Andrew Natsios, former Administrator of USAID and current Advisory Committee Chair of HarvestPlus Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
When it comes to ending hunger, we need to start with smallholder farmers, argues the President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Filmed as part of Farming First’s #SDG2countdown campaign.
Music: Ben Sounds
In this guest blog, John Corbett, Gabe Stalcup and Leila Al-Hamoodah of big data company aWhere, Inc. discuss the need for “information agile” agriculture that can help smallholder farmers adapt to a changing climate.
Increased weather variability and weather disasters are a manifestation of our warming atmosphere. This variability includes shifting rainfall and temperature patterns, as well as a significant increase in extreme weather events. Of course, these events and weather variability are rarely positive for agriculture. Crops are vulnerable to extreme events, like droughts and floods, and extreme temperatures, both too hot and too cold.
With weather variability increasing the risk of poor harvests, farmers seek more information to guide their decisions. This new information is balanced against the farmer’s local knowledge as they plan their farming practices, and includes anticipation of “normal” weather.
To build resilience and adapt to these changing weather conditions and possible weather disasters, farmers must leverage environmental information and translate it into actionable signals. This type of adaptive farming is already the norm in the much of the United States and Europe. Wet spring? Farmers can swap long-season seeds for shorter-maturity seeds to account for the later planting. Conditions suitable for a foliar disease in the forecast? Farmers can spray the appropriate protection. This type of agile, information-driven farming continues to leverage more and more data to the point where variable-rate seeding, crop protection, fertilization and irrigation are all adopted, commercially viable, agricultural technologies.
The Need & the Opportunity
Agronomic weather information is one key element to dampening the impact of weather variability. Big Data methods and analytics combine to create agricultural intelligence, which is useful to farmers adapting to a changing climate. And getting the message to farmers across the planet is helped enormously by modern technology, such as the ubiquitous cell phone. The expanding presence of cellular systems provides the communication infrastructure to close the loop on the “final mile”, as millions of farmers have recently become reachable this way. It is estimated that there are more than 570 million farmers on the planet – most of whom are only now being connected, and, thus, are accessible to information services.
However, throughout most of the world’s smallholder farming areas, there is a distinct lack of truly “information agile” farming. Traditional practices often rule, and with weather variably increasing, the likelihood of crop failure due to extreme weather events also increases. The newfound access to farmers via ICT is both an incredible opportunity as well as a tremendous challenge. The current lack of information services provides an opportunity for ICT to assist in improving agricultural productivity, and innovation is rapidly coming to the agricultural value chain in smallholder farming areas. At the same time, millions of these farmers have never previously had access to a localized, short-term weather forecast, thus necessitating education and training surrounding the value and use of such forecasts. Early assessments of the impact of information services to small holder farmers often note 30-50 percent increases in productivity – the upside is solid. Notably, the overarching impact of connecting smallholder farmers to information services extends well beyond agriculture, and includes the opportunity for improved human health, child nutrition, social movements, and, of course, general education.
Delivering localized, relevant agricultural information to smallholder farmers is perhaps the only way to mitigate the impacts of weather variability, but more importantly, the connection to the farmer enables a whole host of possibilities across the spectrum of needs. Leo Tobias, Director, Technology and Product at the Grameen Foundation, noted: “If an individual is plugged into the information system, they are in a position to adopt good agricultural practices.” Good agricultural practices will help agriculture and address climate adaptation and resilience, or “climate smart agriculture”. These practices, from information on when to plant, as rainfall onset has become more variable in many areas, to what crop or variety to plant, to crop protection and fertilizer timing advice, address the challenges of changing weather, agricultural resilience, and smallholder farmer adaptation.
Agriculture sits at the core of the development process: “If the history of development has taught us anything, it’s that a strong agricultural sector is a cornerstone of inclusive and sustainable growth, broad-based development progress, and long-term stability,” a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs noted recently. Supporting agriculture delivers real returns, and innovation in information services is needed to achieve food security in the coming decades. Across the agricultural value chain, information services serve to connect and optimize the food chain and make it more resilient.
The Information Solution
aWhere provides a range of timely agronomic and weather information to smallholder farmers, through NGO and on-the ground partners. With more than 600,000 farmers globally, and over two-thirds of those in sub-Saharan Africa, we continue to learn how localized, up-to-date information impacts farming. What we also have learned is that this connection to the farmer is a conduit that inspires innovation.
Localized and personal, trusted communication channels are viable and attractive to entrepreneurs. Startups and emerging companies specializing in agriculturally relevant information vie for attention across the agricultural value chain. The provision of information, and inputs, is a complex challenge with so many small businesses and the multitude of smallholder farmers. This complex challenge is risky and “paying down the risk” is where the blending of public and donor efforts with private, commercial endeavours can be quite enabling. Timely information across the agricultural value chain is needed and necessary, but the introduction of new services is difficult in resource constrained areas. As proof of viability becomes more pronounced, capacity building to encourage innovation is needed. Communication channels along with public and donor support can be leveraged to create sustainable businesses supporting resilient agriculture.
For example, to encourage innovation in data-driven agriculture, aWhere hosts hackathons and data jams through its Hack4Farming series. With events in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, these capacity-building efforts enable agricultural businesses, often with little information services, to meet-up with software developers for the express purpose of connecting big data methods to local business needs and challenges. These events build a growing community in this ag-tech space, where startups can emerge and become sustainable, while commercial businesses work to make a more resilient agricultural value chain. Meanwhile, on-the-ground startups like Esoko, iShamba, and FarmerLink lead the way in providing innovative and timely information to smallholder farmers, using aWhere’s agronomic real-time information. With these final-mile connections, food security is greatly improved as existing information services can and will help with on-going adaptation and disaster mitigation.
Localized and timely agronomic information is a key piece of the puzzle to developing a sustainable and resilient agricultural system. While more variable weather is here to stay, existing and yet to be developed agricultural information services can serve to dampen the impact of both long and short-term weather-based agricultural stress. Given our changing climate, farmers need information to help them thrive with what the environment provides, as do input providers, markets, and actors all across the value chain. While agricultural production shortfalls due to weather disasters and variability leave us vulnerable to food insecurity, building local capacity to connect data-driven science to smallholder farmers will reap dividends and build resilience. Wherever trusted communication channels are in place, our risk is reduced.
This article appears in the May edition of WFO’s [email protected] Featured photo credit: V. Meadu (CCAFS)
14-15 March 2017
A two-day conference on how business can engage with small farmers to ensure supply security and resilience at scale. We will focus on the top priorities across commodities to provide high-level insight and practical, actionable guidance on how business can implement effective programmes that will boost the resilience of smallholders at scale. Read more >>
In the latest episode of Farming First TV, we talk to Dr. Richard Pluke, Senior Agricultural Advisor at Fintrac, about the organisation’s “value chain approach”.
“People complain about problems with markets,” Dr. Pluke comments. “The truth is, the markets are out there, you just need to produce for them and become a dependable supplier.” If smallholders are able to plug into markets and become successful, he argues, the entire rural economy can be boosted as a result.