and politics [69]. It is understood that smallholder farmers may be particularly vulnerable to these risks and that this can be a contributing factor to the poverty trap [3,10].
We propose that another risk category should be added to the discussion of smallholder farmers and poverty traps—the risk of subsistence, meaning their ability to survive. This is a culmination of the other risk factors, where smallholders face an existential threat which is fed by other drivers or sources of risk. To illustrate this, Valkila [54] suggests that within Fair Trade arrangements, any extra income is often not enough for smallholders to feed their families, let alone to provide the opportunity to increase production, expand activities, or buy land. In some cases, by participating in more integrated markets such as Fair Trade, the risk may be shared across multiple stakeholders; however, with smallholders who do not or cannot participate in these integrated markets, their risk becomes much higher with much lower returns [70]. Furthermore, Livingston et al. [70] note that risk management stemming from the trade-offs that take place in terms of risk–reward is the key challenge facing smallholders in their ability to increase investments that would support increased productivity.
When we look at smallholder positioning within a rural supply chain, we see that their relationships with other actors could lead them into being both a captive buyer and a captive supplier; however, the dynamics by which this happens in specific cases is not clear a priori. Our study identifies and examines these issues based on the specific situation of smallholder farmers in rural Tanzania.

3. Materials and Methods

3.1. Research Context

This study focuses on Tanzania, a Sub-Saharan African country whose economy has a high dependence on agriculture, constituting 65% of the workforce and slightly less than one quarter of GDP [71]. This essential sector is predominantly comprised of smallholder farmers who are responsible for approximately 75% of total agricultural output [72]. Despite their high value to the economy, 39% of smallholders find themselves below the national poverty line [72]. Limited access to modern inputs results in low productivity, variable yields, and low profits [73]. This contributes to ongoing poverty, making Tanzania a highly suitable context for our study.
Our fieldwork was conducted in the Meru District of Tanzania (Figure 1) over a one-month period, in partnership with Farm Radio International (FRI), a Canadian NGO that uses radio to strengthen farming communities by partnering with local radio stations to broadcast information focusing on agriculture and rural development throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

3.2. Research Design and Sampling

We follow an exploratory naturalistic inquiry research design, focusing on the experiences of people within their social and cultural contexts [76]. A grounded theory methodology [77] was employed based on a systematic process of constant analysis and comparison of data derived from the participants’ experiences, through which we aimed to develop theory rather than test an a priori hypothesis. Initial, purposeful sampling [77] began by selecting villages where we could connect directly with smallholder farmers, and multiple suppliers were contacted for individual interviews. The overall sampled group at this stage included male and female smallholders of all age groups, village-level (local) suppliers, large-scale suppliers, and Agricultural Extension Officers (AEOs) at the district and village level. Over the course of the initial sampling, some gaps were identified, which necessitated further theoretical sampling [77] to include smallholder farmers, a large-scale supplier and a Tanzanian national farmer organization. Table 1 provides composition details across both samplings which took place over an intensive one-month period (November–December 2019).

3.3. Data Collection

Data were collected through semi-structured focus groups and interviews and was facilitated by FRI’s Tanzanian Office. In total, data were collected from seven focus groups spanning five different villages in Meru District, for a total of 113 participants. Within one focus group, three participants representing local village leadership were also present. Two local suppliers and two large-scale suppliers were interviewed, as well as two AEOs. Email correspondence allowed us to re-interview one of the original respondents and to engage with a representative of a national farmer organization, resulting in data being collected from a total of 123 participants. Each focus group and interview was audio-recorded, translated (as required), and transcribed, leading to 124 pages of transcribed fieldnotes, and 81 pages of translated and transcribed audio files.

3.4. Data Analysis

The data were coded using procedures suggested by Charmaz [77] and Gioia et al. [78]. We began with in vivo (first order) coding which remained very close to the data, followed by higher level axial and theoretical coding (developed from the initial codes) that is more conceptual and captures larger segments of data. To show how initial in vivo codes were grouped together to extract more abstract themes, we provide a data structure diagram that illustrates our first order concepts, second order themes, and aggregate dimensions [78] building cumulatively on each other. These labels are the terms we use throughout the description of our findings.
Our fieldnotes provided the platform for our coding process, data analysis, and subsequent development of our data structure. Table 2 presents some coding samples and Table 3 presents our data structure. Over 600 separate concepts were identified through a line-by-line analysis of responses, which were further analyzed and grouped into ten second-order themes. Our aggregate dimensions were developed through an analysis of the frequency of appearance of second order themes across all the participant groups. The three most frequently occurring themes provided a starting point to develop our dimensions. The remaining seven themes were deemed sufficiently important to be retained; five of these were linked to one of the top three themes, based on similarity and relevance. The remaining two themes were relevant and significant to each other and thus contributed to the development of a fourth distinct dimension.
To express the interconnectivity and complexity of these themes and dimensions, we present our findings and analysis using causal loop diagrams [79,80,81]. Senge [80] proposed this feedback-loop approach as a support to the challenges associated with human propensity to think in a linear fashion, given that seeing the entirety of the process is essential to understanding and solving a complex and dynamic problem, such as ours. In the context of our research, these diagrams help demonstrate how one challenge within the input supply chain interacts with others, leading to a vicious circle and exacerbating the poverty trap experienced by smallholders in Tanzania. Our analysis and all subsequent findings come directly from the data collected from the multiple participants that were interviewed during the course of our fieldwork.

3.5. Trustworthiness

Following Lincoln and Guba’s [82] recommendations, we took several measures to enhance the trustworthiness of our research. First, interview and focus group guides were reviewed by experts from the FRI staff as well as two supply chain experts to ensure accuracy of wording for communication with farmers and for translation purposes, and to facilitate honest and forthcoming dialogue with participants. Second, the data obtained from over 100 smallholder participants via multiple focus groups was triangulated with information collected via interviews with other stakeholders. Finally, after the initial analysis, our data was double-coded by an external individual to the research team who reviewed both first-order and second-order codes, thus ensuring that our interpretation of the participant experience was coherent and supported by the data.

4. Findings

4.1. Mapping the Tanzanian Smallholder Rural Agro-Input Supply Chain

From our data, the regional input supply chain of the Meru District (Figure 2), although seemingly simple in terms of main actors and activities, is complex given the often-overlapping participation of multiple influencing actors. This complexity stems from the relationships that exist between these actors across varied exchanges of inputs, information, and money.
Primary inputs used by smallholders (seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides) are individually important elements in successful production, but they cannot be considered in isolation because certain inputs require the use of other inputs in order to be effective (i.e., hybrid seeds require more pesticide and inorganic fertilizer). We therefore consider them holistically as we examine product flow through the chain and henceforth refer to them collectively as inputs. These inputs are initially injected into the rural supply chain through large-scale suppliers who perform a variety of import, production, transformation (i.e., seed development and local seed production within Tanzania and blending of pesticides following import), and distribution functions, depending on the types of inputs each company engages with. They are typically located within city centers, often precluding direct access by smallholders due to the distance, time and cost associated with traveling from their villages and the inability to benefit from economies of scale. Inputs, accompanied by information on their proper use and application then flow to local (village-level) suppliers, who operate out of small one-room shops where conditions are not often favourable to storing perishable inputs such as seeds, nor large quantities of inventory. Inputs are then sold at retail quantities and prices to customers who are largely subsistence smallholder farmers, whose primary objective is to harvest enough crop to feed their families and, when possible, generate income by selling any surplus to support future input expenditures and other needs (i.e., school fees, medicine, other food, home improvements, and repairs):
“A small amount is sold to get some money for needs, for example, for school fees or for some other needs at home. […] There is not a specific amount of food to keep, [we just try] to keep enough food to get to the next season.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
In an effort to earn income, smallholders sell their surplus crops in local markets if accessibility permits, or they may sell to middle-men who then find market opportunities. Smallholders may also use farmer-saved seeds from their previous harvests, but this is not always possible due to challenges with germination and storage. The vast majority of interviewed smallholder farmers indicated that they had been farming all their lives and had remained on the same plot of family land, with exceptions in the case of marriage or a shift to smallholder farming from other employment. This finding highlights the limited land mobility of smallholder farmers who focus on agricultural crops without large livestock herds and who do not necessarily belong to pastoralist communities where they would have different opportunities to seek out supporting resources. Therefore, the smallholder farmers within our context have extremely limited land mobility which impacts their interaction with their supply chain and their ability to move towards areas that could support current or future resource requirements.
Beyond the primary actors (centre line) who move inputs and some information through the supply chain, there are multiple other actors who exert influence on it. These include regulatory bodies that conduct research, manage the training and licensing of large-scale and local suppliers, enforce regulations, ensure quality control, and certify inputs prior to sale by a large-scale supplier or provided by an NGO. Three regulatory bodies in Tanzania are (1) The Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI), (2) the Tanzania Fertilizer Regulatory Authority (TFRA), and (3) the Tropical Pesticide Research Institute (TPRI). Traders may exert influence at the level of the local supplier and smallholder farmers to provide inputs, where illegal traders pose a significant problem within the system:
“Traders can pick grain and then dress them like our seeds, sometimes using the same packages we are using […] we don’t know where they are getting our packages. It’s a problem for us, and a problem to the farmers.”
—Large-Scale Supplier (Arusha)
Illegal traders sell uncertified or counterfeit inputs at enticingly low prices, ultimately diverting smallholders from purchasing quality inputs despite the oversight of regulatory boards. Although there are mechanisms in place to handle these actors if they are identified and caught, there is currently no way to completely discourage or stop this activity. AEOs in Tanzania are government officials specialized in various areas across a wide varieties of smallholder activities (including crops, livestock, and commercial). The role of the AEOs we interviewed was primarily centered around education and training of smallholder farmers. For example, they train farmers how to use fertilizer and pesticides correctly, and how to identify and use quality seeds. Finally, NGOs and Farmer Associations work to facilitate access to quality inputs or provide them directly, as well as offering other educational training activities.
With respect to the financial flow of the chain, the primary (and preferred) mechanism of exchange is cash, due to issues with obtaining, or using, credit or financing options at the level of both the local suppliers and the smallholders.

