Empowering Producers in Commercial Agriculture (EPIC)

EPIC aims to empower rural producers and their wider communities to influence public decisions and private sector conduct in favour of bottom-up, locally beneficial and more sustainable investments in commercial agriculture.

January 2018 - June 2022
Lorenzo Cotula

Principal researcher and head of law, economies and justice programme, Natural Resources research group

Law, economies and justice
A collaborative programme of work on renegotiating the law to promote fairer, more sustainable economies
Farmers loading tea leaves in Malawi (Photo credit: nchenga nchenga, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Farmers loading tea leaves in Malawi (Photo: nchenga nchenga, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Increased private sector investment in commercial agriculture – from production to bulk purchasing arrangements, to processing and distribution – has created both risks and opportunities for rural livelihoods in low and middle-income countries. 

Developing value chains and linking farmers to markets could transform the livelihoods of millions of rural people, expanding choice and creating income-generating opportunities. But there are also concerns about top-down approaches, unequal negotiating power, unfair business relations and social differentiation among rural people.  

The ability of rural people to make informed choices, exercise rights and have their voices heard when dealing with the government or the private sector is a key factor in enabling, or constraining, fairer investments that deliver positive outcomes for sustainable development. 

Yet interactions between governments, companies and rural people in low and middle-income countries usually involve imbalances in capacity, resources, influence and negotiating power. There is a need to develop, use and upscale innovative legal and other empowerment approaches that strengthen the position of rural people, particularly in their supply chain relations.

What is IIED doing?

Empowering Producers in Commercial agriculture (EPIC) responds to this challenge. Led by IIED, EPIC will support rural producers, their organisations and their wider communities to make informed choices, seize opportunities, address risks and shape their own future.

To pursue EPIC’s goal, IIED and partners will:

  • Strengthen evidence, insight and guidance on how to empower communities for bottom-up, locally beneficial and more sustainable investments in commercial agriculture
  • Test socio-legal empowerment approaches in Malawi and Nepal, and feed lessons into law reform in the two countries and beyond, and
  • Critically assess socio-legal empowerment approaches and the conditions that enable them to sustain rural producers’ agency, share lessons and engage with policy debates internationally. 

Socio-legal empowerment for producer agency: a conceptual framework

In seeking to better understand socio-legal empowerment approaches, EPIC’s conceptual framework emphasises rural producers’ agency as the intended outcome – that is, their ability to make choices, take action and effect change, whether individually or collectively.

Agency would include, for example, the producers’ ability to assess and seize livelihood opportunities, negotiate the terms of their value chain participation, respond to stresses such as resource scarcity and climate change, and influence policy and law reforms. In turn, enhanced producer agency might effect change in value chain relations and ultimately socio-economic outcomes. 

Socio-legal empowerment can be linked to agency via approaches that support: 

  • Understanding: rural actors acquire socio-legal knowledge and know-how related to commercial agriculture – such as legal rights and applicable law, market analysis, and how to structure business or contractual relations
  • Organising: rural people develop loose or more formal organisations for collective or coordinated action, and
  • Engaging: rural producers and communities engage with other actors, whether individually or collectively, to strengthen their position relative to agribusiness, including organisations that can provide necessary socio-legal support. 

This initial framework will form the object of further elaboration, testing and revision to more rigorously and systematically assess the place of socio-legal empowerment in efforts to enhance agency in agricultural value chains.

The project is funded through the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) programme.