"Beautiful tomatoes inside and out"

"Beautiful tomatoes inside and out"

27/07/2020
in News
This news is part of the following focus area:
Selene Casanova
Selene Casanova
Communications | Latin America & International

That was Abraham's answer, when we asked him why it was important for him to improve his agricultural practices. He was trying to sell the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers from his stall in the colourful market in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The phrase beautiful on the inside describes a key part of Rikolto's mission, namely production and access to healthy and quality food for all. But what could tomatoes "beautiful on the outside" possibly mean?

The answer is not the shape. The UN cites that Latin America is already responsible for 20% of global food waste which is lost from post-harvest to retail, and this is mainly attributable to fruits and vegetables that are discarded because of their irregular shapes.

The actual beauty may be what is behind the whole thing. One example is the alliance between export companies, agricultural supply companies and small-scale farmers to increase the productivity and competitiveness of 1,700 vegetable farmers in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

This was achieved through a programme for knowledge management in the horticultural sector that Rikolto started in 2017 together with 23 farmers' organisations from the 3 countries. Financial and technical support came from companies and research institutions such as Tomabel, REO-Veiling, ARDO, De Lochting and INAGRO, as well as the Province of West-Flanders in Belgium.

Applying what was learnt meant jumping from one country to three

The decision to work with organisations from the three countries was not taken lightly. Rikolto had previously organised a very successful exchange between horticultural cooperatives in Nicaragua and farmers in Belgium.

The Nicaraguan cooperatives usually considered their counterparts from other countries competitors. However, after hearing from Belgian farmers and research centre INAGRO how collaborating to collect produce, engage in block marketing and research innovations made for increased productivity and sustainability and would lead to large scale sales in Belgium and Europe, they became more open to the idea of collaboration.

Farmers understand each other

Henk Vandevelde from tomato cooperative Tomabel, Johan Pattyn from the auction REO-Veiling, and Peter Bleyaert from research centre INAGRO participated in a practical exchange with the farmers of the Nicaraguan vegetable cooperative Ecovegetales.

Learn more about this exchange

Guillermo Gutierrez from Rikolto adopted two strategies to strengthen the commercial strategies and test new productive technologies of vegetable farmers in Central America:

  • Facilitating learning among farmers in the same Central American region;

  • Connecting the organisations with the rest of the stakeholders in the vegetables sector, to generate synergies and opportunities for learning and innovation.

We are working on the same thing. Why not create an alliance?

Generating alliances between producer organisations sounds simple. After all, they work in the same field. But it is not. They consider each other competitors, but that is not the only challenge. Rikolto offered spaces to share and exchange information in an atmosphere of trust between advisors, producers, and cooperative managers, in each country and then between countries.

We also wanted to facilitate collaborations with more players in the horticultural sector that may be interested in exchanging knowledge and generating innovations, including companies Fairfruit, Rijk Zwaan, Protecciones Agrícolas, RONAIX, ONGDs, universities. These actors brought in additional human resources and financing, which increased the number of knowledge-sharing events that could be organised and innovations and new technologies that could be tested.

It is not easy to integrate the academic sector, the private sector, producers and international organisations. We are used to cycles of conferences between scientists, but not between producers and exporters, which is why the efforts of the project have been very positive. "I am taking this approach into account from now on in order to replicate similar exercises."

Rolando Cifuentes Director of the Center for Agricultural and Food Studies (UVG)

Working with the universities is key

In collaboration with the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG) and the Universidad El Zamorano in Honduras, the first of 22 field schools facilitated by the project was realized. These schools provided tools and methodologies to technical advisors from producer organisations in the three countries, who in turn replicated these farmer field schools in their respective countries.

The implementation of innovations sometimes can be expensive, so the support and co-financing of private companies and other institutions was very useful.

We learned that companies and other institutions are willing to collaborate and cooperate with each other, especially in the area of technological innovation. The missing link is often multi-actor spaces like the one the project facilitated.