4.2. The Poverty Trap

As we delved into the implications of the relationships across the input supply chain for smallholder farmers, we identified multiple intricate and overlapping challenges that impede them from accessing quality inputs in an efficient manner, ultimately impacting their ability to generate enough income and pull themselves out of poverty: a phenomenon that we label the “poverty trap”. We use a causal loop diagram to depict and define this trap, which is constructed on the basis of the aggregate dimensions we identified from our data and through our coding process. In the subsequent sections, we present the dynamics of the poverty trap step by step, adding a new loop (with each dimension, made up of multiple themes, representing a key challenge for smallholders), revealing the full complexity of connections between the various challenges experienced by smallholder farmers. Relationships between variables are displayed using directional arrows accompanied by “+” or “−” for positive or negative relationships.

4.2.1. Unequal Power Dynamics—The Heart of the Poverty Trap

“People with money [sellers], they have the power to speak to the government […] we try our best, but it doesn’t really work […] because they have connections with people in power.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
The heart of the poverty trap is an unequal power dynamic between smallholder farmers and other actors (Figure 3), whereby more powerful actors are better positioned in negotiations, keeping smallholder farmers in a captive state and exposing them to risk. Although we focus on the variables and challenges that exist within the input component of the supply chain, it is necessary to highlight some market aspects to demonstrate the amplification of this unequal power dynamic and captive state. This simply means that the state of smallholder captivity within their capacity as a buyer of inputs is influenced and impacted by the captivity they experience as a supplier to the market. Pressure from the market squeezes smallholders into a situation where they need all the support they can receive to reduce cost and improve the quality of purchased inputs:
“We can produce good crops and take [them] to the market where we sell at whatever the market price is. […] The inputs are expensive compared to the amount we get from selling at the market, which means that we don’t have enough money to spend on the next process, the next season.”
—Smallholder farmers (Karangai village)
Operating costs cannot be recovered, with one smallholder from Karangai village explaining that uncontrollable factors, such as climate change, are causing their costs to increase through the enhanced need for pesticides, for example, and market prices are not sufficient to account for this increase. With market saturation occurring at each harvest, selling price decreases and limits the smallholders’ ability to accrue a decent income to cover necessary expenses. This results in a severe lack of on-hand capital, which forces smallholder farmers to sell what they can as soon as possible regardless of the price they may receive for their crops. As several smallholders noted, it is better to have some money than none. Many smallholders also lack the necessary resources to transport crops to market, forcing them to sell to middle-men at well below market value:
“If there was a specific market to sell [to], then we could try to find the transport to go there. But now, we have to sell with the middle-man.”
—Smallholder farmer (Mbuguni village)
Further undermining the potential of profitable sales is the lack of appropriate facilities and equipment for storage or transformation of crops (e.g., turning tomatoes into tomato paste), which also forces them into making quick low-profit sales.
In addition to their market captivity, smallholders are held captive by local input suppliers. For example, benefit could be seen through using specific and innovative inputs (e.g., drought-resistant seeds), but these may take time to develop. It may take an extended period of time for these inputs to be available through local suppliers (based on their ability to acquire, stock, and sell) and if/when such products become available for smallholders to purchase, their high price renders them inaccessible to those with limited means, thus limiting smallholders’ access to innovative and good-quality products. Smallholder purchasing habits are predictable, with inputs acquired routinely at the beginning of each planting season, which enables local suppliers to adjust prices for increased profit margins (sometimes regardless of government price controls), driving inputs further out of reach to smallholders. Smallholder farmers often lack the means to travel further than absolutely necessary and must therefore procure inputs from the closest supplier, who may not be in the same village. This effectively results in each local supplier holding a monopoly over their wide-spread customer base.
The captivity of smallholder farmers by more powerful actors at both ends of their operations generates subsistence risk through forcing smallholders into routinely purchasing the cheapest (and often lowest-quality) and most accessible inputs each season. This purchasing behaviour provides the potential for purchase of counterfeit or low-quality inputs. The quality of an input cannot truly be known until crops mature (or not), at which point the growing season may be over and any crop produced may not be sufficient; this results in lost time, money, and potential income, and smallholders risk being unable to feed their families:
“Even if I get the seeds, sometimes those seeds, [their] quality is not good, it’s fake. […] When I come to plant, I find out that the seeds are not original, it’s fake, and they don’t grow.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
While traders and local input suppliers may be guilty of providing substandard inputs, this may not necessarily be a conscious or malicious action. It is possible that they too are receiving substandard inputs from higher up the chain. In an attempt to mitigate the risk associated with quality issues, AEOs and local suppliers advise smallholders to read input packaging and look for certification and manufacturing labels. This is only minimally effective, even for those who are able to read, given the potential for package tampering by illegal traders. Smallholders are also encouraged to keep receipts and to keep some seeds in the original package as proof of purchase in case compensation or reimbursement might be possible. However, the process of returning inputs is time consuming and expensive for local suppliers because they are responsible to transport any returned seeds to the larger company for replacement. This process does not guarantee reimbursement for either, and it can negatively impact the local supplier if they have provided an initial reimbursement to the affected smallholder. There is thus little incentive for local suppliers to assist in compensating smallholders for defective seeds. Although one smallholder focus group noted that some NGOs will offer them compensation if inputs are of poor quality, the general consensus is that possibilities for reimbursement are extremely limited:
“Those people who sell us agricultural [inputs], like seeds, they don’t care. They do their business. […] They don’t want to take back seeds.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
Further, if replacement seeds are offered to smallholders in place of financial reimbursement, these too may be of poor quality, and additional risk is incurred. Ultimately, any potential remedy comes too late, when the season is already lost.
This particular challenge may also be associated with issues of regulation and market surveillance that are certainly exacerbated by power imbalances, such as corruption, lack of state control, lack of accountability over supplier transactions, etc. Regardless, the risk to smallholders is significant and firmly rooted in a power imbalance whereby smallholders are unable to advocate for themselves. With each repetition of the cycle, smallholders are increasingly held captive, leaving them with less room to maneuver, negotiate, or take control over their input sourcing activities, thereby exposing them to a continual cycle of risk associated with uncertainty of crop sales and input acquisition, leading to subsistence risk. All other challenges outlined in the next sections connect to the power dimension through this risk variable, which in turn impacts the degree of captivity, which can then be followed through the remaining causal loops.

