Stories tagged: Fairtrasa

How to Help Small-Scale Farmers Surmount Trade Barriers in Mexico

In this guest post, Francis Mendez, Director of Fairtrasa Mexico explains the successful model her organisation uses to help small farmers in Mexico reach big markets. 

In my home state of Michoacán, Mexico, many small-scale farmers struggle with poverty and lack of resources. While large agricultural companies and more advanced small-scale farmers are able to sell their products on international markets, many farmers remain marginalized. They lack the proper resources, know-how, and infrastructure to develop their farms and businesses. If they do sell their products, it is to local “middlemen” who pay them negligibly, if at all.

Since 2005, Fairtrasa Mexico (of which I’ve served as Director since 2011) has been dedicated to helping marginalized small-scale farmers empower themselves by producing and exporting certified produce. In almost every case, the farmers we work with have no experience in how to achieve certification for their produce, nor in exportation itself.

This means they are excluded from the benefits of being part of the global food supply chain, such as the ability to earn a significantly higher income than on local markets, and to re-invest this income in farm, business, and community development.

These farmers need help joining the global food supply chain in a sustainable way. At Fairtrasa Mexico, we give farmers the support, resources, and logistical help they need to become certified exporters. In essence, we helps them surmount trade barriers. This has been our model since our company was founded in 2005.

Our work is not easy. We exist in a region riddled with crime and violence. We operate on a for-profit business model, re-investing much of our profit in needy farmers. Our partner farmers have been burned by “outsider” companies in the past, so gaining their trust takes work and time.

Yet our model has been successful and impactful for twelve years, and I see several keys to that success.

International Certifications

For marginalized small-scale farmers, international certifications such as Organic, GlobalGAP, and GRASP are tickets to joining the global food supply chain, as they can be the key to fetching much higher prices – sometimes as high as 25-30% more. And the impact goes beyond the economic: by complying with international standards, farmers professionalize their operations and improve the environmental sustainability of their farms.

However, obtaining these certifications is difficult and costly for marginalized farmers. This is where Fairtrasa can help, by leading them through the application and compliance processes. In Mexico, we focus on helping farmers achieve organic certification for fruit, by carrying out on-farm analyses on their behalf and keeping track of administrative documents, at no cost to the farmer. In some cases, we cover most or all of the costs of certification. When they obtain and maintain these certifications, enormous market opportunities open to them.

Customized Training

Fairtrasa Mexico provides trainings tailored to the specific needs and development levels of our farmers. Our in-house agronomist performs a technical assessment for each farmer, and gives recommendations for optimizing production through sustainable techniques. He then provides or coordinates customized training workshops, and visits each farmer on his or her farm at least once a month. This training focuses on yield optimization, quality control, and meeting the certified standards.

Financial Support

Lack of financing is a huge barrier to many small-scale farmers. They simply do not have the financial resources to plant their fields, obtain certifications, and begin exporting. Fairtrasa Mexico addresses this issue mostly by giving small loans to farmers. In 2016, for example, we loaned a total of US$30,000 toward the costs of fertilizers, pruning, equipment, and staffing, among other aspects of the production and export processes.

Quality Before Quantity

While it’s vitally important to help small-scale farmers improve their yields and export volumes, it’s equally important to help them achieve professional-level quality control. Farmers need to produce consistently high-quality fruit in order to sell on international markets. Even a single bad avocado can lead a buyer to return a container of otherwise high-quality fruit—and a single rejected container can be devastating for upstart exporters. Over the last 12 years, Fairtrasa has learned that it’s essential for farmers to perfect their quality control before expanding their output for export. Patience and attention to detail are therefore extremely important.

Building Trust

Providing training, financing, and support to small-scale farmers is crucial. Yet there is something even more fundamental: the farmers’ trust in us. Many small-scale farmers have had bad experiences with fruit buyers in the past, who often made promises they didn’t keep. In my experience, these are the keys to gaining farmers’ trust:

  • Keep your word: The society of our partner farmers is founded on the value of an individual’s word. If you don’t keep your word with farmers—even once—you will lose them. If you keep your word with farmers, you will begin gaining their trust. This is the essential groundwork for a building a long-term relationship.
  • Locals for locals: Fairtrasa’s founder, Patrick Struebi, came to Mexico from Switzerland in 2005. Although he founded the company by gaining the trust of local, small-scale avocado growers, he immediately understood the importance of finding local leaders to lead our social enterprise. As Fairtrasa replicated its model in Peru, Chile, and the Dominican Republic, the principle has stayed the same. We are emotionally and practically invested in the farmers’ success.
  • Demonstrate and lead by example: One of our team members is our in-house agronomist, Jose Luis Villagomez Solano, whoc is also a farmer in his own right. He owns a prosperous avocado farm where he utilizes sustainable techniques. When he visits our farmers and recommends best practices, he backs it up with his experience and output.

