Compelling Storytelling

Why authentic voices and narratives of social impact matter

#FarmVoices: Capturing farmers’ voices for improved monitoring and better decision-making

#FarmVoices: Capturing farmers’ voices for improved monitoring and better decision-making

Blog article by Nele Claeys and Steff Deprez, founders and managing partners, Voices That Count

Voices That Count is a collaborative network of experts and practitioners who use narrative approaches to understand complex realities within organisations or projects. We support not-for-profit, public, academic and social enterprises to generate actionable insights and stimulate collaboration for social impact. Capturing the voice of people and facilitating collective sensemaking in complex change processes is central to all our work.

Perceptions and real-life experiences of farmers are crucial data to understand the complex and diverse dynamics that are at play in membership-based farmer organisations. Facts and numbers alone do not always provide the nuance of complex realities and of the different perspectives that exist across subgroups. Also, in discussions between the different stakeholders across the agricultural chain it is often a challenge to include the voices of famers, beyond the farmer leaders, into monitoring, learning and decision-making processes.  

Imagine collecting hundreds of personal experiences (micro-narratives) from farmers about how they perceive their organisation and trade relations. Instead of asking peoples’ opinion through a set of a pre-defined questions, we listen to farmers and capture what matters to them. After farmers share their experiences, they self-interpret their own stories based on a set of signifier questions that reveal deeper insights in the context of their experiences. These hundreds and sometimes thousands of micro-narratives and answers to follow-up questions are then entered in a dedicated software, which allows us to visualise patterns. These patterns and the stories behind them then serve as insightful monitoring data and food for discussion and sensemaking at a chain actors’ gatherings, at meetings with farmers, etc.

Examples of farmers’ micro-narratives:

"Since I joined the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative, I no longer have to contend with the many problems I used to have. I can honestly say that, before the cooperative, we really didn’t sell here, in the true sense of the word. I was suffering so much that it felt like I was actually being robbed of my coffee. I had already started uprooting my coffee trees, because I just couldn’t see the point any more. But after selling to the station last season, I was encouraged by the price I got, the shorter distance involved and the tips I picked up at the mico-washing station. This year I’ve even started to replant, because the Kawa Kanzururu cooperative has really motivated me."

"A bowl of coffee berries used to sell at 1300 Ugandan shillings. But nowadays the price has dropped to 1100 shillings. Yet I have to do a lot of work before coming here [to the washing station of the cooperative] to sell them. When you look at those people who sell to fraudsters without much effort being involved in processing the coffee, I think they earn more than us."

“I’m a coffee farmer. Last season I arrived at the micro-washing station at a time when there was no money and I really needed to pay my kids’ school fees. I was promised that the money would be there in two days so I went off and signed a form saying that I had to pay after the two days. Strangely enough, when I went back to the washing station, the chairman told me that he had already used my money in his business.”

This is the essence of #FarmVoices, a narrative pulse developed by Voices That Count: a process and a tool to keep a finger on the pulse by turning individual experiences of farmers into patterns that visualise the bigger picture. It is inspired by the practice of SenseMaker, a method of inquiry that involves collecting and analysing large numbers of story fragments about people’s experiences to make decisions that respond better to needs and opportunities.  SenseMaker recognises that personal narratives allow better access to contextualised knowledge.

#FarmVoices can be used as a “one-off” assessment tool but it is at its best when used as a periodic (continuous) method to keep your finger on the pulse of farmer organisations for a capacity strengthening project, an inclusive business initiative or value chain development intervention. 

The stories from farmers and the underlying patterns are powerful evidence to inform leaders and managers in their decisions that speak to farmers’ reality. It is equally insightful for business actors to connect with farmer’s reality and understand the dynamics at play. 

Farmer cooperatives that used #FarmVoices became, for example, aware of the need for more transparency and communication across the organisation, and got a clearer view on what type of information was key to be shared with their members in order to increase trust within the cooperative. They also got more insights into what led farmers to make conscious choices about selling to the cooperative. For leaders of cooperatives and (international) buyers, reading the stories served as a decision mirror: they became much more aware on how certain choices, e.g. on delivery schedules, affected the farmers. 