4.2.2. Access to Resources and Quality Inputs

“To be honest, quality has been a big problem for us, it left us poor and we have no solution on what to do. At the end of the day, it’s wasting our time. We spend a lot of time to farm, to plant, [etcetera], but we don’t meet our targets.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
Figure 4 shows the addition of challenges related to resource availability and quality inputs which are fostered by the unequal power dynamic and, in turn, reinforce the state of smallholder captivity and increased exposure to risk. The first variable accounts for the limited availability of resources for smallholder farmers, including credit/loans, capital, alternative payment mechanisms to cash, appropriate input storage facilities, and time, as well as the availability of quality inputs themselves. Any credit options offered by local suppliers are reserved for customers with whom they have a close relationship and bank loans are not an option for the bulk of smallholder farmers; 21% of smallholders who were asked about bank loans indicated that they had applied for a loan, with 18% having received one. One AEO noted that this low application and acceptance rate could be attributed to having little to no collateral and not being able to meet eligibility requirements. In an effort to assist with credit, AEOs encourage smallholders to create and participate in Village Community Banking Associations to collect savings and offer local loans to farmers, by farmers. However, the lack of start-up capital, the inability of individuals to contribute regularly and their lack of knowledge about how to coordinate such activities makes the activities difficult to implement. The absence of financing options limits both the quantity and quality of inputs that smallholders can purchase with their low cash-on-hand. Limited capital was noted as one of the primary challenges across all smallholder focus groups, sometimes to the point where inputs were not affordable at all:
“Overall, […] the problem is lack of [capital] and the price is a little bit high, so we cannot afford at all.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kwaugoro village)
To illustrate the earnings/cost ratio, on average, interviewed smallholders made 910,000 Tanzanian Shillings (TZS) (~$396 USD) from their previous season. To seed one acre of maize using the recommended quantity of 10 kg per acre, prices from one local supplier range from 35,000 TZS (~$15 USD) for the lowest quality product to 55,000 TZS (~$25 USD) for the better-quality product. As a more extreme example of seed prices, a 100 g bag of high-quality tomato seeds can cost as much as 360,000 TZS (~$154.50 USD), representing 40% of the average smallholder income. Thus, although quality inputs may be available on the market, they are not necessarily within reach of the smallholder farmers given their high cost.
Smallholders also lack the resources that would enable them to store inputs appropriately. Any storage facilities they may have access to are not capable of storing inputs for either short or extended periods of time because they do not allow for temperature and humidity control or for protection from pest predation. As such, smallholders are precluded from purchasing inputs ahead of the planting season and storing them, even if only for a short period. The final resource challenge is that of time; for example, in villages lacking irrigation systems, farmers spend much of their time collecting water, which reduces the time available to conduct higher-value activities, such as finding alternative suppliers and product sourcing.
The second variable highlights challenges of physically accessing inputs from suppliers. Smallholders participating in our study travel 2 to 30 km to reach local suppliers, over village roads that are often riddled with large rocks or potholes and can become further damaged by heavy rainfall. Even more challenging is traveling to the city (Arusha, the closest city to those villages within Meru District), which requires a 96 km round-trip to access alternative suppliers, further impeded by the need to access the main road via the same damaged village roads.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to get the seeds because our infrastructure is not that great. We have no transport most of the time. Sometimes the rain is heavy and there is flooding so you cannot move around to get the seeds.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
For farmers without personally-owned transportation, there is the added cost of travel via bus, car or motorcycle hire, if funds permit. In the worst case, they must walk, using a donkey or wheelbarrow to return home with their inputs. In turn, carrying capacity can be limited and the time required (which is already at a premium) increases; imagine an elderly smallholder walking for up to 30 km over rough roads with 50 kg (or more) of fertilizer and other necessary inputs using a wheelbarrow. Although some local suppliers offer assistance with delivery in exceptional circumstances, this is not usually the case. Limited and costly transportation options, minimal carrying capacity, poor road conditions, and the distance itself reduces the ability of smallholders to source inputs from other vendors:
“For example, if I live far away from the shop and there is another shop [closer by] with a little bit higher price, I have to buy, because I don’t have the transport to go far away to get seeds or fertilizers […].”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
Smallholders also indirectly bear the brunt of the distance and transportation costs incurred by local suppliers in transporting products from large-scale suppliers to their shops, which includes the cost of the transport itself, as well as the labour to load and unload trucks:
“For fertilizer, the government sets the price. For example, one bag of 50 kg, we have to sell it for 58,000 TZS, [and] buy it for 54,000 TZS. But the big problem is […] [t]he cost to transport one bag from [town] to here is 1500 TZS. You also have labour costs to load/unload the truck. There is no profit in fertilizer.”
—Local Supplier (Meru District)
On price-controlled fertilizer, where the government establishes the prices for all agrodealers across the input supply chain, these added transportation costs can prove detrimental to the local suppliers’ bottom line and lead them to impose mark-ups on inputs beyond the allowable margins set by the government.
The issues identified in this loop present significant subsistence risk to smallholders. With the current cycle, they lack the necessary mechanisms in place to purchase, store, and transport quality inputs, as well as the means to pursue higher value activities, which challenges their ability to generate an adequate harvest to see them through the current season and into the next. This includes purchasing of new inputs, purchasing required items for the home (i.e., food that is not grown on their land) and providing for their families in general.

