In Conversation With Paul Castle of Syngenta Foundation

In Conversation With Paul Castle of Syngenta Foundation

This week, Water Network team was in conversation with Paul Castle of Syngenta Foundation. Paul has been Communications Manager at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture since 2010. Between a decade each in healthcare and agribusiness, he worked as a freelance journalist and translator. 30 years after graduating from Oxford, Paul recently completed a Certificate in African Studies at Basel University. His concluding specialization was on radio extension for smallholders in minority languages.

Q1. We know Syngenta as a major key player of the Agriculture sector. But it would be great if you can highlight the mission and vision of the Syngenta foundation:

Our mission is to create value for smallholders in developing countries. We aim to do that through innovation in sustainable agriculture, and by activating value chains. Our vision sees smallholder farming as a profitable business that helps improve world food security, and is an attractive profession for future generations.

Q2. How do you ensure your mission's success and what is your strategy for getting desired results?

It is important to be humble here. We cannot “ensure” that every aspect of every project succeeds from beginning to end. We work in a dozen countries worldwide, on a wide range of topics. Each of them is affected by numerous factors beyond our control. But we take a number of recurring measures to increase the chances of success. For example: as our Foundation’s full name suggests, we focus entirely on agriculture.

We work directly through our teams of local experts, who each know their country’s farming intimately. We also always work with partners. They come from the public and private sectors, as well as from NGOs, universities, and other organizations. Our public-private partnerships are designed to achieve more than any single partner could on its own.

Q3. The California drought is an eye-opening disaster. What do you suggest small farmers should do in such situations, especially in low-income countries?

The Californian drought is, sadly, just one among many worldwide. In many cases, drought is not just the result of lack of rain. Farming uses huge quantities of water, much of it inefficiently. My suggestions for change are pointed primarily at those who work with smallholders, rather than at the farmers themselves. Government policies need to encourage efficient use of water – India is one example of a country in which smallholders are incentivized to waste it! Extension services, private and public, need to raise farmers’ awareness and educate them on careful use of resources – of which water is just one. Technical solutions are also important. There are many ways to reduce water use, from breeding water-efficient crops to building better drip irrigation. Everybody involved needs to ensure that such solutions are available, accessible and affordable to smallholders.


Q4. Syngenta foundation focuses on small farmers' capacity building and integrating them to the market. Would you tell us a bit about the entire project structure?

Our two major topics are raising yield on small farms, and enabling farmers to access lucrative markets. We tackle whatever is getting in smallholders’ way. The partnerships in which we work are tailor-made to solve the problems at hand. On the “yield” side of the equation, that could be poor water management, for example, or inadequate soil fertility. It might, however, be lack of access – to credit, to the necessary inputs such as good quality seed, or to training in modern agronomic methods. On the “markets” side, our partnerships are designed to link smallholders up with customers, and strengthen farmers’ position, particularly with regard to prices.
Typically, we are involved in a project for about three to five years. We start small, with a local pilot, and then aim to scale up rapidly. We also want the resulting changes to be sustainable. This means avoiding long-term dependence on us or donors, and empowering an organization with a commercial interest in the new set-up to take it forward long-term.


Q5. What was the idea behind “Seeds2B” technology transfer and Matchmaking initiative?

It’s very simple: better seeds can make a huge difference to yield and income, but are often unavailable to smallholders. Look at Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, better-performing varieties are only available for about 10% of the staple crop area. The situation is similar across much of the developing world. That has to change.

You can read the abbreviation "2B" two ways here, and they both apply. Seeds2B has a lot to do with “B” for “Business” – it is a demand-led approach to solving the seed bottleneck. Seeds2B helps enable small private companies to develop and distribute a wider range of improved seed varieties to complement those from the public sector. So far, the necessary partnerships between breeders, companies and potential seed purchasers have been limited. So there is clearly a need for trusted and independent “match-makers”. A properly functioning market is how it could be, should be. But at the moment it's still only “2B”.

Q6. How do you measure the impact of your project - as result monitoring could be hard in rural communities sometime?

You are right that measuring in remote areas can be challenging. It is also often difficult to detect exactly which partner or piece of a project made the crucial difference, and even harder to assign impact five years after a three-year project. But we try to go beyond simple counting of “farmers reached” or “hectares planted” to see the effects on smallholders’ income. “How much more cash does each farm family have in its pocket?” is a major question in our work. But we naturally match what we measure, and how we do so, to the particular project aim and local circumstances.

Q7. Syngenta Foundation’s funded Insurance project for small farmers is a huge success. But still Crop insurance is a untouched topic in many countries like India. What changes do you think is necessary in crop insurance sector?

We would like crop insurance to be as natural a part of smallholder farming as it is on large commercial farms. There is still a huge amount of work needed to make this happen. India has tried various forms of government crop insurance, but not yet found the right recipe. We believe that the insurance we pioneered in Africa could be a much better alternative. As in all our work, expanding the reach of insurance requires the right partners, and the right technology. Together, they can make insurance available, accessible and affordable for smallholders. As you can see, those three “A’s” are the same vital adjectives in insurance as they are in seeds – and many other aspects of farming!


Q8. Do you believe that large Agriculture companies are focusing on Sustainable innovation in agriculture? Where does Syngenta stands in this walk?

All large agricultural companies try to succeed by innovating. That is their business model and a core expertise. Where they differ is the focus of their innovation – on seeds, machinery, chemicals, data use, marketing models, lean manufacturing, or whatever. And of course, they also focus on sustainable agriculture – not least because it means sustainable business! Some critics find that hard to believe – but when you think about it, it’s really obvious. Who else but farmers and their suppliers could have such a strong interest in sustainable agriculture? Syngenta is engaged in a constant innovation race with its main competitors – sometimes one company is faster and better, sometimes another. But Syngenta has a pretty impressive track-record.


Q9. What would you like to address top world leaders of agriculture sector?

To politicians, I would say: “Take better care of agriculture than most of you have done in the last 20 years”. To the captains of industry, I would say: “Keep innovating, even if there are people who sadly believe that technology is bad for farmers.” And to women smallholders, who do all the real work, I simply say: “You have my deepest respect”.

Q10. What could other industries (or governments) learn from Syngenta Foundation's process of sustainably adding value in the agricultural market?

We couldn’t add much value on our own. It is always a question of partnerships, which in turn is a question of trust. There is scope for many more partnerships in smallholder agriculture. It is hardly my place to hand out advice to companies, governments, NGOs, parastatals, universities and everyone else involved in this field. We have learned that partnerships are hard work, but definitely worth all the effort. It would be good if more organizations experienced that for themselves, first-hand.

Read More Interviews from the 'In Conversation With' Series
by The Water Network