China poverty alleviation investigation team group photo

October 26, 2020, by Amanda Miller

Pathway for poverty alleviation via potato industrialisation in China?

In this blog, Dr Bin Wu, Xiyao Wang and Chi Xu investigate how industrialisation of potato production in the Yi minority region of Sichuan, China can lead to a pathway for poverty alleviation.

Regarding the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is a big challenge to help smallholder farmers – who feed two-thirds of the population in the developing world – to adapt to and directly interconnect with external markets.

Located at the bottom of agricultural supply chains, small farmers are vulnerable due to the small scale of their farmland (less than 2 ha), low profits, and high risk in terms of market wave and climate change. Empowering small farmers calls for external intervention via agricultural industrialisation which contains one or more choices as follows:

  • Enlarging the scale and specialisation of agricultural production to increase the needs and interests of small farmers in adopting new technologies.
  • Extending local industrial chains (including processing, sales, tourism and services, etc.) to create more employment opportunities for the rural poor and accelerate the development of cooperatives for small farmers.
  • Creating opportunities for small farmers and their representatives to communicate and collaborate with urban groups such as consumers and potential investors directly to attract external investment, reduce intermediate exploitation, and increase their income.

Key questions arise here: where is the entry point for multiple stakeholders’ participation or intervention for the purpose of poverty alleviation in the developing world? And what role can a global university play in this process?

Addressing the above questions is a goal of the University of Nottingham Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) project, Empowering small farmers via cooperative development in China. For the international campaign on poverty alleviation, China is a good case not only because nearly a half of small farmers world-wide live in rural China but also because the Chinese government has promised to eliminate its rural poverty by 2020 and recognised agricultural industrialisation as the most important measurement for external participation or contribution. In practice, this project focuses on potato industrialisation in poverty-stricken areas of Sichuan where potato is both a major crop in the local agricultural system and the most important source for the rural poor’s livelihoods. Furthermore, potato industrialisation has been listed as a top priority for research collaboration between the Sichuan Provincial Government and the University of Nottingham.

In order to better understand – and find an entrance for – potato industrialisation in the poor areas of Sichuan, Butuo County, a Yi Minority occupied and one of the poorest counties in China, was selected as sample to host a joint investigation made by the University of Nottingham (UoN) and Sichuan Agricultural University (SAU) in January 2020. The UoN-SAU team  was made up of more than 20 people, including academic staff and postgraduate students from two universities across natural and social science boundaries, as well as government officials, external-aid-cadres, and potato company leaders. One week of fieldwork covered not only all aspects relating to potato breeding, production, processing, and sale, but also important sites such as: the Butuo Potato Science and Technology Backyard (STB,a scientific research and extension station), agricultural industrial parks, and more than ten Yi villages and potato cooperatives across the county. A comprehensive picture of the challenges and opportunities for potato industrialisation emerged after extensive exchanges with County governors and senior officers, industrial leaders, local cadres, village and cooperative leaders, and representatives of Yi potato farmers.

The main findings of this investigation can be summarised as follows.

  • Butuo county has the potential to become a supply base for high-quality potato seeds for the national and international markets given its unique conditions such as high altitude (1,500-3,000 meters above sea level), matching climate, water and soil resources. The potential, however, is far from being realised due to the following factors.
  • Most farmers still use traditional production methods such as scattered plots and no machinery application.
  • It is dominated by local varieties which suffer from serious degradation. The proportion of high-quality potatoes as a result is rather low.
  • The main purpose of potato production for local farmers is for consumption by the family as food, or as poultry and livestock feed. The exchange of seed potatoes between farmers, has resulted in a low commercialisation rate. However, local government has made progresses in developing a high-quality seed potato supply base in recent years, including: establishing a modern original seed breeding base and Butuo Potato STB for demonstration and technology dissemination. The response from potato farmers, however, is not high. Rather, they are heavily dependent upon free seed potatoes provided by the government, which is unsustainable.
  • The potato processing and sale industry in Butuo County is underdeveloped, resulting in a dependency on external intermediaries, low product prices and a large wave in the market between 0.4 -0.8 yuan/kg. It impedes potato farmers from adopting new varieties and technologies and expanding the scale of high-quality potato production.
  • The slow adoption new technologies and high quality potato seeds is also related to low schooling, poor awareness of market competition, and lack of Mandarin language skills among Yi minority people, all of which are barrier to effective communication with the outset. Such situation has been exacerbated by the fact that large numbers of young people have migrated to large cities for non-agricultural work.
  • Central and provincial governments have made a big effort to alleviate poverty in this region not only in terms of financial support from various channels, but also from bringing in additional personnel from other counties, cities and provinces. As a result, there are four to five external-aid-cadres in each village who try to help local farmers to identify suitable technology, funding and markets to sell their products.

Based on above findings, we propose a pathway for potato industrialisation in this region: instead of the linear model of “potato expert team + enterprise + farmers”, this new model is based on the collaboration of multiple stakeholders, internally and externally, through a new formula: “external-aid-cadres + Potato STB + international cooperation + village collective/cooperative organisation”. Specifically, it contains following recommendations:

1) Upgrade Butuo Potato STB as a platform for external-aid cadres to share their experience in the development of village collective economy and farmers’ cooperatives, and to accelerate the adoption and dissemination of high quality seed potatoes;

2) Involve the University of Nottingham to facilitate an international collaboration to carry out a feasibility study on the high quality seed potato supply targeted at the national and international markets;

3) Initiate a strategic cooperation in entrepreneurship training between the University of Nottingham, SAU,YouCheng Foundation (a leading NHO in China), James Hutton Ltd (an international potato seeding/breeding company based in Scotland), local governments and enterprises to develop online-offline courses for cooperative leaders and innovative entrepreneurs to implement the potato industrialisation project in Butuo.

Based upon the joint investigation in Butuo, (the poorest county in China), an international cooperation on potato industrialisation has been successfully initiated in the critical period of poverty alleviation in China. It would be a good opportunity for the international community to learn from the experience and from the ongoing poverty alleviation in China, and to explore how international cooperation could help small farmers via the lens of agricultural industrialisation. We are looking forward to the end of the Covid-19 pandemic as soon as possible, so that policy recommendations from this investigation can be put into practice, leading to an in-depth cooperation between China and international community to alleviate poverty through multiple stakeholders’ participation and contribution to agricultural industrialisation.

Dr Bin Wu, Xiyao Wang and Chi Xu

Posted in The Haydn Green Institute