"Having worked in the agriculture and finance space, most of the monitoring and evaluation methodologies are very intentional: we define the questions and look for answers from farmers. What I did not realize is that we seriously risk losing perspectives that may not covered by our questions and thereby limiting our understanding of farmers’ experiences. After using #FarmVoices in Rwanda, I am convinced that allowing farmers to tell their stories by putting forward issues and events they consider most relevant, is a crucial component of their reality. This information presents great value to all stakeholders who work with them and in the sphere of development as a whole, because after all poverty is a complex lived experience."
Pallavi Hariharan, Environmental & Social Impact Manager, Alterfin

"#FarmVoices is a powerful tool, not only for better understanding the perspective of the farmers, but also because the information it generates can be used to trigger deeper discussion even on sensitive issues in a constructive way with all stakeholders in the chain."
Dewi Utami Catur, former M&E manager of Rikolto in Indonesia

What are the key phases in a #FarmVoices process?

The #FarmVoices process always starts with a design stage, during which a choice is made about whose voices need to be heard and, if necessary, a sampling strategy is developed. Although #FarmVoices was developed as a standardised tool, a critical task of the design stage is to align the questions with the context of the farmer organisation (size, structure, crops) and the focus and scope of the narrative pulse. Therefore a decision has to be taken on the prompting question (the opening question that invites people to share their stories) and the follow-up questions (to self-interpret their stories).

young woman interviewing female farmer
#FarmVoices is particularly useful for insights into less tangible aspects of a change and emerging patterns and trends under conditions of complexity. It has been customised to fit the purpose to guide farmer organisation strengthening, or for (self) assessment of progress. © Rikolto

At Voices That Count we developed a library of follow-up questions (also called signifiers), framed around (1) the governance of the farmer organisation (2) the performance of the farmer organisation, (3), the benefits for the farmers, and (4) trading relations.

In a second stage, the stories and answers to the signifier questions are collected through an individual or group-based process facilitated by trained story collectors. The data is recorded using paper-based forms or the Collector app on a tablet or mobile phone. The advantage of face-to-face collection is that story collectors can ask additional questions while prompting a story, which can lead to richer stories. Experience also tells us that when the data collection is deliberately structured to engage people in deeper conversations, it shifts their understanding about their context and situation. The collection process itself is equally as important as the results and insights generated.

The result of the story collection is a rich dataset, visualised in a tailor-made dashboard in which one easily can detect patterns across the multiple narratives based on the answers to the signifier questions. The analysis starts with a pattern analysis rather than an in-depth reading of individual stories – in order to spot dominant, interesting and surprising patterns, outliers, key differences between groups, and correlations between different signifier questions. During this phase, we identify the main questions, issues and themes that should be further explored during the collective sensemaking workshops. 

figures and diagrams on a screen
Screenshot of a dashboard 

Sensemaking workshops include those stakeholders who need to make strategic decisions about the farmer organisation or cooperative and/or those will be using the findings in their daily work to adapt the project interventions. An important part of the sensemaking workshop is reading and discussing stories. Collective reading, ‘unpacking’ and discussing the stories is a powerful process that creates new levels of understanding of the context. The collective nature of sensemaking contributes to the uptake of findings by building wider analytical capacity and, in the process, informing decision-making and action. 

male African farmer telling his story
#FarmVoices is a tool to assess the performance and governance of a large farmer organisation or cooperative as it is perceived by its members. It helps to capture and understand internal dynamics and power relations within large farmer organisations or cooperatives, to detect strengths and weaknesses of how they experience the pathway to the further professionalisation of their organisation. © Rikolto

What makes this narrative approach valuable and unique?

