case study – lean thinking travels far and wide. here’s how the experience and insights of an indiana-based farmer have supported a usaid project to improve outcomes for farmers across nigeria.
words: ben hartman and chyka okarter
photo credit: /
if we think that one in three people around the world make their living as farmers and that 70% of the food that we consume globally is produced in farms of 10 acres or less, we quickly realize that the potential of bringing lean thinking to small-scale agriculture is immense. indeed, feeding the world’s growing population will require us to embrace innovative approaches to farming and change the narrative that currently exists around small farming as a system that is not competitive and a backward model to move away from.
we are finally seeing this thinking change, partly because of the pandemic, which has showed that small farmers are often more resilient and adaptable. so, why not help them develop into lean enterprises so that we can change agriculture once and for all?
in this article, we will talk about an inspirational project we have been involved in that represents a great example of how lean can be applied to small farming operations. usaid, the us government’s agency responsible for administering foreign aid, has been interested in applying lean thinking to agricultural projects in nigeria – under its feed the future nigeria agricultural extension and advisory services activity – to boost the productivity in the sector. winrock, a non-profit organization based in washington d.c. and little rock, arkansas, is the implementing partner, and foundation for partnership initiatives in the niger delta (pind) is a funding partner. usaid owns the lean work we describe below.
it’s often assumed that lean concepts are purely japanese, but in truth every culture around the world has an efficiency tradition. no culture naturally tolerates waste, especially native ones. throughout the world, we see a “lean ethos” that we have tried to channel to improve the lives of nigerian smallholder farmers.
conventional thinking vs lean thinking
our project to improve outcomes for nigeria’s smallholder farmers was based on three key ideas on which conventional thinking and lean thinking differ.
first of all, whereas conventional thinking believes that more is more and that to increase farming output you need to increase input, lean thinking believes that less is more and that to achieve productivity gains you need to strive for waste reduction and value-adding work improvements. indeed, lean teaches us that, in every endeavor we might observe, there are two types of activities: those that add value and those that generate waste. the idea of focusing on cutting waste to increase productivity works well with smallholder farmers, who don’t have lots of resources and are typically risk adverse.
with this in mind, the first thing to do is analyzing costs and waste in your agricultural operation. such low-hanging fruit should be targeted before farmers are asked to take on any risks or new investment.
secondly, conventional thinking follows an agronomist first approach. in other words, it believes in bringing in outside experts to tell farmers what to do. in agriculture, research institutions are the most common source of improvement ideas and innovation. they share the agronomically ideal way (best agronomic practices) to produce a certain crop and offer a way to realize it. conversely, lean thinking teaches us that those who are putting the seeds in the ground are best placed to identify pain points in the farming process and suggest improvement ideas. farmers know the work and the waste in the value stream like no one else does. they are nuanced market actors making logical business decisions based on complex, highly particular and constantly changing environmental, economic and social conditions. we believe that their input should be the starting point, not an afterthought.
finally, conventional thinking tends to quickly move to solutions, even to complex, large-scale problems like poverty. lean, on the other hand, forces us to slow down and get a deep understanding of the current state before any decisions are made. the solution to global poverty doesn’t lie in sweeping generalizations or quick fixes, but in particular solutions to particular problems – in getting the details right. the right small changes can have a huge impact.
lean in nigeria farms
so, how do these concepts apply to nigerian agriculture? in this country of 200 million people, 70% of the population work as farmers (to give you an idea, this percentage in the us is less than 2%), and yet the country is food insecure. there is amazing potential to apply lean ideas and principles here, especially if we consider that demand for nigerian-produced food is growing.
usaid’s goal for the extension activity is to achieve $300 million of increased sales for about 2 million smallholder farmers in nigeria by 2025. this is a truly unique project, because a common approach of development agencies is to add costs for producers (better genetics, more expensive seeds, fancy technology and so on), whereas here we are looking at what’s actually going to reduce cost and waste for the average farmer.
for this project, we broke down the work into logical steps. first, we identified the customer. we asked ourselves who the paying customer is, who the farmers and buyers in the main market channel the segment moving the largest amount of production for the largest number of producers are, and who in the process makes the buy/no buy decisions.
once we identified who the actual customers are, we created field teams and sent them out to talk to those customers and ask them three simple questions:
- what they wanted,
- when they wanted it and,
- in what quantity?
the idea is to make sure that what is being produced on farms tightly aligns with what paying customers say they want.
we then worked on a map of the value-creating process – what steps are farmers currently taking to create and deliver products to the customer? for this, again, we went to the gemba – the farmers – to observe the process in action. we gathered a lot of information that allowed usaid and the extension activity to then identify the best opportunities for impact.
finally, we identified the interventions that would remove the most waste while creating the most value for customers at the lowest cost to the producers. most of the ideas for these most impactful practices (mips) came straight from the farmers growing crops on a regular basis.
a couple of examples from the field
here, we will share a couple of practical examples to show you how the observation we conducted at the gemba helped us to truly understand the situation and therefore come up with the best possible countermeasures.
first, let’s talk about aquaculture. we looked at what it takes to produce 1,000 catfish on the average small-holder farm in nigeria. through a number of interviews conducted at fish markets, we understood what a high-value catfish looks like in the eyes of the customer (people favor large fish, with big heads and a dark color) and compared that with what was actually happening and being produced on the farms.
catfish is hugely popular in nigeria. even though catfish is huge in nigeria and it is quickly growing in popularity as a low-cost source of protein, more than half of the catfish consumed in the country is imported. as a fish, catfish has a small footprint: it can be raised in your own backyard, even in an urban setting.
our conversations with farmers gave us a huge amount of data on each step in the process (for example, what it takes to drill a borehole to create a pond) and on some of the key decisions that farmers need to make (should i dig a hole in the ground or create concrete or tarpaulin ponds?). behind these choices, there are cultural, economic and social determinations that we must understand if we are to truly help farmers make the most of their resources.
we also looked at fish stocking and management to understand where the costs were in those steps. in our future state maps, we introduced the improvement ideas farmers came up with – which ranged from building ponds with water inlets and outlets to ensure cleaner water to relying on biometric feeding to reduce the amount of feed used or stocking less fragile juveniles instead of delicate fingerlings to reduce mortality and raise bigger fish.
for another commodity – rice – we heard over and over again from the women we interviewed (women account for 75% of the agricultural workforce in nigeria) that the harvest is very laborious and time consuming. to hand thresh, winnow and bag rice requires 20 days of labor and costs n76,000 per hectare, mostly to hire laborers (this kind of information can only be acquired at the gemba; you won’t find it in books). threshing and harvesting alone represent one third of the cost of growing rice in nigeria today, according to the farmers we interviewed: it’s clear that, if we want to lean up rice production, this is an improvement opportunity we need to pursue.
our investigation revealed that the cost of threshing using a rented thresher is n15,000 per hectare, with much higher returns (1 ton per day versus 300 kilograms). yet threshers are barely available in nigeria at this point. the solution we identified together with the farmers, therefore, was to work with local welders to fabricate and service threshers and with local business to offer threshing services.
the farmer-led approach we have described in this article is helping nigerian small-scale growers to improve their livelihoods and expand their businesses. we believe that such local, seemingly small improvement initiatives can help us set the stage for the development of a more nimble, efficient, and sustainable global food system going forward.
ben hartman is a farmer based in indiana, usa, and an enthusiastic lean practitioner. he is the author of and.
chyka okarter is value chain advisor for usaid’s feed the future nigeria agricultural extension & advisory services.