Sustainable cocoa and coffee

Access to knowledge, services and innovation for all: is that even possible?

November 23, 2020
Jelle Goossens
Communications officer Rikolto in Belgium

Land and water are key resources for a farmer. But knowledge, credit, market information and technology are also indispensable 'raw materials' for good farming. In developing countries, it is often those services that producers lack access to. Yet, they are at the same time determining factors for productivity, quality, food safety and the impact on the environment. How can collaboration between chain partners improve access to essential services and innovation for farmers?

Farmers need constant training to keep up with new knowledge and techniques. But in the chain projects we very often work together with farmers who have rarely had education and learning opportunities.

Lifelong learning opportunities, also for farmers

For example, the quinoa from Peru comes from the Ayacucho region, an area in Peru that is often neglected, where the quality of education is substandard and fleeing to the city seems the best option for a better future. "With Collibri Foundation we therefore started supporting the model farm that Solid founded there," says Mieke Vercaeren of Colruyt Group. "Young people up to the age of 23 can follow an after-school training programme that focuses on three pillars: agricultural technical knowledge, entrepreneurship and personal development. In their third year, they are coached to develop their own business. This may be in quinoa, but also in livestock farming, honey production, flower or vegetable production." The young people are asked to make a small investment of their own (the equivalent of 5 euros).

In Nicaragua, we are focusing on a structural model. Over a period of 5 years, 75 young people will have the opportunity to take part in the training project "La Juventud Sí Puede" (Yes Youth Can), which focuses, among other things, on Good Agricultural Practices and the grafting of cocoa plants. "They are young people from economically vulnerable backgrounds, just under half of whom are girls," says Joris Aertsens of Rikolto. "Thanks to a grant from Collibri Foundation, they are following a 20-day training programme in Honduras, organised by the FHIA research institute and CURLA University. The young graduates in turn pass on the knowledge to other young people in their community in Nicaragua.”

Credit: of capital importance

Access to working capital is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for young cooperatives. A cooperative should preferably be able to pay its members immediately when they deliver their harvest, even if the money from the end buyer is not there yet.

In the case of coffee from Congo, Colruyt Group decided to exceptionally pre-finance the purchased containers to Kawa Kabuya cooperative. This was crucial because there is no solid local banking system where farmers can borrow on affordable terms. "Colruyt Group's decision was also an important signal of confidence to other financiers," says Joris Aertsens. "Without this decision, Alterfin (a social investor), for example, would not have stepped in so quickly.”

For Colruyt Group, the decision was a first. It was a calculated and necessary gamble which the employees argued for internally because they had great confidence in the Rikolto team in D.R. Congo.

Innovation and access to technology

New business models in which chain partners work closely together not only provide better access to services. They also drive innovation by working together to improve processes and implement technological solutions. In inclusive business, innovations are developed with farmers, rather than for them. Inclusive innovation thus offers the opportunity to remain competitive in dynamic markets, to improve the commercial value of goods and services and to share the innovation gains with the partners.

For example, Senegal's banana producers enjoyed the knowledge and technology of importer Agrofair. Agrofair flew in experts from Ivory Coast, Costa Rica and Panama to train farmers in good post-harvest practices, and the washing and packaging of bananas. Colruyt Group collaborated on the development of a practical guide to make Good Agricultural Practices accessible to illiterate producers through photographs and drawings.

The introduction of a composter turner, irrigation systems and cable cars benefit the production and farmers’ workload. At the same time, they increase the quality of the end product for the customers. Without the collaboration with the various partners, these innovations would not have been possible. "But at the same time it turned out that technology provides no guarantee of success", remembers Philippe Toussaint of Colruyt Group while looking back. "This way of investing creates too little ownership on the part of the farmers. That balance was better in the case of the coffee farmers in Congo.”

In the case of coffee from Congo, the technology of micro-washing stations proved to be the missing link to get quality coffee production going in this context. Around one washing station, 100 farmers are organised into a cooperative, in which the farmers themselves have to co-invest. They are easily accessible for producers and provide local employment. "It is an example of an innovation that has been tested and optimised with farmers," says Joris Aertsens. A danger to the decentralised structure of the micro-washing stations, however, is that the quality is sometimes less easy to guarantee.” But if properly monitored, we can see that it can lead to better quality.

In the passion fruit chain project from Tanzania, a model farm (nucleus farm) of a private company was used. There, small producers from the neighbourhood could see and learn good agricultural practices. Such a model makes it possible to complement a stable 'core production' with a growing group of small producers learning to produce according to the same practices. Low cost technology such as charcoal cooling to preserve passion fruit after harvesting was also introduced via this route. However, the introduction of a new variety went badly. It was pushed through unilaterally by the exporter without consulting the farmers and the other chain actors. A good reminder of why innovation should be inclusive.

Grafting of disease-resistant cocoa plants was introduced to cocoa producers in Nicaragua with the support of Colruyt Group's Collibri Foundation and CURLA University. Young people set up small business units around this knowledge and techniques, for example around the production of organic fertilizer, which are linked to the chain as a service. "Working with young people was crucial", says Karen Janssens of Colruyt Group. "They were open to newer methods such as grafting, while many farmers of the older generation are suspicious of new techniques.”

"But innovation is not limited to new techniques and technologies," concludes Philippe Toussaint. "You can also find it in the process of collaboration and the tools that are used. I am thinking of the workshop methodology and the step-by-step plan that we developed, the screening tool or the application of LINK methodology,... Within the context, these were all innovations".

To summarise: this is what we learned

  • Willingness of partners to actually find a solution requires thinking (and acting) outside of traditional schemes and roles.
  • A (financial) analysis of the cooperative is important. This makes it possible to identify pain points and respond to them. Through temporary pre-financing or access to an export market, they can sometimes grow faster and then gain easier access to new services, e.g. a loan from a bank.
  • Training and access to knowledge are essential to strengthen farmers' organisations and make them fully-fledged partners. Colruyt Group can play a unique role here with its Collibri Foundation fund by linking commercial and training projects.
  • Technology and innovation must be supported by all parties. Farmers want to take ownership. In this way, innovation will be applied effectively.
  • Young people are a potential channel for innovations and new techniques, for example through training programmes. They are by nature more open to innovation.
This article is part of the series "Colruyt Group and Rikolto: drawing lessons from 15 years of collaboration"
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