Blog Post

Creating better employment in agrifood systems: Where is more research needed?

Agrifood systems represent a substantial source of employment for a diverse range of supply chain actors. In recent years, we have learned a lot from the rapid rise in innovations on what is needed to build more inclusive and sustainable agrifood systems that can lift people out of poverty and provide better job opportunities. Yet there are still critical gaps in knowledge to address before we get there. 

Agrifood systems account for more than 70% of employment in low-income countries, with most jobs involved in the primary production of food. Yet the stark reality is that many of those employed within agrifood systems face low and irregular incomes, poor quality jobs and working conditions, marginalisation, and lack of access to basic social services. There is an urgent need to achieve more inclusive, sustainable and equitable agrifood systems that can address these challenges.

A recent meta-study from the CGIAR ‘Rethinking Food Markets’ Research Initiative reviewed the available evidence to highlight some of the innovative pathways that can lead to better employment outcomes in low-income countries. Several promising pathways were highlighted that can generate better jobs with higher incomes and better working conditions, such as the implementation of contract farming, transitioning to more off-farm jobs within high-value and export-led value chains, and the adoption of certain certifications and sustainability standards. Intensification and commercialization of smallholder agriculture was another pathway towards better employment, as well as policies to stimulate the growth of the midstream segment of the food value chain where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are rapidly proliferating within the wholesale, logistics, and processing sectors.

Key knowledge gaps to address in the future
Yet critical gaps in the literature remain on what impact these different pathways and innovations have on employment in different contexts and for different supply chain actors. Recognizing these knowledge gaps are important for learning, and can help direct future research efforts to tackle the issues and questions that matter the most.

To address this, the meta-study identified several knowledge gaps where more research and evidence is urgently needed to build more inclusive and sustainable agrifood systems that provide better employment outcomes in low-income countries. Below is a round-up of some of these knowledge gaps that we hope will help guide future research and implementation efforts from practitioners working in this space: 

  1. More research is needed on the impact of “bundles” of innovations, interventions, or policies to better inform policymakers and development agencies. Many studies look at the impact of individual innovations on employment outcomes, but this makes it difficult to compare similar innovations in different settings. The results are often not conclusive. What is lacking are more studies that explore the impact of bundles of different types of technological and policy innovations that could consistently deliver positive impacts across a wider set of contexts.
  2. More research is needed on traditional agrifood value chains to complement the abundance of studies on modern value chains. In the literature, there is significant attention on modern value chains, which are more formal, are mediated by contracts and often supply large global brands and retailers. There are far fewer studies of traditional and transitional value chains in agrifood systems, which is where most farmers, agrifood companies and workers are found. This imbalance affects our knowledge and understanding of staple food value chains and food markets relevant to the urban poor and vulnerable communities.
  3. More research is needed on how different innovations can stimulate employment and the growth of the “hidden middle”. The “hidden middle” refers to the midstream segment of the agrifood value chain. It is often hidden from food policy debates, yet is a dynamic and fast-growing space. Driven by the rapid rise of SMEs in wholesale, logistics, and processing, the “hidden middle” can play a key role in transforming agrifood systems and providing better employment options in low-income countries. But there is still a need to better understand how different innovations affect the “hidden middle” and how to leverage these innovations to get the most impact.
  4. More research is needed from varied geographies to better understand the trends in employment in the Global South. There is a large concentration of studies in a very limited number of low and middle-income countries, such as India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. This is likely due to more data availability and research opportunities in these countries, which in turn could be a result of donor priorities. However, to get a more comprehensive picture of the state of play of employment across the whole of the Global South, more research, policy conclusions and recommendations are needed from a more diverse set of countries and contexts. 

Vi Nguyen is a Senior Coordinator for Innovations and Learning with ISEAL.

To find out more about the opportunities and knowledge gaps on creating more and better employment in agrifood systems, read the meta-study from the CGIAR ‘Rethinking Food Markets’ Initiative. You can also watch the recording of the webinar of the key take-aways from this meta-study.