Understanding certified small-scale producers’ reality—the case of banana farmers in Colombia

Small-scale producers and SMEs are at the heart of sustainability standards and their innovations agenda. To maximise the value of standards to producers, we need to hear from the producers themselves – what are their priorities and constraints? How has involvement in standards benefitted them? What barriers do they face?

This year, ISEAL conducted research on the needs of certified small-scale producers in five countries to try and answer some of these questions. We wanted to catch a glimpse into certified smallholders’ challenges and hopes in order to catalyse the conversation on how standards can innovate to meet producers' needs and provide additional value.

So, ISEAL went to the ‘Zona Bananera’ district of Colombia to conduct interviews with Rainforest Alliance-certified banana producers.

There, we met Julio. Julio began helping on his father’s 3.5 hectare plot at the age of 14, and now boasts over 21 years of experience in the banana sector. Each week the farm produces 100 boxes, which are sold via their cooperative to a single supplier. In 2016, the supplier requested that all bananas from the cooperative achieve Rainforest Alliance (RA) certification. Their prior experience with other standards, audits and compliance meant that one year later, the cooperative successfully became RA certified.

For Julio, the cooperative is crucial to the farm’s success: it supplies information on the market price of produce, offers advice on best practice and provides access to agricultural inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. The cooperative is also the only means for the producer to access crucial loans and finance; without this capital, they would be unable to invest in their packhouse or new equipment.

Whilst some members of the cooperative avoid talking about their agricultural performance, Julio expresses interest to know how his farm is progressing compared to others. His thirst for knowledge allows him to make informed business decisions about his farm’s future. In keeping with this, Julio welcomes the training he receives from the cooperative and wishes to further develop his professional skills and learn more about management and finance. He sees this as a vital part of improving productivity and safe-guarding his livelihood for the future.

Julio’s story is characteristic of those we heard from other producers in the ‘Zona Bananera’. We heard how, for those producers, certification brings many benefits: allowing them to improve agricultural productivity, access international markets and protect their livelihoods. In Julio’s case, joining a certification scheme means the producers organised into a cooperative that provides training and serves as a medium through which they can access inputs, information and finance.

However, sustainability standards have the opportunity to offer greater value. In Colombia, there is widespread producer demand for education, information and capacity building. A prevalent issue in other countries is accessibility and the cost of assurance. Producers also talk about the rising cost of agricultural inputs and difficulties in accessing finance.

Looking ahead, sustainability standards can use this feedback to drive innovative approaches to address these concerns and provide greater value for producers. Already, standards are exploring new ways of working, such as landscape and jurisdictional approaches to certification and risk-based models of assurance. Standards are harnessing new technologies and forging critical partnerships in order to develop their offering for producers.


These interviews are part of a GIZ-funded project to better understand producer needs: the barriers they face to certification, and how standards can innovate to provide additional value to small-scale producers and drive the uptake of certification.

If you are interested in learning more about the needs of producers and how standards are innovating to match a changing sustainability landscape, attend the 2018 Global Sustainability Standards Conference on 22-23 May in São Paolo, Brazil.

A plenary session highlighting producer needs will be moderated by Dario Soto Abril (CEO of Fairtrade International) and feature Kim Carstensen (Director General of the Forest Stewardship Council), Isabela Pascoal (Marketing Manager at Daterra Coffee), and Cristian Vásquez (Development Assistant Manager at Fundación Chinquihue). A range of breakout sessions will address topics such as decent work, continual improvement for smallholders, landscape approaches, worker voices and small-scale and artisanal mining.