The Social Innovation Podcast spoke to Erika Balzarelli the Founder of The Sustainable Smallholder, an innovation studio that focuses on helping smallholder farmers become sustainable, commercial suppliers. 
From her years in the field, Erika shares with us an understanding of the needs of farmers on the ground. Her passion for what she does shines brightly in this conversation along with her inspiration to contribute to making a change, “The woman effect” and the power behind co-creation.
Some of the topics Erika covered:
  • The challenge of reaching more than 525 million farmers
  • Her unique B2B2F approach
  • Starting her own NGO in India
  • The work Erika did on the ground
  • Rice is more than just food
  • What the priorities should be in rice
Some other titles we considered for this episode:
  1. Rice Is a Huge Opportunity for Innovation
  2. The Transformative Lever of Co-creation
  3. The Woman Effect
  4. Shut Up and Start Doing It

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Zal Dastur 0:01
Hi, everybody, this is Zal Dastur. I’m the host of the Social Innovation podcast. And I’m here today with Erika Balzarelli the founder of the Sustainable Smallholder. That’s an Innovation Studio that focuses on improving the lives of smallholder farmers all around the world. Erika, welcome to the show.

Erika Balzarelli 0:20
Thanks. So happy to be here.

Zal Dastur 0:22
So Erika, just to get started, can you tell me a little bit more about the studio and the kind of work that you do there?

Erika Balzarelli 0:30
Sure. So this sustainable small holder is an animation studio that works with other companies to improve the lives of the smallholder farmers in sustainable ways. We work with NGOs, social enterprises, private sector, and startups. So with a whole spectrum of organizations that work actually directly with smallholders, wanting to improve their lives. And one of the key focuses for the sustainable smallholders. Actually, what already the name says is to upgrade the smallholder farmers, towers, their journey to sustainability, sustainability, defined as economic sustainability, social sustainability and environmental sustainability.

Zal Dastur 1:18
So that’s a very interesting path, because it sounds like you don’t work directly with them yourself. But you work with all the people in their ecosystem that can help and improve their livelihood as well as their businesses. So what made you choose that path instead of the path of direct engagement?

Erika Balzarelli 1:40
Yes, that’s a very good question. A couple of reasons and a couple of thoughts. The main reason is that there are more than 525 million smallholders worldwide. So wanting to work directly with them is very difficult, because you need to have the access to them, you need to have what we call in the sector the last mile with the smallholder. In other words, being present in the field, having the contact with them, we’re having the people that can have the contact with them. So it is if you want to make an impact quicker, it is easier to work with companies, like for example, NGOs, or startups, or actually all the companies that I mentioned, that already have a certain access, and then we can work together with them in order to basically improve what they’re doing, and as well giving them new ideas on how to extend the access. So in other words, if they’re already working with, let’s say, 10,000, farmers, you can, we can then co create models to start working with, say, 20,000 farmers. So that has actually been the main main reason to have a b2b approach, b2b to F approach, I should say, rather than a B to F direct approach.

Zal Dastur 2:55
And that’s interesting, because obviously working with startups, NGOs, corporate, that’s a wide range of different kinds of organizations with different kinds of interests. So it’s very much is it a project based work that you do with them? Or is it that you come in as an advisory consultant?

Erika Balzarelli 3:16
It’s both. However, it is not opportunistic. So in other words, with private sector, for example, it’s more project based, because the private sector already has their structure and the frameworks in place. And they already have many times the sustainability strategy is well in place, but they need people, organizations that have innovative ways or innovative ideas on how to increase adoption at smallholder farmer level of sustainable practices. So mostly that work is more on a project based approach. However, for example, for startups and for certain NGOs, actually, the work is more almost being part of their team. So either I have equity in these organizations, or I am member of the board of advisors, or directors, and then I work on a continuous basis with them. Because many times it’s about refining the strategy, refining implementation plans, or to get or finding the right path to scale.

Zal Dastur 4:22
Part of the reason I wanted to get you on the show was because you have a very interesting work history. And I know that when we spoke earlier, you were telling me a little bit about some of what you went. Can you just tell some of our listeners? Yeah, what is what’s your background? How did you end up kind of in this starting this organization?