4.2.3. Access to Information and Support

“We never really had any education or instruction from agricultural officers. They don’t really come and try to educate us on how to use seeds or to develop a proper routine of farming. We never really had an agricultural officer coming to help us.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
Challenges associated with accessing information and support are shown at Figure 5, and this perpetuates the challenges noted in the first two loops. The Meru District reported 102,134 smallholders across 94 villages at the time of our interviews, with only 34 village extension officers—well below the normal ratio of village extension officer to village at 1:1. For those AEOs whose purpose is to aid in agricultural training and education, being responsible for multiple villages over large geographical areas due to staffing shortages limits their ability to support smallholders, regardless of capability and motivation. This challenge was also noted by one large-scale supplier given that it relies on AEOs to provide essential product information to smallholders:
“Education is supposed to be delivered by extension [officers] and our country is so big. So the staff is not available. So farmers lack that education.”
—Large-Scale Supplier (Arusha)
Inadvertent, uninformed (or misinformed) use of inputs could result in substandard crops, which may be misconstrued as resulting from the purchase of poor-quality inputs rather than insufficient or flawed information. This could lead smallholder farmers into spending more money and time than necessary in the pursuit of quality inputs or indeed making a conscious decision to avoid using a particular input completely, which could hinder production. For example, one smallholder noted that many people are becoming sick due to a lack of knowledge on how to use agro-chemicals (pesticides). The possibility of negative health impacts due to improper (uninformed) use is often enough to deter someone from using a product which, in turn, causes them to miss the potential for higher crop yields, whereas with better information on how to use these hazardous inputs (e.g., using protective equipment), smallholders might be able to increase production. However, information alone may not provide the complete answer. As noted by one AEO, it is not always feasible for smallholders to obtain the recommended equipment due to its high cost:
“Up to 40% have knowledge [on pesticide use], but for most, the use of protective [equipment] is still a challenge. It’s quite expensive. So most of them use… overcoats they made themselves, gumboots. Instead of using gloves, they wear plastic bags, so that pesticides cannot come in contact with the skin.”
—Agricultural Extension Officer
In an effort to mitigate information dissemination challenges, AEOs rely on local suppliers to provide critical product information to smallholders at the point of sale, particularly because local suppliers are required to attend mandatory training conducted through the various regulatory boards. However, as two local suppliers mentioned, attending these seminars can be costly in terms of money, time, and effort. Because smallholder farmers have little ability to access alternative suppliers, there is not necessarily an incentive for local suppliers to pay close attention during the seminars or take the time to provide information to customers, especially if it detracts from their sales. Furthermore, the sales person behind the counter may not have been the one to attend training events and cannot offer the correct information. AEOs acknowledge that this may not always be the most reliable mechanism by which to share information and educate smallholders:
“We as extension officers cannot reach all the farmers, so those [local suppliers] help us to give [smallholders] training. [However], some farmers, when you talk to them and ask about laws and regulations on how to use, maybe fertilizer and the precautions, they say they don’t know. Because even if they go to the local market, the person who sells to them, knows nothing.”
—Agricultural Extension Officer
While some conscientious local suppliers work to advise smallholder farmers on the benefits of quality despite the higher price, one local supplier suggested that farmers continue to choose the least costly inputs due to limited capital and a lack of trust in the information source.
AEOs also attempt to improve information dissemination through hosting village meetings. However, given the long distances to travel to attend these meetings, they are not accessible to all farmers, and some smallholders become aware of a meeting only after the fact. As a partial solution, AEOs encourage farmers to join groups where a representative may be sent to attend a meeting and pass on the information afterwards:
“We have also some farmer groups in the villages, so we advise farmers to make groups or be in their groups, to make easier work to train farmers.”
—Agricultural Extension Officer
With the challenges of time and distance, it can still be difficult for farmer group representatives to connect with smallholders to pass on information. In some cases, a lack of capital and knowledge to organize and run such a group negates this as an option.
NGOs and other aid organizations are also actively involved in trying to close the information gap by providing education and training, particularly on input use. Many smallholders noted that these organizations have become the primary information source for them and are seen as more reliable and trustworthy than AEOs. This creates a secondary issue where trust is diminished, which widens the already existing gap between smallholders and AEOs and generates increased reliance on NGOs and other aid organizations for information.
The reliance of smallholder farmers on others is exacerbated by the difficulties they face in being able to directly access information themselves. Technological platforms, such as cellphones or computers, may offer smallholders the potential to find information (i.e., sourcing suppliers, comparing products, input use, etc.); however, while the majority of smallholder participants have cellphones, these are often of an older generation suitable only for communication, not for research or internet access. Furthermore, data networks that are fast enough to support this type of functionality are not available in the rural villages where smallholders live and work. Even if the technology was readily available, challenges with respect to literary rates would restrict those smallholders who are unable to read or write from accessing important information:
“To be honest, when it comes to check the quality of the product, it’s really difficult for most of us, because most of us are not educated. So, it’s really difficult, it’s a big challenge for us because we don’t know. Some of us, [we] don’t know how to read and that’s the problem.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kwaugoro village)
The issues identified in this loop generate increased subsistence risk for smallholder farmers, compounding the risk already incurred through the first loop. With a lack of information and support on the right topics from the right providers coupled with challenges to access information on their own, smallholders become reliant on others for the limited information they have. Having some information is better than none, and it is not guaranteed that someone else will be able to offer much better. As such, they cannot take the chance to search for new sources of information because they may miss out on what already exists or may be subject to receiving worse information, or none at all. Missing out will mean that crops may be impacted in their yield or quality, thus posing a risk to supporting the family either through farm yields or any revenue that may be generated. From this loop, we see the challenges associated dependency/captivity coming from two loops.

4.2.4. Trade-Offs and Decision Making

“Quality seeds are there, but it’s expensive. If you have good money, you can get quality seeds. Quality seeds are always there, [whenever] you get good money, you can get quality seeds. But [whenever] you have low money, you get low quality seeds.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikwe Village)
The final dimension to our causal loop diagram focused on trade-offs and decision-making processes and is added to Figure 6. This dimension speaks more to the business process of farming than the previous dimensions and depicts the reactive posture of smallholder farmers.
A lack of capital and credit implies that smallholders are not necessarily able to set money aside to purchase inputs in the following season, limiting their ability to forecast, plan, and prepare. This ultimately generates a significant amount of risk, with the imbalance tilted against the smallholders whose crops may not be sufficient for family needs, let alone for sale. To mitigate some of these challenges, smallholders will sometimes sell items, which were not originally intended for sale, to gain extra income. These items include any farmer-saved seeds from the previous season, livestock, milk, or eggs, which can offer a short-term solution to income uncertainty. This desperation-driven solution can have dramatic consequences for the family because such assets are generally very important to a household and are seldom intended for sale unless in exceptional circumstances:
“Sometimes we might even sell our livestock to get the money to go buy seeds or fertilizers, chemical fertilizers, then pesticides.”
—Smallholder farmer (Mbuguni village)
A lack of information creates uncertainty about which inputs to purchase and when, which thus creates an environment in which options may not be fully weighed and where decisions are made in haste (to move to the next stages of planting). As just one example, smallholders, although advised against it by AEOs, wait for the rains to arrive before beginning their input sourcing, increasing the potential for reactive rather than proactive decision making due to an effort to procure and use inputs in the shortest time frame possible to minimize deterioration of input quality. As previously discussed, smallholders rely on their local suppliers to provide the necessary inputs, and if the desired inputs are not available, then the smallholder must make do with what is left on the shelves. As such, any proactive steps smallholders may be able to take in sourcing their inputs (e.g., planning for the quantity, price, or quality of required inputs, timing, etc.) are limited by the ability of the local supplier to support specific demand. Perhaps the most interesting theme we discovered is the desire to be better, where smallholder farmers know that there are better ways to conduct their activities. However, due to the accessibility issues they experience and not having the information necessary to coordinate activities amongst themselves, this desire to improve cannot be fulfilled. Several smallholder focus groups agreed that they would be willing to work more, spend more, or travel farther if they could be assured of a reputable supplier providing the quality inputs that would improve their crop yields. Nevertheless, the multiple challenges discussed in the previous sections impede their ability to do so:
“We don’t really have capital to farm as much as we wanted. If we had capital and we organize ourselves as farmers, we can get our own agricultural equipment shops, we can get easier [access], so we don’t have to go far away to get seeds and [other inputs]. Basically, we need capital to organize our farms and our [activities] so we can [improve] our farming industry.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
Although the smallholders we interviewed have made attempts to solve the issues they face, several groups noted that they have stopped asking questions and searching for solutions, given that they receive nothing back, and they no longer see this pursuit as beneficial to them. This again connects to subsistence risk, compounding what is already felt, where smallholders are even more unable to accept additional risk that could impact their ability to produce crops that are required to support their families. Although smallholders may sell other items to gain some money in order to purchase required items, this forced choice renders them more entrenched in poverty because now they have less than before in order to make the required purchases necessary to support their farming activities which in turn support their family.

4.2.5. The Importance of Subsistence Risk in the Poverty Trap

With the addition of each dimension to our causal loop, the subsistence risk variable is fed, which spurs the inequality of the power dynamic. Even faced with the high probability of earning consistently less income with each season, smallholders have no choice but to continue to buy their inputs and sell their crops in the same way as before because they cannot take on more risk, further entrenching them in a captive and impoverished state. This persistent cycle limits the smallholder’s ability to take control of their input sourcing and improve their situation. This could become a vicious cycle, where the smallholder’s continued inability to access the necessary resources that could shift the power dynamic makes their situation progressively untenable. We suggest that the power imbalance at the heart of this trap, and the variables that drive and sustain this imbalance, is the catalyst for poverty rather than its result. With the majority of these variables outside of the control of smallholder farmers, they do not have the capacity or ability to change the dynamic affecting their income (and thus their ability to make ends meet and provide for their families) season after season. They thus find themselves unable to escape a desperate situation. One smallholder farmer from Kikatiti village noted that farming is often the last resort for many. It is the last beacon of hope for them to support their families; when this ‘last chance’ entrenches them further into poverty through the multiple factors mentioned previously, the existential threat is very clear. It is this risk to everyday life that does not allow for improvements to be made and thus perpetuates the cycle of poverty across this demographic.

5. Ongoing Efforts in Overcoming Challenges

Our findings also identified some key stakeholders whose efforts are assisting smallholders in overcoming some of the challenges revealed in our analysis (Section 5.1). In Section 5.2, we offer some insights also based on our findings where additional support may be offered or required from these stakeholders (Figure 7).

