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Perceptions on resources and resilience attributes of short food supply chains to external shocks

A case study of Ecuadorian fine cocoa sector

Published onJun 20, 2023
Perceptions on resources and resilience attributes of short food supply chains to external shocks
Elvia Merino-Gaibor1*, Adriana A. Amaya Rivas2, Xavier Gellynck1
1Ghent University, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Department of Agricultural Economics, Ghent, Belgium; 2ESPOL Polytechnic University, ESPAE Graduate School of Management, Campus Gustavo Galindo Km. 30.5 Vía Perimetral, P.O. Box 09-01-5863, Guayaquil, Ecuador.
*E-mail of corresponding author: [email protected]


Spatially extended Short Food Supply Chains (SFSCs) can enable small-scale producers' resilience capacity to external shocks, offering secure and traceable food sources. Furthermore, expanding sustainable commercial cocoa crops in spatially extended SFSCs may increase the production of cocoa beans in a way that is environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. This can involve promoting the use of agroforestry systems, which integrate trees and crops to enhance biodiversity and soil health, reducing the use of harmful chemicals. By implementing this type of SFSCs, small-scale farmers can obtain a reliable source of income while simultaneously preserving the environment. This study examines Ecuador, a major fine cocoa exporter, and aims to advance knowledge on the resources and attributes of SFSC intra-firm resilience that determine small-scale cocoa farmers' resilience capacity. Qualitative research methods reveal that small-scale farmers in spatially extended SFSCs exhibit resilience during crises, highlighting the importance of this organizational model in enduring market disruptions.


Short food supply chains, small-scale producer’s resilience, Resource-based view theory, Socio-ecological systems, sustainable business model 


Short food supply chains (SFSCs) are a promising approach to improving the resilience capacity of small-scale producers to external shocks (Benedek et al., 2021). Especially, spatially extended SFSCs can reduce physical and cognitive distances between producers and consumers, and provide a more secure and traceable food source, thereby reducing the risk of supply disruptions (Meuwissen et al., 2019; Renkema & Hilletofth, 2022). Additionally, by integrating biodiversity and cash crops like cocoa into these types of chains, it is possible to create food systems that are both resilient and sustainable. Expanding commercial sustainable cocoa crops to small-scale producers can generate farmer income, contribute to rural economic stability, and preserve the environment (Cerda et al., 2014). Particularly, this study examines Ecuador as it is one of the major exporters of this commodity, where access to productive resources requires the development of sustainable and diverse agricultural systems, being difficult for small-scale producers who are not organized (Cerda et al., 2014; Clark & Martínez, 2016).

Currently, studies have focused on resources and resilience attributes in downstream supply chains, assuming that the supply of raw materials is unlimited and knowledge about their relationships with different organizational models, and the impact on food security are still scarce (Aboah et al., 2019; Ali et al., 2021; Coopmans et al., 2021; Renkema & Hilletofth, 2022). Therefore, to the best of our knowledge, more empirical research is needed to understand the key factors that enable the resilience capacity of small-scale producers in spatially extended SFSCs to ensure a continuous supply of traceable food to future external shocks.

More specifically, the study aims to answer the following research questions:

RQ1: What problems did the Ecuadorian cocoa supply chain face during the COVID-19 outbreak?

RQ2. How can spatially extended short food supply chain actors adopt various strategies to enable the resilience capacity of small-scale farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak?

Theoretical foundation

Based on the resource-based view (RBV) and socio-ecological systems, this study aims to advance knowledge of the resources and attributes of short food supply chains’ intra-firm resilience (SFSCR-farm) that determine the resilience capacity of small-scale cocoa farmers. The RBV is a management and economics theory that focuses on the role of resources and capabilities that determine the competitiveness and success of a firm (Barney, 1991). Academics suggest analyzing companies from the resource side, especially those organizations that base their strategies on sustainable development (Hart, 1995). Additionally, firms have focused on sustainable strategies like raw material management in Northern markets, contrary to developing countries (Hart, 1995). Therefore, it is important to know how small, organized farmers implement environmental strategies to reduce their negative environmental impact (Aragon-Correa et al., 2008).