Erika Balzarelli 4:43
Sure. Yeah. I’d be happy to. I didn’t start in agriculture. So we’re talking about 20 years back now. I didn’t start in agriculture. I started to work with with Unilever. But I felt a certain point. I felt quite worried actually, with all due respect For what what Unilever does, but I felt like I wanted to contribute to making an impact in this world. And so I started to look into every culture. And I felt that every culture could really be a sector. And this is, as I said, 20 years back, where you can drive actually where you can drive transformation. And not only for the environment, but especially for the people actually, that are farmers. So the smallholder farmers of this world and I said there are more than 525 million of these that live on less than $2 a day. So when I started to get an agriculture space, I started with a company called Syngenta. It’s a big MNC that specializes in the production and distribution of seeds and other crop production products. And very quickly, I worked for them in the Asia Pacific region, where I started to work in the field with smallholders and remote corners of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and actually after having seen how they live, and having seen their struggles, the struggles of what they face everyday working their fields, but as all the struggles of their families, their wives, their kids, and starting to understand, actually, all these systemic bottlenecks. I actually wanted to stay in this industry in this sector, and to really dedicate myself to to make to to try to make change, contribute, I should say, to make a change. So I started to, to where I rescheduled myself, I did a master’s in Public Administration, because what is really important in the agricultural business is actually the tread on or sand all the different stakeholders work together. So not only the private sector, but as well, government. Government is a huge stakeholder and a huge change maker within agriculture, as well as civil society groups as multilaterals, such as the FAO, World Bank, and so forth, and NGOs. And I wanted to understand how all of this works together. And that MPA actually really did help me a lot to to understand the correlations and this, the systemic, the bottlenecks that they face, and how you can actually solve them step by step. And after that, I work deliberately in countries like Guatemala, Mexico, India, Ethiopia, with NGOs, and government. So in India, I started my own NGO, which is called do something good. That works with women, rice farmers, in one of the poorest places of the country, which is West Bengal, and actually helps them on practices and income diversification to actually make more profit by the end of the season, so that they can eat and sustain themselves. And then I also worked for a couple of years in Ethiopia, advising the prime minister’s office on agricultural transformation. And again, I worked a lot in the field here working really with pharma organization and Co Ops, in order to pilot different business models to actually increase that access to smallholder farmers that we were talking about at the beginning of the of the show. And all of that actually that experience and those learnings, if you will, those grassroot learnings, coupled with more strategic insights, then culminated into me saying, I want to do something by myself, I have a certain vision, I believe in certain success levers that I see that corporates or other organizations are not implementing yet, and I want to do it by myself. And so that’s why I started this sustainable smallholder Innovation Studio during COVID, actually, so two years back,

Zal Dastur 8:45
people when they look at trying to go into sustainability, and when they try to go into clean tech or climate, they’d like to look at some of the sexier areas, whether that’s energy mobility. And I think agriculture is such a big part of everything that we do, especially from the carbon, the carbon that we produce, but also what it’s doing to the soil, how monocropping might create caused damage to the environment in general. It’s so interesting, that of all the topics that was the one that you focused on. So obviously, there was something there that touched you connected with you deeply. And I noticed that, you know, in your sort of history, rice keeps popping up as a topic of interest. So, you know, what, is there a particular reason that you focused on rice and what is it that you wanted to do in that space?