5.1. Stakeholders and Targeted Variables

5.1.1. Government (AEOs)—Targeting Information, Support and Resources

We identify Agricultural Extension Officers, or AEOs, as having the potential to take on a more impactful role to stimulate positive change and to leverage those AEOs who may be more effective than others in developing relationships with local administrations and village leadership. The evidence in our case suggests that the effect of current AEO engagement at the community level has been disappointing. Our interactions with participants in our focus groups suggest that this is most likely attributable to a lack of trust and confidence in these officials due to smallholders receiving limited feedback when questions or concerns are identified. This presents an opportunity for AEOs to improve follow-up on smallholder queries which may then enable them to rebuild trust and the overall relationship with smallholders. This could subsequently improve their ability to provide smallholders with information that is heeded, thus offering meaningful benefit.
We also identify an opportunity for AEOs to target the Availability of Resources variable by contributing to policy development. These officials are well positioned to encourage government-backed initiatives that facilitate smallholder access to better resources (such as credit) and encourage banks or other institutions to provide loans for smallholders.

5.1.2. Large Scale Suppliers—Targeting Information, Support, Resources, Access and Risk Reduction

Meru Agro is a large-scale supplier located in the city centre of Arusha. They have made efforts to diversify their distribution network through their Lead Farmer initiative, which is based on a direct-to-smallholder model and offers an added benefit of reducing some of the challenges faced by smallholders, or at least for those smallholders taking part in the initiative:
“Meru Agro saw this as an opportunity to use lead farmers to [make available] inputs to smallholder farmers because, due to poor infrastructure in most rural areas it is not easy for them to access agro inputs. Most agro dealers are in town centers.”
—Meru Agro Representative
Key to this initiative are lead farmers, who are selected based on their farming abilities or their informal leadership role in the community. Lead farmers receive training through Meru Agro on good agronomic practices focused on identifying and using quality inputs, details of Meru Agro products, and how similar assistance can be provided to other farmers. Lead farmers are also provided with certified/quality inputs from the company on a credit basis and free of delivery charges, with the loan repaid from the resulting sales. Meru Agro’ representatives suggest that this approach has achieved some success over the last two years since its conception:
“It has increased farm yields due to use of quality inputs in integration with good agronomic practices [and] it has reduced the issue of fake inputs especially, seeds because now farmers are able to distinguish fake inputs from quality inputs.”
—Meru Agro Representative
Through this initiative, Meru Agro provides an opportunity to shift the power balance in the system by bypassing the local suppliers and possibly illegal traders. Four variables of our causal loop are addressed through this direct-to-smallholder model, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to target multiple areas simultaneously. This initiative might contribute to redressing the risk and exploitive power dynamics felt by smallholders, while providing benefit to the large suppliers as well. This type of activity could benefit from additional study to further understand how it would contribute to improving smallholder livelihoods over the short and long term.

5.1.3. Nongovernment Organizations—Targeting Information

Farm Radio International (FRI) is one of the nonprofit organizations working to improve opportunities for smallholders in Tanzania. FRI works with radio broadcasting partners to share information with smallholders and to engage them through participatory communication practices. This approach to communication actively involves smallholders in the discussion, particularly through the formation of listening groups where they can listen to a broadcast together, discuss, and then have the opportunity to provide feedback to FRI, individually or as a group, to help identify ways by which information sharing can be improved or tailored to their needs. FRI provides an accessible platform even in remote areas (through household radios, or listening groups facilitated by FRI-provided radios), making information widely accessible with little to no financial penalty to the listener. In 2018/2019, FRI estimates that they, with their partners, reached 20 million people across rural Africa.
The volume of farmer-relevant information distributed though FRI’s network of radio partners, combined with the important feedback loop of participatory communication, enables FRI to increase the knowledge of smallholders and therefore offers the opportunity for smallholders to have more agency throughout their activities. This can reduce the smallholder’s reliance on others (and thus reduce their exposure to risk) and help rebalance the power dynamic in their interactions. Radio provides a convenient and inexpensive way to gain this information because farmers can listen to the radio concurrently with other activities. Learning ‘over the air’ means that literacy rates are not a concern, permitting the dissemination of the most relevant information to the most people. By enabling smallholders to further close the information gap, FRI helps shift the power dynamic in the farmers’ favour, with potential to help overcome the poverty trap.
Table 4 provides a summary of the findings in this section.

5.2. Opportunities for Sustainable Action

In reference to our causal loop diagram and arising directly from our findings, we identify three primary variables where tangible and targeted improvement efforts can be made through coordinated stakeholder action with the goal of equalizing the power dynamic at the heart of the poverty trap, reversing the cycle, and offering an opportunity for sustainable activities to be implemented. The first variable is access to information and support such that smallholders could be better able to understand how to access and use inputs, and to better predict their needs and learn how to better forecast, plan, and prepare for their seasons. With continued guidance and support, farmers could feel more comfortable in using improved inputs and managing additional risk that comes from looking at alternative sources and types of supply. The second variable concerns access to the particular resource of capital, potentially through provision of credit, financing, and loan or micro-loan options because smallholders are not currently guaranteed an open-handed response from traditional banks, suppliers, or even Village Community Banking Associations (if applicable). Enabling private sector organizations through government involvement and underwriting the risk of non-repayment may be the only way to accomplish this. The final variable is that of quality inputs; however, we suggest that this cannot represent a viable long-lasting solution by itself, unless integrated with the two previously-mentioned areas. Providing quality inputs directly to the smallholder could offer improved crops and higher income, yet the yields remain dependent on uncontrollable factors such as weather and pests, so quality inputs in-and-of-themselves may not be sufficient to create enough long-term income growth to provide lasting benefit. Table 5 provides a summary of these findings.
When referencing Figure 7, the variable of subsistence risk is also identified. We assess that by targeting the aforementioned three pressure point variables, this will stimulate and promote the reduction of subsistence risk, where additional efforts by large-scale supplies may further promote risk reduction through activities noted in Section 5.1. We see in our causal loop diagram that all loops are connected through the subsistence risk variable, and it is this variable that drives the poverty trap. Thus, by collaborative activities targeting factors that will reduce this risk, we may begin to see a positive change in the cycle; as subsistence risk lowers, the impacts related to captivity will also decrease, with follow-on effects across the connected variables taking place, further reducing this risk, and so on. Table 5 provides a summary of these key variables to be leveraged.
With a more holistic and coordinated approach across these specific variables, we see the potential to move past unilateral solutions and to embark on a path towards long-lasting and sustainable improvement for smallholders underwritten by a comprehensive, system-based approach which respects the intricacies and interconnections of their complex input-sourcing processes. This approach may offer the potential for more opportunities for smallholders to begin to take control over their activities, reducing subsistence risk, thereby enabling smallholders to take on more risk to expand their operations and capabilities, and promoting a less captive state which may work to equalize the power dynamic in favour of smallholders with the goal of overcoming the poverty trap. We further suggest that it is through this type of effort that smallholders could be empowered to enhance the quality of their production and contribute even more significantly to the agricultural and economic development of their region.
To illustrate how this approach may be practically applied in support of ongoing innovative practices in agriculture, we offer some discussion of smallholder-run purchasing groups, which was one potential solution identified during our focus groups:
“That’s a good idea, a very, very good idea to be organized all together and go buy all the agricultural equipment like seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides, that would be better. […]”
—Smallholder farmer (Kwaugoro village)
“Buying as a group, is better because […] the price is low and the quality is fantastic because the seller, they are too shy to cheat on the groups. […].”
—Smallholder farmer (Kwaugoro village)
Smallholders were very enthusiastic about the prospect of purchasing their inputs as a group and could appreciate the potential value of this activity; however, they noted several impediments to success. This included lack of capital, the time required to travel to the large-scale suppliers who offer wholesale, an inability to coordinate the input type and quantity to accommodate multiple needs and individual priorities, and the lack of suitable storage facilities to store wholesale volumes:
“I think that is the best way to organize as a group. […] But the challenge is everyone here has a different view of what they’re going to plant for the season. […] That’s why we don’t get organized and go buy the seeds together. Sometimes, you find out, one of us in the group doesn’t have money and they cannot join the group. So, at the end of the day you just go and buy individually.”
—Smallholder farmer (Mbuguni village)
Despite the impediments noted by smallholders, most of which we have previously identified as significant challenges through our causal loop analysis, we see the broad potential for this kind of initiative. We suggest that this could reduce reactive/ad hoc decision making through improved forecasting, planning, and preparation, minimize negative trade-offs, reduce overall costs, increase the chances of receiving good quality inputs, and provide the opportunity for smallholders to benefit from supplier-based incentives, such as delivery.
To achieve positive outcomes from this type of activity, we suggest that collective, coordinated stakeholder action would be desirable. For example, AEOs and NGOs could coordinate training for smallholders in how to organize and plan for input purchase and distribution within a large group with diverse needs (e.g., identifying overlapping and specific input needs), offer education to improve negotiating skills and understanding of contract management, and provide general oversight. Additionally, coordination between AEOs, NGOs, and various private industry stakeholders could promote accessibility to credit or financing options (either with banks or large-scale suppliers), offer wholesale quantities that are reasonable for a group of smallholders, provide enhanced delivery options, and enable innovative storage solutions (e.g., consignment-storage of inputs at the large-scale suppliers’ temperature and humidity-controlled warehouses until required by the smallholder). Finally, we suggest that smallholders be actively engaged in the process, substantiated by their desire to improve the way in which they conduct their activities and willingness to make the necessary effort to find solutions, where the opportunity exists to do so at manageable risk:
“We tried to solve the problem and to manage the challenge[s] we have, but the problem is that we don’t go far away. That’s why when we heard that [you were coming] here, we heard the news last night and when we [got] up in the morning, straight away we came here. We think maybe you can solve our problems and to deal with the challenges. That’s why we’re here and we’re glad to be here.”
—Smallholder farmer (Kikatiti village)
Enabling a solution such as this may work towards reducing subsistence risk for smallholders as they may gain knowledge and confidence in applying alternative business practices that will reduce operating costs, allowing for greater overall revenue to be gained after sale. This may in turn offer a financial cushion for smallholders to be more comfortable in taking on greater risks to source new suppliers, improve processes, etc. This in turn may build rural resilience.