"This project clearly shows the importance of the involvement of the private company in technological development actions with producers. We work with the farmers at a technical level, but we need to evaluate other ways to transmit knowledge to the farmers who give us the raw material," says José Maldonado of Fair Fruit/ADISAGUA. He believes that to be sustainable, these processes must be aligned with the university and private companies. Together with UVG, Fair Fruit organised two field schools for technicians who, upon returning to their cooperatives, replicated what they had learned.

The alliance with the academic institutions facilitates the coordination of programmes with supervised practices, access to laboratories, and teachers with up-to-date knowledge. This is something we are not taking advantage of in Central America and it is something we are betting on right now.

José Maldonado Fair Fruit/ADISAGUA

The learning exchanges organised throughout the project generated a climate of trust, as well as an interest in validating more practices. They took place in Guatemala and Honduras, and a group also travelled to Belgium. The results? The cooperatives with whom Rikolto partners in its programme in Nicaragua consolidated their commercial alliance, which they called UCHON, with which they intend to "increase production in order to opt for new markets. Now with the union of cooperatives (UCHON) we want to reach different market niches," says Jaime Rivera of the Coosempoda cooperative in Nicaragua.

Also, this process confronted them with the threats of climate change. "Now we give plants what they need only when they need it," says Jaime, who emphasises that by collaborating with companies and the university it was easier to initiate or improve production models. Such models include protected agriculture and the incorporation of biological products, practices that allow for the reduction of the chemical load applied to the crops.

Hydroponics: 3 pilots turned into 22

Innovation was a clear objective of the programme and the exchange of experiences in Belgium led to the hydroponics flame being ignited.

In Honduras, together with the Consorcio Agrocomercial de Honduras (600 member farmers) partners of the programme and thanks to the co-financing of Appui au Développement from Luxembourg, Rikolto validated lettuce production with hydroponic systems. The process helped provide evidence on cost and management of the technology, to determine which crops can be produced in the climatic conditions of Honduras.

The results made it possible to apply for the European Union's EUROSAN Innova funds. Now 22 protected structures are being developed with hydroponic systems. They will test cucumber, lettuce, and of course those beautiful tomatoes Abraham was talking about!

The project in figures...

  • 22 Farmer Field Schools, in most cases combined with technology tests, with the support of universities and private companies.

  • More than 30 training events directly strengthening the knowledge and skills of more than 800 producers, managers and technical advisors from the project's partner producer organisations.

  • 7 technical guides with good practices, for different crops, on topics such as protected agriculture, integrated pest management, use of good agricultural practices and hydroponics, co-created by farmers' organisations and allies such as universities and the private sector.

  • Learning through lived experiences was promoted. Three exchanges were held during the project. There was one in Guatemala (2017), one in Honduras (2018), and one in the province of West Flanders in Belgium (2018).

  • There were two regional events, one on "Hydroponic systems for small-scale vegetable production" in Honduras (2019) and the other was the Horticultural Forum "transition towards more sustainable horticulture", in Nicaragua (2019). Both are supported and co-financed by companies, universities and other non-governmental institutions.

Acknowledgements

This initiative would not have been possible without funding from the province of West-Flanders in Belgium, as well as from the companies and institutions Tomabel, REO- Veiling, ARDO, De Lochting and INAGRO. We are also grateful for the commitment and dedication of the six cooperatives from Jinotega, Sébaco and Matagalpa in Nicaragua; the regional service provider Agroecológico and the Universidad Autónoma de Nicaragua - UNAN. From Honduras, the six producer organizations, which are part of the Agrocommercial Consortium, and the Zamorano Agricultural School. In Guatemala, to the Universidad del Valle, the companies Fair Fruit, Protecciones Agrícolas, CEIS, RIJK ZWAAN and eight horticultural cooperatives with which the organization ADISAGUA works.

Want to know more about this project? Feel free to contact our colleague:

Guillermo Gutierrez
Guillermo Gutierrez
Project coordinator | Nicaragua