Erika Balzarelli 9:34
So yes, there is there is very much a reason for my passion for rice. So first of all, out of these 525 million smallholder farmers about 150 to 200 million rice farmers. So that’s enormous. 80% of the calories consumed in Asia Pacific is rice, and 11% of arable land is used by rice farming plus us if you look at 23% of the global greenhouse gas emissions in the world or agriculture 1/3 of that is rice. And it’s something called methane which is even worse than, if you will the standard a normal co2. So from that perspective, rice is a hotspot, it’s it’s a huge area of opportunity for innovation. That’s how I like to call it more from a personal from a personal view rice is also has got a deeper meaning. It’s not only an agricultural product rice when you talk to smallholder farmers in India and Indonesia and Thailand, Vietnam, rice is also very cultural and very spiritual. So for example, smallholder farmers that produce rice are usually less better off than small to produce cash crops, cash crops usually are vegetables or fruits, whether it’s for domestic use or export. But still, you see smallholder farmers do not want to convert into cash crops. And that is because rice is a cultural and spiritual part of the community. So for example, in India, they give rise to the gods in India, rice, they pray to Rice, it’s it’s a very, it’s a very spiritual component of the day to day life, you see that farmers maybe for half of their land, even if they only have one hectare will produce some vegetables because they need to live but half of it, they will always produce rice, because otherwise they tell you, I don’t feel like a farmer. If I don’t farm rice, I don’t feel like a farmer. So it’s such an intrinsic part of the culture in Asia. And as I said, it’s so spiritual. And at the same time, it’s such a huge opportunity for innovation and for livelihood improvement, that yeah, that it really got my to say my attention. Now, the last thing I want to say on this is nowadays, a lot of VCs, a lot of startup, a lot of climate tech organizations are looking at Rice, but 10 years back, they were not Rice was highly overlooked. And yet already then I was working with with rice farmers, and it has just been really interesting to see this, this wave of attention, grumbling in the last two years. So it will be very interesting as well to see if startups and other organizations are going to be able actually to to make a change.

Zal Dastur 12:29
You answer the question that I was just gonna follow up with, which was, you know, have you seen a change in this? And that’s interesting, because what are you attributing that change to? Is it more knowledge? Are we understanding the area better? Are we learning more about it?

Erika Balzarelli 12:44
Okay, so my honest answer is going to be I don’t know, because I truly believe there is not going to be one silver bullet, but I can offer some of the thoughts that that I have. So do your first question Have I seen change, I’ve seen some incremental change in certain geographies and within these geographies in certain grower segments, meaning chain transformation, it’s hard to scale transformation within rice. And that is because the different grower segments cannot be more different. So you’ve got either like relatively big rice farmers that have maybe two to three, four hectares. And that also off season when it’s, for example, dry season, they don’t have enough water to produce rice, they produce a vegetable or a wheat crop. And so these guys are much more developed, these folks I should say, are much more developed, have a bit more money are a bit better off. And these are usually the segments where the organization’s focus on for sustainability. But 80% of rice farmers is not like this, I even dare to say 90%, there are subsistence farmers, they are smaller than one hectare. They’re uneducated. They don’t have enough money to even eat by the end of the season. And they usually have triple loans, that means loan, a loan on a loan, and then another loan on a loan, in order to just buy a seed and fertilizer within this segment. I have not seen change over the last 10 years, even though, you know we’ve got the sustainability, the Sustainable Development Goals, we’ve got a lot of NGOs and so forth working on it. And that actually starts answering the second part of your question, why is that and hence what do I think are the levers for change? Well, I think actually there are three things and I do not see that happening. The first thing is financing. Now we see obviously a lot of startups and a lot of organizations that start saying that only 2% of the global climate budget is going to small the farmers we want to change that okay, so that is changing, but still there are bottlenecks associated to that. So in other words, it is very, very hard to do that. And it’s very hard to go to the 80% of that segment that I just described to. The second thing you need is education. And this is really hard. Because in order to educate for smallholder farmers you need to face to face contact, you cannot only do it digitally, it just doesn’t work. We can talk about that later. So you need if you need a hybrid or a fully face to face approach, again, how are you going to do that with 520 million smallholders worldwide. So that that is that is that there are ways around it. But that’s But that’s quite hard. And the third one is you need good technology. And what I mean by good technology is you need seeds. And at least you need fertilizer. And then obviously, in its certain search and crop protection, it can be biologicals and a fertilizer. I’m not talking about synthetic fertilizer either, and also the biological fertilizer, but you need these three, including a good seed. Now again, access to that it’s quite hard and may and is as well very, very expensive. And that is where regenerative agriculture, I think for smallholder farming is a very big opportunity. Again, we can talk about that later. And then in order to glue that all together, what I believe is going to be the major transformative lever is co creation with the smallholder farmers. So when you start looking at sustainable farming, in whatever way we wanted to find it, if you want to say sustainable farming is agroecology sustainable farming is regenerative or sustainable farming is what I believe, is a combination of conventional agriculture with regenerative practices. But the key question is, all of these methods need to be localized, because what works in the Punjab region in India is not gonna work in Java Island in Indonesia, because of weather, because of different past patterns because of different soil, and because of different societal and cultural factors, contexts of the grower where to grow or lives in. So co creation with the farmer, co creation of these programs is critical to then further work on financing education and technology access. And that is actually the major differentiator of my company of the sale of a small holder that only works with with companies that then want to do co creation with small the farmers for program implementation and development.