6. Discussions and Conclusions

The sustainability of food supply chains is the topic of an important conversation. Due to their vast numbers around the world, smallholder farmers are crucial actors to consider in discussions around food production sustainability [83]. In order for smallholders to continue contributing to global food networks on such a broad scale, we must find ways to identify, encourage and support sustainable agricultural practices, which we argue, begin with developing sustainable livelihoods for smallholders through reducing their susceptibility to the dynamics associated with poverty traps and reversing this vicious cycle.
Using the lens of supply chain management within this study, an interesting perspective is offered, where this field of study, although often focused on logistical components, also works to determine how value may be added across the chain. Within our context, smallholders may be able to benefit from the concept of value chain upgrading opportunities. However, several constraints exist, such as the availability of infrastructure and resources (including inputs, credit, and information), as well as the voids across governmental policies and regulations [84]. Smallholder farmers often find themselves within a horizontal supply chain, where relationships, collaboration, and social capital may enable increased purchasing power and improved input sourcing while offering a substitute for weaker institutions [84]. However, with trust at the centre of the incomplete, or informal, markets in which smallholders operate, this type of collaboration may be difficult if these important social networks cannot be established or maintained across the various stakeholders.
Through the opportunities to pursue value chain upgrading, we must be sure to incorporate sustainability principles that are applied as part of a continuous cycle requiring increased coordination. As part of a sustainable food value chain, main principles include performance measurement, understanding, and improvement within economic, social, and environmental dimensions [85]. Smallholders are indeed an important contributor to this chain, and their specific challenges must be contextualized within this.
With production capabilities being highly dependent on inputs and the associated limitations that exist for smallholders to access these inputs and other important resources such as credit, smallholders experience a significant risk to their ability to produce and participate in markets [86,87]. Our study’s focus on inputs offers an opportunity to better understand the origins of this problem. In other words, our research presents a new perspective to understanding the challenges facing smallholder farmers in developing countries and the reasons why they remain entrenched in endemic poverty. Instead of focusing on market dynamics exclusively, we place greater emphasis on supply-side dynamics and relationships inherent to input sourcing to better understand the different constraints and challenges that may impact smallholders’ ability to see increased value and sustainable livelihoods. We offer a holistic perspective to capture the variety of challenges faced by smallholders and their impact relative to each other, leading to a contextualized framework which presents a different perspective on the poverty trap—attributing it, at least in part, to the smallholder input supply chain. Our use of grounded theory enabled us to capture these challenges through the lens of the smallholder farmers and to map them by means of a causal loop diagram so as to highlight the accumulation, compounding, and complexity of the issues. As seen through our framework, multiple overlapping issues create severe challenges around input sourcing for smallholder farmers. This complexity and interconnectedness must be taken into account if any sustainable benefit is to occur to their benefit. Solution development and building rural resilience cannot occur in isolation and without contextualizing implementation as part of a holistic perspective; if challenges are approached as singular entities rather than as part of a larger whole with multiple cause and effects, we risk creating additional challenges not previously anticipated. We believe that our framework and our perspective have value beyond the specific setting studied, offering insight into how improved input sourcing might enable better standards of living across Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions where similar challenges exist.
Accountability and transparency between supply chain actors [60] is challenging for large, power actors within subsistence markets given gaps in regulations and capital [88]. We draw the conclusion that if it is challenging for those who can easily access information and money, and who possess the necessary connections to operate within these markets, then it becomes nearly impossible for those smallholders who possess much less power and access, making collaborative efforts imperative to achieving sustainability. Aligning with the UN Sustainable Development Goals on the elimination of poverty, the objective is to unwind the poverty trap in a sustainable fashion through balancing and redefining the power dynamic via subsistence risk reduction, giving smallholders a greater voice within their daily business transactions to improve their livelihoods and increase agricultural output, thus offering a greater impact to local and national economies. The end goal must be to shift the power dynamics so as to provide smallholders with a better platform from which they can sustainably address issues and improve practices across their supply chain.
A transdisciplinary and participatory training approach [89] is important to reducing exposure to risk over the long- and short-term, and in particular, subsistence risk as the primary area of concern for smallholders. This would also aid in building and maintaining stakeholder relationships, which can be the most difficult part of the collaborative process but is also the key to success [90], thus reducing the captivity of smallholders within the current environment. However, there is not always an incentive for stakeholders to engage in collaborative efforts. We see the NGO role as vitally important and being the primary entity to coordinate activities amongst stakeholders and aid in encouraging cooperation and collaboration. Furthermore, active smallholder engagement may dispel some of the damaging effects that could arise if collaboration is not managed and coordinated effectively, particularly once principal stakeholders leave and smallholders are left again to depend only on their own resources [91]. This may lead to a power void across stakeholders. By implementing an initiative such as small, localized, community-buying groups, this could offer one way for smallholders to reduce reliance on others and thus minimize the power distortions. A strong desire to improve current processes exists within the smallholder community and has been documented by Snyder et al. [92] who observed that smallholders were anything but slow to respond to more modern farming techniques. This mindset could be leveraged through more direct investment in smallholder farmers and supporting input markets to offer more impactful solutions. Given that conditions and characteristics will vary between smallholder agro-food value chains, there are opportunities for government stakeholders to explore and invest in alternative input and input provisioning options based on the particular environment (i.e., “organic vs. inorganic fertilizer”) in close collaboration with the smallholders who are targeted by their extension services.
The poverty trap as it currently exists is a complex web that is challenging to unravel, and thus to correct. It will be even more difficult to reverse the downward spiral that we see today in such a way that it may offer a sustainable approach towards long-term poverty reduction.

