One tool to survey them all: standardization creates helpful datasets – and individual pictures – of smallholder families across the globe

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The CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience makes global impact by paying attention to local nuances and contexts. The Initiative establishes baselines and action plans understanding individual farmers and communities using a standardized tool that both puts things in a global context but makes sure actions are successfully tailored to local needs.


On the surface, two small-scale farming families thousands of miles apart may appear rather similar. They live off the land – often precariously – raising crops and livestock. They face increasingly unpredictable weather induced by climate change. Their soils are poor in nutrients and fertilizer prices are not keeping pace with their often-meager profit margins. They face challenges keeping their little kids in school, while the older ones, who would have taken over the farm from aging agrarian parents, did not resist the allure of migration.

There are more similarities but understanding the differences arguably matters the most. The family in Guatemala raises beans and goats. The Kenyan family, maize and cattle. The climate shocks – drought and deluge – impact mountains differently than flat land. One family has support from governments, research organizations and NGOs. The other does not, but when they have far easier market access. One family has four girls; the oldest sends money from the United States. The other has four boys, one of whom was lost to street violence in a nearby city.

Understanding “farmer typologies” – a term scientists use to categorize rural families broadly – is critical to building a broader understanding of, and detecting trends in smallholder communities. Standardized typologies help establish baselines, make clear comparisons at scale, answer major research questions and present national, global and regional cases for specific actions. But overgeneralization needs to be avoided. Forget rural families that are continents apart: two rural families separated by a few plots of land can be very different, too.

This blog is about ClimBeR and  RHoMIS, the Rural Household Multi-Indicator Survey, a tool built by CGIAR’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in 2015, which has been used to collect some 50,000 household surveys in 36 countries. The CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience Initiative, or ClimBeR, is particularly interested in using the tool to build a standardized and improved understanding of local contexts is key to the initiative’s success. As the authors note, ClimBeR’s “theory of change recognizes that different types of farms need different solutions. If solutions are not tailored, they may not work, or even worse, could lead to maladaptation where farmers are worse off than they would be without the intervention.”

How ClimBeR acts globally and locally by zooming in on specific smallholder contexts

By Evan Girvetz, Jim Hammond, Mark Van Wijk and Romain Frelat (see below for affiliations)

Small-scale farming households are the engine of rural economies and provide the bedrock of food system production in many low- and middle-income countries. However, challenges beset small-scale producers. These include widespread poverty and a lack of rural infrastructure; climate change, which manifests as erratic rainfall and temperature extremes; low productivity caused by poor soils; and under-investment in agricultural technologies and markets.


These challenges (and others!) are not uniform across the globe. Indeed, significant differences exist in farming systems across differing agroecologies. And at the local scale, smallholder farmers differ in terms of their asset base, agricultural productivity, access to off-farm income, and (climate) risk exposure. Related to all these is the degree to which they are willing and able to invest in their small farms.


The CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience, or ClimBeR, works to address these challenges by providing information on the characteristics – that is, different types, or segments, of farming households – to better target specific types of resilience-building interventions.


Although there are common trends and solutions to provide to farmers across the globe, when zooming into a specific location, the situation’s complexity quickly becomes evident, and solutions need to be locally relevant. The ClimBeR Initiatives theory of change recognizes that different types of farms need different solutions. If solutions are not tailored, they may not work, or even worse, could lead to maladaptation where farmers are worse off than they would be without the intervention.


ClimBeR collaborates with scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute to better understand what is going on at local, landscape, and national levels by analyzing available household interviews across the globe to provide this information.


There are mammoth efforts underway to improve the data resources available that describe smallholder agriculture, livelihoods and responses to climate change and other risks, operated in partnerships between the World Bank, UN Agencies, and National Governmental Statistics Offices around the world. (You can read about one World Bank-led initiative here.) There are also oceans of data collected during projects led by NGOs and research-for-development organizations such as the CGIAR. Unfortunately, most of this project data is never released publicly and is used only for evaluation and internal learning. Scientists, policymakers and funders could use this wasted resource to improve the lives of small-scale farmers.


Bringing the information together in one tool


The Rural Household Multi-Indicator Survey (RHoMIS) demonstrates how to fix this problem. It is a system for building farm-household surveys, calculating indicators for rapid reporting and learning, and then compiling the survey data into a globally harmonized resource.


Over 30 organizations in 36 countries have used the toolkit. Over 50,000 farmers have been interviewed, thus building up a resource of global interest at a very low additional cost because these surveys would have happened anyway. But if it were not for RHoMIS, the surveys would have all been different, incomparable and would not have been made publicly available in a single harmonized database.

Recognizing this, the Climate Resilience initiative and ILRI have developed a user-friendly dashboard interface to explore RHoMIS data.


This dashboard allows exploration of all the descriptive information about what farming activities are carried out, the sources of income, and the welfare of the farmers themselves – including food security and gender equity concerns. The dashboard also allows users to create their own “segmentation.” Segmentation means splitting a population into sub-groups – for example, according to their wealth, farming activities, or climate vulnerability. This information provides the basis for prioritizing specific support measures or interventions and targeting certain groups of people to receive those measures. For example, farmers may be segmented by food security outcomes, and those who are particularly food insecure may be supported to establish vegetable gardens or small-scale livestock keeping. Or perhaps farmers who are relatively better off may be provided with financial services and business development opportunities to build their farms into productive businesses.


The dashboard is at an early stage of development and is used to explore the wide variety of livelihoods and farm strategies within the ClimBeR focus countries. In combination with other data sources relating to climate change projections, observed weather in recent years, population projections, movement, and conflict, information from the dashboard is now used to create briefs on the diversity of farmer livelihoods, strategies, and vulnerabilities. The briefs include implications for designing efficient and effective support measures to enhance mitigation, adaptation and resilience.


With food demand increasing, small-scale family farmers who currently produce most of the food in lower- and middle-income countries will need to increase production to keep up with demand. This information provided by the RHoMIS Dashboard will be key to identifying interventions that work for specific types of farmers individually to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.



Evan Girvetz (Alliance of Bioversity International & CIAT); Principal Scientist Finance and Investments, De-risk Co-lead Climate Resilience Initiative

Jim Hammond (ILRI); Senior Scientist, Farming Systems Analysis, Sustainable livestock systems

Mark Van Wijk (ILRI); Senior Scientist, Systems Modeling, Sustainable livestock systems

Romain Frelat, Independent Consultant



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