Zal Dastur 17:41
Because it’s interesting that we see billions of dollars being spent on alternate protein, alternate meats, because, you know, we know that cows emit methane, and that’s not good for the environment. Same is going with rice. I mean, what you’re saying is that that is the number one problem with rice is that it emits methane, but we’re not seeing the kind of investment. And maybe as I said, Is it maybe it’s not as sexy an area or an area that has captivated people’s minds, because, you know, I’m a believer that technology can solve everything. And so with enough people and enough time and enough energy being focused, you’d be able to solve this problem, and there are people out there that are trying to do that. So do you think we are solving for the right problems and rice? Or are we just trying to mitigate the damage that is doing?

Erika Balzarelli 18:32
I think what we’re seeing is both. I think that the startups that I have seen that tried to solve the try to transform rice landscapes is mitigating and it’s not going to the root causes for a second is it is very hard to go to the root causes because and that is why every culture is so complex, there is no one root cause there are many, many root causes. And these are again all interlinked, and that is inherent to the agricultural system. For example, water is linked to soil health and vice versa. Soil Health is linked to what crop or what crops you plant at the same time that is linked to what crops can I grow within this ecosystem, which is related to temperature and humanity and waterfall within a certain month. So everything is interlinked, directly or indirectly. And that is the same with the bottlenecks that we see. So I think what we are seeing is both is some mitigation, and some startups and other organizations that are trying to go to the root cause. I again, do not believe that there is one silver bullet. I think we need to keep piloting different Two models, different solutions and all these different ecosystems. And I also do not believe in transformative change within rice, I think that what we can expect realistically, is incremental change. And last but not least, I also think that this focus on methane and rice is kind of a bit silly, because when you start comparing it to, for example, the aviation industry, or the energy or oil, or other industries, for example, or our plastic use, or the way we live as consumers, how can we benchmark to how smallholder farmers are producing rice, which is their livelihood, I sometimes feel morally, I find it a very complex topic, let me put it like that. And so what I want to focus on with the sustainable small holder is I want to improve livelihoods as much as possible from an economic perspective, because if the small it doesn’t have money, he or she will never change anything else. Because first they got to eat and they got to send the children to school, and they haven’t needed to have a better life than societally. Because from the social context, if they cannot change their again, as well, your you know, your, you cannot change anything else. And the third one is environmentally, I think that will be within rice. And within smaller agriculture, that is a consequence that is very much needed. And extremely important and urgent. I’m not saying that. But I do not think that that is the priority, when you go in and want to transform rice landscapes, I think it’s the other way around.

Zal Dastur 21:48
I just want to take you back a little bit to some of your experience, particularly, you know, you said you started do something good in India, I know, having started a business in India, that India is a particularly challenging market, and I was trying to do something in tech, whereas you’re dealing with big companies and educated people. Whereas when you’re trying to deal with farmers in India and setting up an NGO at the bureaucracy, even in Ethiopia, talk to me about some of your experiences, and in these kinds of like on the ground settings, and you know, what are some of the memorable kinds of stories you have of working there?