7. Limitations and Future Research

It would be beneficial for future research to include a larger geographical area so as to compile data across various regions and therefore determine overlaps of challenges, or discover potential mechanisms by which resources may be combined to facilitate collaborative efforts. Additionally, throughout the theoretical sampling, we endeavoured to close as many gaps as possible; however, due to the macro perspective of this study and its complex nature, some peripheral questions remain open for further consideration. These questions include how credit can be provided to smallholders on a broad scale, understanding how collateral can be obtained, and how policy can be generated to improve information sharing across organizations.
Despite ongoing efforts to address various aspects of the poverty trap, it persists, so we must continue to ask why current interventions are thus far failing to break the cycle. What additional efforts are needed? Is this a failure of scaling? What can be done differently? Our research has aided in depicting the broad, complex, and interconnected nature of the poverty trap as it relates to the input supply chain, and we hope that this paper stimulates conversation and offers an avenue for further research within this area.
Although we have sought to expand the literature on poverty traps to highlight the contribution of the rural input supply chain, there is much opportunity for future research, such as expanding this study to follow the input supply chain out to the large-scale suppliers/importers (and past the rural side) to further investigate their constraints and challenges to add to the holistic picture of the complete input supply chain and to develop an output (i.e., market) component causal loop diagram to see how this intersects with and impacts the input component causal loop.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, E.E. and M.-E.R.; Data curation, E.E.; Formal analysis, E.E.; Funding acquisition, M.-E.R.; Investigation, E.E.; Methodology, E.E., M.-E.R. and A.L.; Project administration, E.E.; Resources, M.-E.R. and A.L.; Supervision, M.-E.R. and A.L.; Validation, M.-E.R., A.L. and D.H.; Visualization, E.E., M.-E.R. and A.L.; Writing—original draft, E.E.; Writing—review & editing, M.-E.R. and A.L. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


Funding was received by the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [grant number 2014-03945] and by the Institute for Data Valorization.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Institutional Review Board (or Ethics Committee) of HEC Montréal (Project No. 2020-3722, Issued 8 October 2019).

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


The authors extend their thanks to Farm Radio International for their support to this project, in particular, their enablement of data collection. We would also like to thank all those who offered encouragement and guidance over the course of this project, notably, Professor Stephan Vachon for his valuable comments and constructive feedback on our paper.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Geographical Layout of Fieldwork [74,75].
Figure 1. Geographical Layout of Fieldwork [74,75].
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Figure 2. The Tanzanian Smallholder Rural Agro-Input Supply Chain.
Figure 2. The Tanzanian Smallholder Rural Agro-Input Supply Chain.
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Figure 3. The Heart of the Poverty Trap.
Figure 3. The Heart of the Poverty Trap.
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Figure 4. Exacerbation of The Poverty Trap (Stage 1).
Figure 4. Exacerbation of The Poverty Trap (Stage 1).
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Figure 5. Exacerbation of The Poverty Trap (Stage 2).
Figure 5. Exacerbation of The Poverty Trap (Stage 2).
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Figure 6. Trade-offs, Decision Making, and The Poverty Trap (Final Stage).
Figure 6. Trade-offs, Decision Making, and The Poverty Trap (Final Stage).
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Figure 7. Stakeholders and Pressure Points in the Conceptual Framework.
Figure 7. Stakeholders and Pressure Points in the Conceptual Framework.
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Table 1. Sample Composition.
Table 1. Sample Composition.
TypeLocationInterview Type and
Participant Data
KikatitiFocus group—Smallholder farmers (Male and female, 20 participants)Understand how smallholders source and obtain their inputs, and the associated challenges. Determine the critical inputs. Explore possible solutions to challenges.
KikatitiFocus group—Smallholder farmers. (Male and female, 8 participants)
KikatitiFocus group—Smallholder farmers (Male and female, 9 participants)
KwaugoroFocus group—Smallholder farmers (Male and female, 33 participants)
MbuguniFocus group—Smallholder farmers (Male and female, 18 participants)
Usa RiverVillage AEO (Female)
District AEO (Female)
Determine the existing regulations and external conditions.
KikatitiVillage-level ago dealer/supplier (Male)Understand activities further upstream. Determine challenges and potential solutions. Explore issues that smallholders identified and validate.
Maji Ya ChaiVillage-level ago dealer/supplier (Female)
ArushaImporter/producer/distributor (Male)
ArushaImporter/producer/distributor (Female)
Theoretical SamplingKikweFocus group—Smallholder farmers (Male and female, 16 participants)Revisit the initial smallholder statements using different techniques and understand how smallholders make decisions.
KarangaiFocus group—Smallholder farmers (Male and female, 12 participants)
ArushaEmail interview—Meru AgroRevisit the Meru Agro Lead Farmer Initiative
N/AEmail interview—National Farmer OrganizationDiscuss the roles and contributions
Table 2. Coding Samples.
Table 2. Coding Samples.
GroupAssociated QuoteThemeDimension
Smallholder Farmer“For example, [you] worked hard all season, put a lot of expense [into] farming, and at the end of the day you don’t get a good price for your crops. But also, you have a lot of needs. […] I need to send my kids to school and in the middle of the season I have to pay [back some loans], […]. Once you have your crops, you will need to sell even if it’s [at] cheap price, you have no choice. You cannot wait until the price gets higher. […]”.Captivity from
Buyers and
Unequal Power Dynamics
Smallholder Farmer“The only reason why our crops go bad before it goes to the market [is] because we don’t have modern machines to keep them fresh. […]”.
Smallholder Farmer“So, what we do, we just look to the supplier, so when we see a supplier selling more than, most people go to that shop. We just go there. We [assume] maybe his seeds are the best seeds or he has good quality and stuff like that, so that’s why we go to that shop when we see many people buying from that shop, so we can go to that seller to buy our seeds”.Subsistence
Smallholder Farmer“Sometimes you do have 20 sacks of maize and you want to keep them until the price gets high, but you can’t do that because you don’t have money to buy chemicals or pesticides to keep the maize in good condition. At the end of the day, you have to take your maize outside. You use the sun, and sometimes you don’t have money also to buy something to cover in case of rain. It’s a really big challenge, at the end of the day, you have to sell your maize or whatever you have for a cheap price”.
Large-scale supplier“I have the statistics that show that improved seed in Tanzania is 18%. 18% of smallholder famers use improved seed over the last year. Everybody else will use farmer-saved seeds”.Availability
Of Resources
and Quality
Resources and Quality Inputs
Smallholder farmer“The women in our village, they struggle to get fresh drinking water. They travel a long way to get water and at the end of the day they don’t get time to go to the farm. The whole village here, we don’t have water so that’s a big, big challenge for us”.
Large-scale supplierBecause I go direct to a farmer [and] I make sure that farmer gets what is from me directly. Nothing has happened in between. So you can be able to trust [our] inputs.
Smallholder farmer“Nowadays […] there’s a lot of fake seeds and fertilizers, which is driving us crazy as farmers”.
Smallholder farmer“Before [an NGO] came over here, we used local transport like motorcycles, bicycles or walking. Myself, I use a donkey to go get the seeds from the center to my farm, but nowadays, since [the NGO] came over, they bring the seeds and all the stuff close to our village, so we don’t have to go far away to get the agricultural [inputs] anymore”.Physically
Smallholder farmer“Well, we do have this challenge sometimes. The problem is we have lack of transport and lack of infrastructure. Some of the road in the village here are not good. But we try to deal with the challenges. Sometimes we organize the whole village to repair the roads so we can get our crops off the farm. Sometimes, it’s really difficult to get the crops from the farm, sometimes you don’t have any transportation to get them out. So, at the end of the day, they just go bad and you lose your crops, some of them. So, it’s really, really challenging us”.
Smallholder farmer“But some of the farmers, they don’t have that education so they don’t know which is fake and which is original, because they don’t really even look at the package label and read them. But some of us, we have opportunity to get education from organizations and nowadays we know how to look for the quality and how to read the label, and to get to know which is fake and which is original”.Access to
and External
Access to
Information and Support
AEO“We advise them to buy before, preparations. It’s very important to buy them before the season”.
“One month before”
“Most of them wait for the rain to come”.
“They are not sure of [when] the rain [will come], [this is why] we encourage them [to buy inputs ahead of time”.
AEO“A big challenge [is] capital. Because [with] pesticides, fertilizers, you can see the price is increasing. So, a farmer cannot afford to buy all the inputs necessary, necessary inputs. But you can find, a few farmers who can afford it, but the others cannot. But we as extension officers, we advise them to, connect them to banks to get loans and the other institutions, you know, that get capital. Also, in the village, we advise farmers to start [Village Community Banking Associations]. ”Relying on
Smallholder farmer“To be honest, when it comes to check the quality of the product, it’s really difficult for most of us, because most of us are not educated. So, it’s really difficult, it’s a big challenge for us because we don’t know. Some of us, [we] don’t know how to read and that’s the problem”.
Smallholder farmer“It depends with the season. Sometimes there is long season and short season. We don’t really get the seeds or fertilizer before the rain starts. So, when the rain starts, we get to know that this is the short season or long season. Normally on our side the rains start in February up to April, but sometimes the rain can start in March. Once the rains start in March, you really know the season will be short. So, I have to go to the shop and buy seeds for the short season. So, that’s why we wait for the rains and the season to start so you really get to know if the season will be long or short”.Forecasting,
Planning, and
Trade-offs and Decision Making
Smallholder farmer“Overall, seeds, we don’t get seeds at the right time. Sometimes the season gets started and there’s no seeds because the supplier of the seeds, they don’t really make sure that the seeds are there at the right time. We have this problem; we don’t get seeds at the right time”.
Smallholder farmer“Definitely, if we knew that there [are] original [/not fake] seeds and overall agricultural equipment and stuff like that, we would definitely organize ourselves as a village, and go there, get the seeds and all the equipment we need. Because we know that at the end of the day, we’re going to benefit because that stuff is original”.Wanting to do
AEO“When you talk of different regions, [in the] Southern Highlands, there are a lot of farmers who grow maize...the Tanzanian government, they buy those crops, maybe for example maize, they buy them if there is in excess. So, [smallholders] plant it, they grow most crops, especially maize. If [there] is surplus, the Tanzanian government buys [the] maize and puts it in national food reserve to ensure food security in our country. If it happen[s] that the nearby country, maybe they have deficit of food, [the] Tanzania government [sells] the food to other countries. They have been divided into zones. [In the] northern zone we have national food reserve, Southern highland, [there are] two or three [National Food Reserves]. In our case, we don’t know [how much is paid to smallholders]”.
Smallholder farmer“The thing is that, when the season starts and sometimes, the season has started but you don’t find seeds, most of the time, especially seeds like beans. You can go to the shop but you don’t find seeds at the right time, that’s the problem”.Ad hoc
Making and
Pressure to
Make Trade-
Smallholder farmer“The issue is that they need money during that time, so they have to sell. They have to sell”.
Table 3. Data Structure.
Table 3. Data Structure.
First Order ConceptsThemeDimension
Relying on yields for survival
Being held captive by the market/Saturated market reduces selling price
Sourcing occurs through limited channels
Purchasing options are limited by availability of input and limited supply
Farming is their only experience/Not having another choice other than to farm
Encouraging a cycle of poverty
Buyers and
High opportunity cost for the farmer, no impact to suppliers (local or large-scale)
Spending limited funds without certainty of return on investment
Returning inputs is a time-consuming processes/Possibility for reimbursement is supplier-dependent/Risking delaying the planting season
[Suppliers] risking consequences if regulations are not adhered to
Risking high inventory holding costs [suppliers purchasing at wholesale quantity]
Being exposed to theft (of packaging)
Lacking capital/Financing options and payment mechanisms are limited
Limiting quantity and type (quality) of products of that be purchased
Not making enough to buy inputs for the next season/Production costs are higher than sales
Lacking adequate storage for inputs
Not enough time to do everything—investigating different avenues for input sourcing is not a top priority
Encouraging alternative sourcing options and cooperative solutions
Doing the most possible to ensure quality when purchasing
Not knowing true quality before planting/Room is being left in the supply chain to tamper with inputs
Trying to increase yields by using improved inputs
Relying on unreliable/reduced quality self-harvested seeds
Being held to a national standard for quality
Reducing time in inventory/the time inputs are on shelves
Availability of
Resources and
Quality Inputs
Resources and
Quality Inputs
Carrying capacity is limited
Travelling to suppliers is time-consuming and expensive
Lacking transportation options
Poor road conditions/infrastructure impedes access to inputs
Preferring local suppliers due to accessibility
Smallholders accessing large-scale suppliers and quality products is possible
Changing government involvement/Government understaffing directs responsibility to uninvested players
Limited understanding can result in barriers for farmers/Needing to know how to gather and use information effectively
Lacking efficient flow of information downstream
Accessing information via NGOs impacts relationship development with extension officers
Inconsistent knowledge amongst farmers/Not knowing how to approach finding solutions
Monitoring suppliers/Auditing is not having the desired results
No follow-up/Minimal follow-up
Providing limited scope solutions/Not tailoring solutions to end-user needs
Access to
Information and
Access to
Information and
[Smallholders] relying on suppliers to validate quality and provide quality products
[Smallholders] relying on supplier for information and education
[Smallholders] relying on nongovernment agencies for support
[Local Suppliers] receiving training but relying on certifications from [Large-scale] supplier
[Extension Officers] relying on farmers to share learned information leaves gaps in communication
[Suppliers] relying on customers [Smallholders] to identify issues with the product/Relying on customers to ask questions
on Others
Making trade-offs between cost and quantity purchased/Prioritizing price over quality
Taking away resources from the family that were not intended for sale
Coordinating efforts alone/without guidance
Feeling afraid of negative repercussions from suppliers/Mistrusting suppliers
Feeling desperate for money/Focusing on prioritizing basic activities such as water collection
Feeling uncertain (quality, how to use inputs, prices, etc.)/Feeling pressured and overwhelmed
Ad Hoc
Making and
Pressure to
Trade-offs and
Desiring to increase income
Need to find ways to change what they are doing, not where they are doing it
Wanting to be more in control/, to change, to save time and money, and to have recourse options
Willing to change processes/Willing to try new approaches to input sourcing
Willing to work more/longer for increased payoff
Working together and merging resources is the key to success
Wanting to do
Reacting vice being proactive
Reacting to external and uncontrollable variables (i.e., weather)
Sourcing begins under a time-constraint/Buying whatever is available
Purchasing during peak demand times/Mass influx of demand limits supply
Consistent (timeframe) and sporadic (quantity and type) demand
Seeing and understanding the need to build relationships and generate a loyal customer base
Planning, and
(Reactive vs.
Table 4. Current Initiatives.
Table 4. Current Initiatives.
StakeholderCurrent InitiativesImpact on the
Poverty Trap
Access to
Information and