  • Experiences, not opinions. The starting point is the personal experience of farmers around the topic of inquiry, and not the collection of opinions or scoring against pre-defined indicators. It is not a collection of long and in-depth stories from a small group of people, as with some other storytelling methods, but a listening exercise gathering day-to-day experiences, moments and events from hundreds and sometimes thousands of stories. From this, we are able to ‘read’ a (production or food) system through the eyes of the farmers. 
  • Self-interpretation. By answering follow-up questions, storytellers provide further information and give additional layers of meaning to what is expressed in their stories. They make a primary assessment of their own stories and by doing so reduce the bias of external researchers or analysts. 
  • Visual patterns representing trends and dynamics. Strong clusters, trends, and outliers give rapid insights into the drivers, behaviours, dynamics, contextual factors and actors in people’s lives. 
  • A unique combination of qualitative and quantitative data, which connect to and complement each other to generate better insights. Narratives are turned into numbers and patterns, which in turn derive meaning and context from the underlying narratives. The SenseMaker software and associated dashboards allow for a rich analytical process.
  • Every voice counts equally. Valuing each person’s experience means there is no capture or selection of the best or most significant stories. People share stories and experiences that matter to them, which can be both negative or positive, or a mix of both. Dominant voices are not favoured above others: every voice, every story is used equally to visualise and analyse emerging patterns and trends. It is therefore an ideal method to give equal voice to those people who are often not heard.
Nele Claeys and Steff Deprez
Steff Deprez is specialised in complexity-aware monitoring, evaluation and learning systems. He has a vast experience in participatory and learning-oriented methods such as Theory of Change, Outcome Mapping, Outcome Harvesting and SenseMaker. Steff has lived and worked in Zimbabwe and Indonesia, supporting educational and agricultural development programmes. He is now based in Leuven, Belgium, and helps organisations and companies with action research, monitoring and impact assessments using actor-centred and narrative sensemaking approaches. He provides in-house and public trainings and supports SenseMaker initiatives for non-profit organisations, local and national government agencies and social enterprises. He is also the co-author of the first SenseMaker practitioner guide. Nele Claeys' professional background is related to communication and guiding participatory processes. For over 15 years, she worked for the NGO Rikolto as a campaigning coordinator, and later as international communications coordinator. It was through her work at Rikolto that she got to know SenseMaker, its added value in change processes and communicating about social impact. Currently, she’s one of the lead practitioners within the Voices That Count network, steering several SenseMaker processes both in Africa and in Europe. Besides a SenseMaker expert, she’s also a trainer in narrative methods and storytelling for organisational change, impact measuring and celebration. She’s based in Gent, Belgium.


Farmer on Fire: Using digital storytelling to help a new generation embrace farming

Wangari Kuria describes how her business utilizes digital media and storytelling to help young Kenyans learn how to farm, create a brand and market their products.
Alexandra Harris
Table of contents

graphic summary


Learn more about storytelling in Inclusive Business by reading this twenty-fourth edition of the online magazine on Inclusive Business! The illustration was developed by Christopher Malapitan, a visual practitioner and trainer based in Brussels.…

Christopher Malapitan


Your Story Matters

In her editorial, Susann Tischendorf urges individuals and organizations to tell their authentic stories, because readers respond to authenticity rather than perfection. She provides tips on how to weave creativity and innovation into storytelling.

Susann Tischendorf

feature story

Compelling Storytelling: Why authentic voices and narratives of social impact matter

As human beings, stories help us make sense of the world. Stories are also important in conveying the meaning behind a business. “We know that people are substantially more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services). Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories,” writes Paul J Zak in the Harvard Business Review. In this issue of CLUED-iN we examine how storytelling can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses, attract investment and partners, monitor their progress and increase visibility of their brand.

Alexandra Harris

#FarmVoices: Capturing farmers’ voices for improved monitoring and better decision-making

In their article, Nele Claeys and Steff Deprez explain how narrative impact monitoring captures a range of farmers’ voices to help farmer associations and other stakeholders make better informed decisions.

Farmer on Fire: Using digital storytelling to help a new generation embrace farming

Wangari Kuria describes how her business utilizes digital media and storytelling to help young Kenyans learn how to farm, create a brand and market their products.

How storytelling strives to make skilling aspirational in India

In his blog, Mrinal Kant elucidates the power of storytelling to help women choose skilling opportunities and aspire to entrepreneurial careers that were traditionally out of reach.

Amru Rice: Telling a story of inclusion of Cambodian rice farmers

CEO Saran Song tells us why the story behind the company is important and how the inclusion of smallholder farmers in Cambodia is a key part of Amru’s narrative.

Impactful storytelling is rooted in meaningful action taken by companies

Maria Correa explains why inclusive storytelling should be incorporated into a company’s messaging, and why the most effective communications are rooted in specific impact and personal stories.

How to get your story across to investors

Telling their impact story is a powerful tool companies can use to make their case to investors. Tiffany Moore, Engagement Manager at Impact Capital Africa, shares some practical advice and resources on how to make a successful pitch.

Findjobs Singapore: Storytelling expands visibility and partnerships for social impact

In his interview, Stanley Lim relates how the impact story of his inclusive business has expanded the visibility of Findjobs and has helped identify like-minded partners.

Notes from the field: Filming an inclusive business story in Zambia

In September 2022, iBAN travelled to Zambia to shoot a documentary clip on Inclusive Business. Katharina Münster shares first-hand experiences from the field.