Erika Balzarelli 22:24
Yeah, I can take you back to some of the work that I did in India. So I want to take you back to a village in West Bengal. It’s a village close to a cynical Dukkha poor. And just for our listeners, it’s about from Singapore, for example, you need to take first a flight to India, then you land in Calcutta, from Kolkata, you need to take a bus to a place called Dukkha pool, which already takes five hours. And then you need to take a car for four wheel drive to go from Duda pool to these tribal villages. And they need to walk for two hours. So I just wanted to let you know how remote tribal villages are, then they’re really tribal. What I mean by that is that these people, which is actually really sad, they are not registered, so they don’t have an otter card, meaning they don’t have a number. So they don’t have socialists, they don’t exist. They’re not on the map, basically. But there are people. So that second thing. So the third thing is that it was an amazing experience. Because once you come into these villages, it feels like you’re going back like 100 200 years. But it’s amazing how they build their houses. They build their houses from sand, mud and cow dung. They build their roofs from a banana and coconut leaves dried. And I’m telling you one thing is that their houses are cleaner and my house, like the way the women clean, they actually clean with cow dung and water. And you would think, Oh, that least smelled No, not at all. It’s super clean, it smells super good. And then with different colors that they extract from flowers or from bark or from trees. They make indigenous paintings, on the walls of their houses or on the walls, these walls that they build around their farms, for example. And then you’ve got like buffaloes for the milk and obviously cows and chickens just running around. So from that perspective, it’s almost like idyllic, even though obviously, it’s a very, it’s a very hard life because what these people do is backbreaking work. Luckily some of the NGOs and one of them have a group of nuns actually is working there. So what I then also worked with with my NGO is we set up schools and obviously again for our listeners schools or not schools the way we as Westerners know them but there’s basically a carpet under a tree with a teacher that then we have been recruiting From the city that comes three times a week, teach the kids how to read and write and do certain games. But then what we also did is when I started to talk to the women, the women had a very low feeling of self worth. And so what we started as well to do is, can we set up an educational program for the women, actually to make them dream again? So what is your dream? What else would you like to do besides taking care of your family and, and you know, taking care of the rice? What would you have liked to do. And I learned that actually, if you cannot dream, you actually do not have a sense of self worth. And actually, it’s very difficult to carry on with the energy every day to try actually to make something out of your life. And so what we have seen with these women, we did these programs. And actually, these women after three years, started to tell us for example, okay, now you made me dream. Now I want to start a business, I want to sew clothes, or another one told me I have an idea. If you give me a little loan, I can buy ducks, and then I can sell the eggs on the market. And another woman came, and she said to me, I can actually start selling tea on the road, because this is a spot where a lot of truck drivers stop, as you know, and the other one started to make lunchboxes. So I started to obviously together with the nuns, we started to evolve, and also put in place all these other all these other programs based on the idea of of the women. And so you started to see a huge evolution, not only of the woman, how she felt, what she was able to contribute, but especially in terms of self respect. But as well, you could see an entire uplift of these villages. Because once the woman believes once a woman brings in the money, that money does not go anywhere else, but to clothing for the kids, schoolbooks for the children, and more nutritious food and healthcare. Whereas otherwise, the chances are, unfortunately, really high that it goes to alcohol, or drugs or cigarettes, or prostitution, if it goes directly to the male.

So yeah, so that has been, for example, one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in my life. And that has also been giving me actually more and more inspiration and energy to keep working in this field. And as well, this idea of co creation, what I told you earlier, you know, once you work with these women with these farmers, they actually come up with the ideas that are really transformative and not us. You know,

Zal Dastur 27:47
I remember reading on Project drawdown, which talks about the solutions that are available right now to save the planet. And two of the top five factors that they put in. One is empowering women. And the other is educating women. And to me, it just seems so crazy that you know, two of the biggest factors in terms of improving our whole planet, it’s so easily accessible in the sense that we don’t need new technology, we don’t need to create anything new, we don’t need to invest, we just need to work with women that are already there, making them feel empowered. And as you said, when a woman earns money in the family, it tends to go directly to the family and intended supporting the family and creating better health and nutrition. So, you know, that’s so wonderful to hear that from a real life perspective, and someone who’s experienced that on the ground.

Erika Balzarelli 28:36
Yeah, it’s beautiful. And maybe we don’t have enough time now. But I’ve seen that also in Ethiopia, you’re asking about Ethiopia, I’ve seen that in Ethiopia with different crops like indef, and obviously very different societal context, and cultural context. I’ve seen it in Bangladesh, I’ve seen it in so many different countries that once you touch the woman, and I call it the woman effect, once you touch the woman or the girl, things actually really start transforming and change. And again, that is really, for me the power of co creation. And I believe if you can do that, at community wide level, you can really start transforming these landscapes. I agree with you. Things can change with technology. But I think when you talk about agriculture, I think some maybe I’m wrong, but 80% of the solutions are already there because of indigenous ancestral knowledge. And sometimes it’s just understanding what these are and putting them in place again. And then definitely technology can further amplify or can can, you know bring the edge but I do not think it is the main the main transformative lever.

