No Poverty among Smallholder Farmers: Can access to Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS)-compliant markets help?

Ever since the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, the global development community has worked towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, set forth by the United Nations. However, progress has been cut short, or even worse, reversed, due to multiple external shocks, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia crisis. This has further alarmed the world on issues like extreme poverty, food insecurity, and an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Despite multiple global efforts and investments, millions of people in the global south struggle with poverty. An estimated 2.5 billion people who manage 500 million smallholder farm households provide over 80 per cent of the food consumed in much of the developing world, particularly Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for these smallholder farmers to access critical resources and gain market-access for their products to combat the challenge of poverty. But how can smallholder farmers adapt to the multiple sustainability challenges and remain competitive?

Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) serve as one of the tools to address this problem. But certain factors influence smallholder farmers’ access to VSS-compliant markets. UNCTAD, together with IISD, explored this issue in their recent webinar which focused on illustrating these factors, while also delving deeper into the limitations that smallholder farmers face and how the limitations could be mitigated and enabling factors harnessed.

Voluntary sustainability standards and poverty reduction
Distinguished speakers and experts at the webinar

The webinar started with brief opening remarks from Mr. Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, Senior Economist at UNCTAD and UNFSS Coordinator. This was followed by a presentation by Dr. Niematallah E.A Elamin, Associate Economic Affairs Officer, UNCTAD, provided the grounds for discussion for the webinar. Dr. Elamin presented the results from a joint field study done by IISD and UNCTAD, as a part of the IISD-SSI review: Standards and Poverty Reduction. The assessment of the results indicated the key factors that limit and enable smallholder farmer access to VSS-compliant markets, based on interviews with 57 actors in six countries.

Following the presentation, a discussion among leading experts was moderated by Dr. Sara Elder, Senior Policy Advisor, IISD. During the discussion, Dr. Hermogene Nsengimana, Secretary-General of the African Organization for Standardization (ARSO), highlighted the role of ARSO’s in supporting smallholders to become certified. Dr. Nsengimana also presented ARSO’s long-term ambition concerning the EcoMark certification and how it could be a stepping-stone not only for poverty reduction, but also to get to continental sustainable trade.

“It is imperative that standards are adopted to the local context. This will enable greater access of smallholders to VSS-compliant markets and also promote regional value chains” Dr. Hermogene Nsengimana, Secretary-General of the African Organization for Standardization (ARSO)

Further, Ms. Rukiayah Rafik, Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil Farmers Forum (Fortasbi), highlighted how the association was working on increasing the farmers’ voice since it is one of the critical enabling factors for smallholder market access. This discussion was supplemented by Ms. Yolanda Mayora de Gavidia, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Guatemalan Exports Association, AGEXPORT. Ms. Gavidia elaborated on why an enabling environment is imperative for farmers to access financial resources. In addition, she also shared the best practices that worked in Guatemala to link smallholders and indigenous groups to buyers and promote access to sustainable markets.

“Social inclusion, sustainability of efforts, coordination and engagement of key stakeholders are necessary to enable mindset changes, while also supporting smallholders to comply with agricultural best practices” Ms. Yolanda Mayora de Gavidia, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Guatemalan Exports Association, AGEXPORT

On the point of markets, Mr. Ron Van Meer, Senior Advisor, Corporate Social Responsibility at CBI, presented an importing country perspective by sharing the best-practices identified to support smallholder export readiness and practical measures for adopting sustainable development practices. He explained and provided some pointers for smallholder farmers to build sustainable trade relationships for export.

The webinar provided for a rich discussion among the distinguished speakers and targeted at developing an understanding of the conditions that enable (or limit) smallholder farmer access to Voluntary Sustainability Standard (VSS)-compliant markets. The speakers also helped identify best practices for creating an enabling environment for sustainable production and trade, while providing inputs on the way forward to better harness the advantages of VSS by smallholders and producers in developing countries.

The webinar was closed by Dr. Cristina Larrea, Lead II, Sustainability Standards for the Economic Law and Policy Program, IISD. She emphasized the importance of VSS for eradicating poverty among smallholder farmers and thanked all experts for their valuable contributions.

The recording of the webinar is available at:

Presentation slides can be found at:

To read the full IISD-SSI Review on Standards and Poverty Reduction: 

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