How Do We Train Independent Smallholder Farmers and Enable Them to Produce Sustainably?

30 March 2023

By Devane Sharma

How We Train Independent Smallholder Farmers

The adage “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” is a principle so well-understood that its origin is contested the world over. Yet, the importance of facilitating self-sufficiency in food security is far from reality. The World Economic Forum reports that smallholder farmers produce about a third of the world’s food supply but lack the “financial, technical and technological support they need to thrive[1].” We believe our smallholder curriculum will equip our smallholders with the skills they need for a lifetime.

Oil palm smallholders make up about 40% of planted area. Independent ones, particularly lack the resources to produce sustainably. Our comprehensive training program covers both the hard and soft skills that enable independent smallholders to improve their livelihoods.

The program typically spans close to a year, with its modules spread out to meet the availability of the farmers across a number of regencies in Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia. Over the years, Musim Mas’ program has grown to become Indonesia’s largest independent smallholder training program.

Curriculum Overview

smallholder farmer training curriculum

Formulated with support from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, Musim Mas’ Smallholder Program was first developed to equip smallholders with skills that would align them with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles and Criteria. It is structured into topics on Environmental issues, Business Management, and Social issues.

Over the years, Musim Mas has evolved its program to reflect prevalent issues raised by the smallholders, including encouraging alternative livelihoods such as planting other crops. This is especially important in the palm industry as oil palm crops take approximately 3 years to start bearing fruit. During this time, smallholders need alternative sources of income.

The duration and delivery may differ for different groups as the program is always tailored to suit the knowledge of the participating farmers, and the conditions in each regency. This is necessary as conditions in Sumatra can vastly differ from those of Kalimantan, among other factors.  The program is administered on a village-wide level in a mixture of classroom and field sessions. Classroom lessons are delivered in a village meeting hall, known locally as a Balai Desa, or sometimes in the smallholders’ farms.

Also, depending on the facilities available, the classroom sessions are delivered as presentations with projection facilities are available. Otherwise, the group’s trainers use posters.

After the lessons are completed, Musim Mas trainers would arrange field visits to the smallholder plantations to assist with implementation.

Musim Mas’ Smallholder Training Program in Action

Perspectives from a Smallholder Farmer

An interview with Mr. Kateni, a smallholder farmer

During a recent training session, Musim Mas’ sustainability team obtained the feedback of a smallholder farmer who participated in the program, Mr. Kateni from the Rokan Hilir Regency in Riau, Indonesia. Mr. Kateni manages an oil palm plantation that is 3.5 hectares in size, and on the sidelines, he and his wife sell fritters.

Said Mr. Kateni “I have been an oil palm smallholder farmer for 20 years. As Musim Mas’ program came from a private company, I was initially wary of it. However, I saw that the group is genuine in the training. I heard from other farmers that Musim Mas was also helpful for implementation issues we face post-program.”

A big portion of the training curriculum focuses on the hard skills the smallholders need to sustainably improve their production. An example of this is appropriate weeding. “I used to treat all weeds as bad and used herbicides, but Musim Mas’ program taught me that some weeds are actually good and beneficial for the crops, so it’s better to mechanically remove the bad weeds such as Dicranopteris linearis. I also learnt how to conduct leaf and soil sampling to apply the right fertilizer types and quantities,” said Mr. Kateni.

Soft skills like financial literacy are just as important. Many smallholders are unbanked and without formal land deeds necessary to secure loans for fertilizers which are typically the biggest cost component they face. With fertilizers, their yields tend to be significantly higher. Musim Mas’ program teaches them the principles of financial planning, log bookkeeping, and provides information on the Government subsidy program by Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Agency (BPDPKS).

Indonesia’s largest Independent Smallholder Training Program

From its launch in 2015, Musim Mas’ Smallholder Program has since become Indonesia’s largest for independent smallholders.

In 2020, the group expanded its program to a train-the-trainer basis for local agricultural officers, known as Village Extension Officers (VEO) in Indonesia. This serves to provide capacity building for the VEOs who can then go on to train even more smallholders.

As of January 2023, the group has trained over 40,000 independent smallholders and over 370 VEO trainers, representing a combined total of over 84,500 hectares of land.

Rob Nicholls, General Manager of Programs and Projects, Musim Mas said, “There are an estimated 3 – 4  million smallholder farmers in Indonesia. The nation is the largest producer of the commodity which is used globally in just about everything around us- as much as half of packaged goods in the supermarkets.[6] While Smallholders do not supply directly to Musim Mas, the group will continue growing its training program for Smallholders and Village Extension Officers, as it considers small farmers key to achieving sustainability across the palm oil industry.”


[1] World Economic Forum: Why smallholder farmers are central to new food security interventions

[2] RSPO: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

[3] ISPO: Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil

[4] HCV: High Conservation Value

[5] HCS: High Carbon Stock

[6] WWF: 8 Things to Know About Palm Oil

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