Zal Dastur 29:49
So one thing I read when I was reading up a little bit about your history, when you were at Syngenta you actually won an award for a project that you did that grow more which was a bit Leave in the farming space. And yes, because this was very early on in your career. So did that did that help in terms of your desire to go into the agricultural space and motivate you in that way?

Erika Balzarelli 30:14
Yes, this is about nine years, eight, nine years back, and we won an award for a program called Grow More rice. And basically grow more rice is still is still in the markets today. It is an agronomy protocol. That first stage of the rice crop brings technology and education and co creation to the farmers for crop stage. So very, very concrete example. Otherwise, it might be difficult to follow. In the rice, you have four crop stages, you have the seedling stage, you have the vegetative stage, you have the reproductive stage, and they have the harvesting stage. And all of these stages are about 30 to 40 days long. And what we did is we almost offered like a menu to the farmer, we said okay, so if you’re, if you’re in the seedling stage, this is the menu. So these are the products that you need. These are the practices that you need. So in other words, if this is the seed that you need, this is how you need to plant the seed. This is how you need to water the seed. This is the type of fertilizer you can use. This is how you can make your own compost if you don’t want to use conventional fertilizer, because it’s too expensive. If you have the time to start experimenting with, for example, making your own compost. And this is the type of machinery you need to use in order to plow your field and get your field ready for the transplantation of the rice. So just to give you an example. So it’s almost like a recipe on how to bake a cake. And then basically the transformative part of this was is that then we have this general recipe, if you will, and then per per location. Within every key geography we further co created that with the farmer. So let’s say 80% Was there. And then with the farmers, we used to sit in a circle, literally we used to say, okay, tell us now, would this work? Why not? Why yes? What do we need to add what else use the ancestral knowledge you have, tell us what type of soil you have. Tell us why that fertilizer doesn’t work. Tell us why you think this doesn’t work. And it took a lot of time to go through a lot of patience. But at the end, we came up with a protocol that was tailored and hence very, very effective. It increased yields by the end of of the entire cycle between 20 and 30%, which is huge. It’s huge. And it also increased savings. In other words, they use less inputs, which is really good for the environment, but also especially for them because they keep more money in their pocket. And co creation. What it did as well is they felt very much empowered. They didn’t feel like oh, it was the grow more Syngenta people that told me what to do. But actually it was I am the community I actually did this. And so you started to see the multiplication, the scale almost run by itself at a certain point. So that was what was very powerful. And to your point earlier that for me gave me the seed of the thought of saying, hey, this co creation approach works really well, which now again, is the basis of of my new business. Oh, definitely

Zal Dastur 33:30
sounds like that was a solid foundation for what you ended up doing now. So I’ve got one last question. And I and this is a question I asked everybody that comes on the show, which is there are a lot of people out there that want to get involved. They want to do something they want to help the planet? What is the advice that you have for somebody that’s sitting and saying, I want to do something I don’t know where to start?

Erika Balzarelli 33:57
I’m quiet because I’m thinking. So I think two things, especially if I look back at myself, we actually all have ideas on what we believe can be done differently, which I think is a really good thing. And I think that instead of talking about it, why don’t we just shut up and start doing it. And let’s just try it even and I don’t mean like set up your own business and leave your paid job. It doesn’t have to be as drastic as that. But let’s all try to do something let’s either get engaged with an organization is already doing some or volunteer or set up your own business or join a group and and you know, contribute. I think that is that is probably the The advice I would give. And I also believe that if I look at myself, once you start doing that your passion will grow and grow. And then at a certain point, it can really bring you into roads that you never thought were possible for yourself. For me. For example, it made me much happier Then Then I thought it would be so I think that would be my advice to just put your actions where your mouth is try it try to make a difference by you know, getting involved engage and take a little bit of risk.

Zal Dastur 35:14
Erika clearly you know the word that you use this passion and that comes through so so evidently when when speaking to you so thank you so much for the time it was really a pleasure to talk to you and I enjoyed our conversation.

Erika Balzarelli 35:27
Thank you, Zal so much. I feel really honored that you believe that, you know, this was so worth the podcast. I feel honored and I always enjoy talking to you. So thank you.