Study: Women, youths can be more effective at driving sustainable farming changes
Cocoa farmers on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island by Wahyu Chandra for Mongabay-Indonesia.

Women, youths can be more effective at driving sustainable farming changes

Sustainable farming: A new study has shown that farmers who aren’t traditionally perceived as having the most social and cultural power in their community can be more effective at convincing their peers to adopt new practices.

The findings could have significant implications for conservation organizations trying to implement sustainable agriculture programs within communities.

The study, published in February, looked at the role of women and younger cacao farmers in a district of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island. It found that, compared to older males in the community who were perceived to be “opinion leaders,” women and younger farmers were able to convince nearly twice as many of their fellow fαrmers to try out new techniques.

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Driving sustainable farming changes

Study author Petr Matous, an associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering, noted that farming is highly gendered in Indonesia; few women occupy prominent roles in local groups, many of which are community-based organizations aimed at improving the livelihoods of locals.

These groups are also often responsible for channeling support from the government and international organizations, he added.

“But what our result has demonstrated is something often remarked on anecdotally in many other settings,” Matous said in a statement.

“From farming and construction to banking and politics, older men are often perceived as the most influential in their networks, but in our study, they didn’t have the greatest impact.”

Women, youths can be more effective at driving sustainable farming changes
A member of the Sulawesi farming community speaks to contact about using a new pair of scissors to prune cacao crops. Image courtesy of the Swisscontact/University of Sydney.

Matous analyzed data from a cacao-farming programme in Sulawesi run by the development nonprofit Swisscontact since March 2020. The data consisted of responses by more than 2,000 farmers to a survey by Swisscontact staff asking the, to identify the most influential opinion leaders in their communities.

Matous said he carried out his analysis independently for the study to avoid any conflicts of interest and also used a secondary anonymized data set collected by a third party.

The survey identified 18 popular opinion leaders, mostly older males. These individuals were then asked to convince as many other farmers as possible to improve the health of their cacao trees with a set of pruning scissors donated by the program.

As a comparison, a second group of 18 fαrmers was then selected at random, comprising mostly young male farmers and women who had not been selected in the initial survey as agricultural opinion leaders.

Among the established opinion leaders, none had zero impact, but neither did any show an extremely high impact, Matous told Mongabay in an email interview.

He said this was due to so-called influencer fatigue: it’s often the same local people who tend to get invited to be the public figure for all different kinds of programmes introduced by various development organizations coming into the community.

The repeated presence of these individuals might reinforce the accepted perception of them as high-status community members, but it might also mean they’re not that motivated to try hard anymore, Matous said.

“Those who are selected by an international organization as the local champion for the first time in their life may have much more social capital to gain if they go out of their way and reach out to others with something like sharing information about a new free resource provided by a donor,” he said.

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Women, youths can be more effective at driving sustainable farming changes
The test to determine influential members of the Sulawesi farming community centered on getting farmers to apply by text message for a free pair of pruning scissors. Image courtesy of Swisscontact/University of Sydney.

“The rural communities we work with are typically traditional, hierarchical, and paternalistic — high status individuals are typically older men,” Nadya Aulika Runnisa, inclusive market specialist at Swisscontact Indonesia, said in the statement.

“Our programme aims to promote diversity and inclusivity, and so we’ve been looking at ways to include more youth and women in our programs — the study’s result strengthens the case for doing so.”

Still, Matous cautioned against completely abandoning the idea of consulting and engaging with certain locally respected individuals, saying this could run the risk of them potentially blocking the proposed initiatives.

“If we want to make change, we need to first recognize the real potential of women and younger participants and then put that into practice,” he said in his email.

“Before rushing into interventions, we need to pay careful attention to the local context and the workings of the local communities not to miss out on who are the people who can really make change happen — and they may not be the typical suspects.”

Sylvia Sjam, a cocoa expert and professor of agriculture at Hasanuddin University in Makassar, South Sulawesi, who reviewed the paper at Mongabay’s request, said the findings chimed with her own experience.

“From my experience of training cacao farmers … the young ones are more receptive to innovations than the older farmers,” she said.

“These farmers, whom I dub millennial farmers, are the pioneering examples and are keen to encourage others to join in and be active.

“Women farmers are typically more persistent,” Sjam added.

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Still, she noted that none of this means older male farmers no longer carry any weight when it comes to influencing community members to adopt new farming technologies and methods.

She said they can serve as initiators of such developments, especially in communities where high social standing is prized. The role of young people and women can then be to ensure that the new practices are maintained over the long term.

Matous said that beyond sparking behavioral change toward sustainable and equitable agriculture, his findings showed engaging farmers can lead to shifting the relational structures of communities — lifting some above others by providing them with valuable resources and opportunities for influence.

“We should not ignore these types of structural impacts as these may have more significant long term ramifications for how a community operates that go beyond the impact of someone using pruning scissors, for example,” Matous said.

Women, youths can be more effective at driving sustainable farming changes
A younger community member helps a farmer apply by text message for a free pair of cacao pruning scissors. Image courtesy of Swisscontact/University of Sydney.

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Matous, P. (2023). Male and stale? Questioning the role of “opinion leaders” in agricultural programmes. Agriculture and Human Values, 1-16. doi:10.1007/s10460-023-10415-9

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.