Across the world, an estimated 1.5 billion smallholders depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, many of them vulnerable to climate change, volatile markets, and conflict. A key aspect of development work lies in agricultural extension programs to assist them. At the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), a partner in GFAR, we believe that a data-driven needs assessment is the first step to crafting high-quality interventions that can help communities to design collectively their desired future. This valuable tool can guide extensionists and partners of other sectors to identify which innovations and practices can be taken up to realize that future.
In Vietnam, a COSA evaluation project highlighted how the development community, businesses and other stakeholders can use COSA’s measurement system to implement a data-driven needs assessment. With its goal to make data work for all those involved in agri-food systems, part of GFAR’s multi-stakeholder approach to collective action that allows farmers and rural communities to determine and express their own needs, COSA attempts to move evaluation design and metrics systems toward promoting better investment decisions benefiting farmers and producer organizations.
The case of Vietnam
COSA partnered with one of the largest coffee companies in Vietnam to study how training coffee farmers improves agricultural practices, environmental protection, and business skills. COSA and its partner conducted the study in the Central Highlands, the country’s leading coffee-producing region, administering in-depth, farm-level surveys to 800 farmers in four regions. We used more than a hundred COSA indicators to obtain baseline data from farmers and to measure the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability. The findings below, though not exhaustive, illustrate our results.
Social: Gender Disparities
Among the farms surveyed, we found, unsurprisingly, that women – who comprise nearly half of the agricultural workforce – were less represented than men in critical decision-making related to coffee production. Sixty-nine percent of farmers who made significant decisions on coffee production were men; furthermore, over two-thirds of the coffee producers who participated in producer organizations were male. These insights highlight an opportunity to invest in more targeted training and gender-sensitive interventions (see Figure 1).
Environmental: Water Conservation, Biodiversity Concerns
Water Conservation: More than half the farms (52 percent) in the sample reported using no water conservation practices. Since these farms also tended to use large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, posing potential run-off threats to natural aquifers, our findings suggested a training opportunity for future programs to focus on water and resource management practices.
Biodiversity: COSA’s indicator on land use change measures the conversion of natural land (e.g., prairie, forest, savanna) for cultivation or pasture. Routine monitoring will provide insights into whether natural lands are converted into land for coffee cultivation.
Economic: Low Income Diversification
We found that coffee accounts, on average, for 80 percent of a household’s revenue, a relatively high dependence; the median household derives 88 percent of its total income from coffee. Promoting diversification for low-income farmers that allows them the chance to adapt to and survive potential shocks is a challenging task, but this indicator is particularly useful for incorporating risk management and resilience strategies into development programs.
Multi-dimensional data through a wider lens
The results in Vietnam illustrate how COSA’s multi-dimensional survey can be properly used for data-driven needs assessment. Using over 100 standardized indicators to identify areas of improvement, COSA’s “hotspot reports,” when used with representative sampling and other qualitative needs assessment methods, present a vivid picture of an agricultural community’s needs and target appropriate extension services that can be taken to scale. Although these processes can be time- and resource-intensive, COSA attempts to minimize disadvantages by using appropriate technology and automated data management.
Efficient collection and astute analysis of the data that forms a needs assessment brings multiple economic, environmental, and social dimensions to light, and, as seen in the example of Vietnam, a full picture of needs in local contexts can lead to women’s empowerment, environmental conservation, and improved livelihoods. The process also lays the foundation for creating rigorous theories of change and the design of evaluations and metrics systems that can help guide investment decisions and cross-sectoral collaborations towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
 Evaluation literature discusses needs assessment methods extensively. Assessment methods include secondary sources of data, focus-group discussions, key informant interviews, and participatory processes.