INTERVIEW: “Flexible and Specific”: Mary Devlin on best practices when training staff on sustainable sourcing

Staff from the World Food Programme participate in Tanager-led training

Sustainable sourcing is one of Tanager’s main areas of expertise. From India to Burkina Faso, Tanager works with smallholder farming communities, corporations, and foundations – aligning (at times) diverse perspectives and priorities to increase smallholder farmer income and improve farmer access to markets.

Sustainable sourcing initiatives can be undertaken by any type of organization. Tanager partners with corporations to improve the lives and livelihoods of the people behind its products – like in the case of the mint supply chain in Barabanki, India. In other cases, a foundation will work with Tanager to improve the overall ecosystem for smallholder farmers in a regional context – such as in Burkina Faso or in Andhra Pradesh, India. In the case of the World Food Programme (WFP) – a leading global humanitarian organization providing food access in times of emergencies – Tanager is helping to leverage a global footprint to the benefit of local smallholder farmers.

The World Food Programme wanted to improve the way that its many regional offices worldwide sourced produce from smallholder farmers. The World Food Programme saw an opportunity to leverage its own purchasing power to make a difference in the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the areas where it works. To deliver on the potential of WFP’s global footprint, Tanager – drawing on our experience with smallholder farmers around the world – provides training to WFP’s regional offices on best sustainable sourcing practices when buying from smallholder farmers.

To understand the training a little more, we talked to Tanager’s own Mary Devlin. Before becoming Tanager’s Director of Operations, Mary served as a Project Manager and conducted some of the training sessions that Tanager makes available to the WFP. Below she talks about how Tanager keeps these trainings “flexible and specific” to meet the WFP’s needs across diverse locales.


Hello Mary! We know that the World Food Programme is keenly interested in sourcing from smallholder farmers who live and work near its country offices. What were a few key challenges WFP faced? 

The challenges that the WFP faces will sound familiar to anyone who is a smallholder or who works with smallholders. They include a lack of access to formal markets, post-harvest losses, the need for sustainable farming methods in a changing climate, the absence of infrastructure/transport – the list goes on. And these challenges look different for every region, country, and community.

When designing a facilitated training session to help offices source from smallholder farmers, what are some considerations you take into account?

The trainings are largely based off of the Smallholder Agricultural Market Support (SAMS) Guidance, which Tanager helped the WFP to develop back in 2017. Like the guidance, the trainings are designed to be both flexible and specific: we can’t anticipate every situation in every country that could occur in the future, but we also know that if we just provide general statements then it’s not really good guidance. That being said, one of the main things we consider when preparing for a training is how much experience country offices have with smallholder programming, since we want to provide information that is both relevant and applicable. We’ve facilitated training sessions for both individual country offices as well as for regional bureaus.

What are a few key action steps that country offices take after the training sessions?

During most of our week-long trainings, participants learn about the tools in the SAMS guidance and develop personalized action steps for their Country Office to take after the training session. That way, they can return to their COs and implement the tools in a way that makes sense for their country’s context, and is in line with their Country Strategic Plan (CSP).

What in your experience was the response to these trainings?

We’ve gotten really positive feedback from these trainings – participants have expressed their appreciation of the material and how it’s presented. I think a lot of people are surprised by how participatory we make the trainings – they don’t just learn from us (Tanager), but they learn from their fellow participants, too. And we always like to have fun (and relevant) activities to break up the days!

If a WFP country office (or anyone) wanted to source from local farmers, what are the first steps they need to take?

WFP has a lot of great internal resources – the SAMS guidance is available to staff, and the Smallholder market support team in Rome HQ can provide internal support. Of course, we are happy to discuss the possibility of developing and facilitating trainings for the WFP, too, since we have a Long-term agreement already in place!