In the context of socio-ecological systems, where a human-environment relationship prioritizes, the concept of short food supply chains’ intra-firm resilience (SFSCR-farm) is gaining recognition as a way to understand the resilience of small-scale producers in a chain that direct connection with the market (Coopmans et al., 2021). Furthermore, the arguments in favor of a transition towards more sustainable agriculture increase the implications of connecting farmers with nature (e.g., agroforestry systems) and transmitting this information to final consumers, seeing that our study will focus on spatially extended SFSC (export) (Marsden et al., 2000). It is essential to consider the interplay between natural and social resources and the role of different actors in enhancing the system's resilience while ensuring equitable and sustainable outcomes (Carpenter et al., 2014).


This research employs qualitative research methods, including interviews with key chain actors from a focal organization that brings together small producers' organizations dedicated to producing and commercializing Ecuadorian fine cocoa cultivated by employing agroforestry systems (Giagnocavo et al., 2022). In this study, we employed a thematic analysis research method, using codebook coding in NVivo (Jackson & Bazeley, 2019). This approach allowed us to extract and analyze the participants' beliefs and opinions regarding the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on small-scale cocoa farmers involved in SFSCs. By analyzing the data through a thematic lens, we were able to identify common patterns, themes, and categories across the responses, enabling us to gain a deeper understanding of the participants' perceptions. Additionally, the use of codebook coding in NVivo allowed us to organize and categorize the data efficiently, making it easier to manage and analyze. Through this method, we aimed to provide a comprehensive analysis of the research topic while ensuring the rigor and validity of our findings.

Regarding the case study of Ecuadorian National Cocoa (fine or aroma cocoa), it is recognized as one of the best in the world, and the international chocolate specialty market demands a high quality of these beans (Acebo Plaza, 2016). However, the sustainability of the quality of fine cocoa could decrease in the coming years. Small-scale farmers, who are strongly associated with this crop, do not have incentives to maintain this type of crop, despite this is a crop that grows in agroforestry systems, which could help farmers to have a living income and environmental sustainability (Portalanza et al., 2019). In addition, the production of national cocoa represents significant challenges for stakeholders in the value chain of the cocoa sector. This sector needs investments to access international certifications (e.g., UTZ and Rainforest) (Clark & Martínez, 2016), and has low productivity compared to CCN51 cocoa (Acebo Plaza, 2016). Thus, the lack of quality of National cocoa could affect the specialty chocolate industry and reduce exports to international markets such as Europe.

Result and Discussion

In November and December 2022, a research team conducted interviews with 13 small-scale cocoa farmers and a representative of the focal organization. The team also interviewed three first-level associations of Ecuador's Popular and Solidarity Economy sector, which are part of a level-two association that commercially represents small-scale farmers in agroforestry systems. The aim of this research was to analyze the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on small-scale cocoa farmers involved in SFSCs, who operate on an international scale while maintaining sustainable supply chains. The study found that the COVID-19 crisis has caused significant changes in cocoa demand and prices, making it challenging for farmers to maintain their livelihoods. Additionally, farmers have experienced difficulties in accessing inputs and production tools, as well as greater challenges in transporting their products. Furthermore, technical visits to ensure agroecological practices and grain quality, particularly with regards to certifications, have also posed problems for farmers. Moreover, the team examined how resources allocated by system actors and resilience attributes of the system during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak could determine the resilience capacity of small-scale cocoa farmers. Thus, the actors system consider it essential to understand various elements, such as resources allocated for agroecological production, marketing style and channels, and entrepreneurial orientation, as well as system resiliency attributes, including diversity and redundancy. Finally, the team found that small-scale cocoa farmers in the fine cocoa sector play a crucial role in reinventing themselves to remain operational and integrate into modern value chains to meet the increasing sustainability criteria demanded by consumers and regulators in various international markets.


The research findings indicate that small-scale farmers in the short food supply chain experienced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially regarding the logistics and cocoa trade. Despite these difficulties, the small farmers exhibited resilience by using their farms to provide food and medicine for themselves, adapting their communication methods, and willingly following biosecurity protocols to sustain their operations. As a result, these actions enabled the focal organization to continue to collect crops and commercialize high-quality cocoa to international partners.

The perception of these issues is consistent across small-scale farmers and focal organizations, which have joined forces to provide a certified and sustainable offering. This Popular and Solidarity Economy has resulted in a strengthened international client base, which provides a positive outlook for the future of small-scale cocoa farmers in spatially extended SFSCs. Overall, the findings of this research demonstrate the resilience capacity of small-scale farmers in times of crisis and highlight the importance of the newly established organizational model in fostering product diversification and reinforcing the collection infrastructure to endure market disruptions.


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