Bridging the gap between farmers and supermarkets in Nicaragua

July 03, 2014
Eric Smith
Where are they now?

Sara Elder received graduate field support to explore how smallholder farmers are affected by selling to modern supermarkets rather than traditional markets.

Many smallholder farmers are food insecure, despite growing food for local and international markets. Sara Elder’s research, carried out with the support of an IDRC Doctoral Research Award (IDRA), explores how changes in markets affect Nicaraguan farmers’ food security, agricultural production, and poverty. Elder chose to study smallholder farmers after working in Kenya as an undergraduate student. The experience helped her realize the connections that bind Canadians with the rest of the world.

“The pivotal moment for me came as an undergrad when I did a field study in Kenya. I saw pineapples growing what seemed to be upside down, but they were, in fact, right side up. I realized that living in Canada we often have no idea of how the foods we eat are produced or what the lives of the farmers are like. I saw that many of these farmers who were growing food for other countries were food insecure themselves… That was the moment that made me pursue this line of research.” 

In Nicaragua, Elder researched the merits of modern retail and traditional markets in rural areas of lesser-developed countries. Through the course of her IDRC-supported research she was able to interact at length with Nicaraguan researchers, smallholder farmers, NGOs, and private sector actors involved in agricultural production and food security. Without the IDRA, Sara says that she “would not have been able to do the extensive field work. It’s a priority for my research that I spend a significant amount of time in the field interacting with farmers and other local stakeholders. It’s really important to have a good understanding of what is happening locally and the lived experiences of the stakeholders. This allows you to appreciate the challenges and changes they are facing, and enabled research with practical and policy implications.”  

Elder worked closely with Francisco Perez of the Instituto Nicaraguense de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales and other stakeholders in Nicaragua. This type of IDRC support requires that graduate students have a relationship with an affiliated institution in the country of study. In Elder’s view, “the formality of getting a letter for the IDRA application made the research legitimate in the eyes of the host institutions and solidified that relationship in a way that made it more formal than if I had gone without IDRC's support.” These relationships with affiliated organizations, such as INIES, enable researchers to build the people-to-people relationships that enrich research and provide a foundation for future research and collaboration.

Elder's work resulted in a large amount of high quality data, including a survey of more than 250 farmer households. Combining this data will help her gain expertise in qualitative and quantitative work. Her initial findings point to the factors affecting farmers’ decisions to sell to traditional markets or supermarkets, as well as the impact of quality inspection on food security.

Find out more about Sara Elder's research

Learn more about the IDRC Doctoral Research Awards 

 Sara Elder interviewing smallholder farmers in Nicaragua as part of her field research.
Sara Elder interviews smallholder farmers in Nicaragua. 

This article is part of the series Where are they now? which highlights the work of former IDRC award recipients:

Eric Smith is an IDRC Professional Development Award recipient and writer based in Ottawa.