Large-Scale Suppliers

  • Increased AEO follow-up with smallholders
  • Trust and relationship development

  • Improved agronomic practices
  • Training on input use
  • Training on quality identification

  • Knowledge development
  • Information dissemination
Improve Information Sharing
Decrease Reliance on Others
Decrease Subsistence Risk
Availability of Resources and Quality InputsGovernment

Large-Scale Suppliers
  • Policy development
  • Government-backed initiatives for credit, loan, and banking access

  • Minimizing impact of illegal traders
  • Quality assurance
  • Credit/loan options
Improve Information Sharing
Decrease Reliance on Others
Decrease Subsistence Risk
Accessing Inputs
Large-Scale Suppliers
  • Improved product availability
  • Delivery options—reducing transport related costs and distance travelled
Improved Ability to Physically Access Inputs
Decrease Subsistence Risk
Subsistence RiskLarge-Scale Suppliers
  • Collaborative efforts and risk sharing
Decrease Captivity from Buyers and Suppliers
Table 5. Key Variables to Leverage.
Table 5. Key Variables to Leverage.
Variable to LeverageExpected Impact for Smallholders
Access to
Information and
  • Improved understanding for smallholders on how to access and use inputs
  • Improved needs identification
  • Improved forecasting, planning, and preparation for planting
  • Increased understanding of and confidence in using improved inputs
  • Increased risk acceptance to source other suppliers
Access to Resources and Quality
Inputs (Capital)
  • Underwriting of risk from government and banking institutions
Access to Resources and Quality
Inputs (Quality Inputs)
  • Improved production and crop quality
  • Increased income from sales
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MDPI and ACS Style

Eldridge, E.; Rancourt, M.-E.; Langley, A.; Héroux, D. Expanding Perspectives on the Poverty Trap for Smallholder Farmers in Tanzania: The Role of Rural Input Supply Chains. Sustainability 2022, 14, 4971.

AMA Style

Eldridge E, Rancourt M-E, Langley A, Héroux D. Expanding Perspectives on the Poverty Trap for Smallholder Farmers in Tanzania: The Role of Rural Input Supply Chains. Sustainability. 2022; 14(9):4971.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Eldridge, Elizabeth, Marie-Eve Rancourt, Ann Langley, and Dani Héroux. 2022. "Expanding Perspectives on the Poverty Trap for Smallholder Farmers in Tanzania: The Role of Rural Input Supply Chains" Sustainability 14, no. 9: 4971.

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