A Passionate Team

Underlying and fuelling our social enterprise is the passion and commitment of our team. Every day is a learning experience. Every day is a battle. But when we see the impact of helping marginalized small-scale farmers surmount trade barriers and thrive within the global food supply chain, it only makes us more passionate about the work we do.

This article originally appeared in WFO’s [email protected].

#IamAg! Meet Jim Ruiz, Social Entrepreneur & Fairtrade Champion

This is the final post in our series “I am Agriculture”, that showcases the many careers available to young people in agriculture. Today’s post comes from Jim Ruiz, co-founder of Fairtrasa Peru.

Agriculture is in my blood: I come from a family of farmers near Sullana, Peru, who grew corn, rice, cotton, and bananas. But unlike many of my peers in my community, I was able to afford university studies, and graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering in 2002.

My early experience taught me that the life of a small-scale farmer is extremely difficult. For generations, small-scale farmers in my region were stuck in a rigid pattern. Farming was not profitable for them, and they couldn’t afford to feed their children well and send them to school. My goal as a professional was to create opportunity for families and young people to escape this pattern. But I didn’t know how.

I experimented with some jobs; first as the coordinator of my university’s center for experimental agriculture, which gave me my first experience as a manager of a large team; then in the local mayor’s office, where I was in charge of community development projects for young people. I learned a lot from both experiences, but was frustrated by bureaucracy. I yearned for the freedom and opportunity to turn my creative ideas into reality.

That opportunity soon came from the farmers I grew up with.

The banana industry was booming in my region, and several small-scale farmer cooperatives had formed. They were selling their fruit straight from the tree to a multinational fruit company, which controlled harvesting, post-harvest, and exporting. The cooperatives wanted to earn better prices, but they were limited by only having one large buyer.

One local cooperative was interested in Fairtrade certification, but didn’t know how to obtain it or re-invest the Fairtrade Premium. They hired me to help them.

I learned as much as I could to devise a plan for the cooperative. Over the next two years, I helped them obtain not only Fairtrade certification, but Organic and GlobalGAP as well, and we began re-investing their increased income in technology and infrastructure. We used every dollar well, and gradually gained more control of the supply chain. Eventually, we were able to branch out and sell to another company at a better price—a huge achievement for the small-scale farmers in our region.

The experience was a revelation for me. I was extremely impressed by the effect of Fairtrade on small-scale farmers, and saw how re-investing income wisely could lead to real change. Farmer incomes went up, and they gained independence and a sense of dignity. They could feed their families better and provide better education to their children—the key to escaping the pattern of frustration.

Soon, another life-changing opportunity came my way. Patrick Struebi, a social entrepreneur who founded the company Fairtrasa in Mexico in 2005, wanted to bring his innovative model to Peru. Fairtrasa had worked with Mexican farmers in much the same way I had with Peruvian banana farmers: helping them use certifications and re-investment to increase incomes and gain more independence. Fairtrasa does not seek profit at the expense of fairness and sustainability. Instead, farmer development and sustainability were the primary goals—and business was the means for accomplishing them.

Patrick asked me to co-found a new company, Fairtrasa Peru, and to lead a team of locals in implementing my expertise. We founded Fairtrasa Peru in 2010, and have had great success in our first 6 years. We now work with 14 farmer cooperatives, providing each with training and resources tailored to their specific needs. Many have transformed themselves from struggling subsistence farmers to certified Organic and Fairtrade exporters in only a few years.

I’ve found my calling as the leader of an exciting social enterprise. I work closely with farmers and visit the fields I love every day, but I also use my skills as an agronomist and development specialist to change communities. I lead an amazing team of young, passionate entrepreneurs like myself, dedicated to changing the way our food is produced and sold.

Our work has impacted the younger generations of people in our region. The idea of the life of a small-scale farmer has been fundamentally altered. It’s now possible to earn a living as a grower, and to support a family by farming a small plot of land.

Meanwhile, for young people with university degrees, there are much greater opportunities in the agricultural sector than before, up and down the supply chain. We need talented people for a variety of roles: quality control, logistics, community development, and running the new businesses that are changing our society.

In other words, the meaning of agriculture is changing for the younger generation. It was always fundamental to our lives and survival. But now it’s fundamental to our development and success. It used to be our only option. Now it’s a source of new opportunity.

I believe that what we’ve accomplished in my region in northern Peru is an example of what young people can accomplish everywhere in the world. Through leadership, innovation, and strong moral values—a commitment to each other and to the earth—we can use agriculture not only to survive, but to thrive.