Small farmers seeking major Impact

From Earth to Mouth

"I am a business women with the responsibility to produce safer food"

Location: Tijgerkreek-West (District Saramacca) 
Theme:   Organic Farming Agriculture

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A newly paved road takes us through acres of flourishing fields of vegetables. We are in the farming district of Saramacca, looking for Marlene Tima, a small scale farmer who is working with the Caribbean Institute to develop an organic fruit and vegetable supply chain in Suriname.

Organic Food in the making
Wroko nanga Koni – an organic farming programme
In 2007 the Caribbean Institute initiated the “Wroko nanga Koni programme” (working with knowledge) a project aimed at enhancing food safety and income security in the Surinamese fresh produce sector. The Institute has an ambitious three year programme spanning four key phases; capacity building of farmers, the establishment of a direct sales channel to the consumer market, certification and brand building, and finally access to local and international markets. The strategy of the Caribbean industry is simple and holistic. It addresses barriers in all sections of the supply chain, yet mostly targets the two most important actors: namely farmers and consumers. 
Organic vegetables represent only a proportion of Marlene's  crop
Incentives for farmers and consumers
Programme Director Maureen Silos explains the need for this dual push and pull strategy.  “There is a lack of awareness of safe and healthy food production on both ends of the supply chain”. Farmers are often dedicated, yet poorly educated on proper soil treatment, pesticide and fertilizer use.  

They are trapped in a vicious cycle of impoverished soil, often a result of chemicals overuse and inadequate production techniques, and trying to compensate by using even more chemicals. 

Through workshops farmers are taught how to maintain healthy soil, spot and treat diseases at an early stage and how to produce organically. In this case organic means minimizing the amount of  agro-chemicals from entering the food chain.
Although most Surinamese consumers acknowledge the importance of fresh produce, there is little awareness on food safety and no in-depth knowledge on nutrition. Furthermore fruit and vegetable consumption endures growing competition from processed and cheaper snack foods leading to an increase in foodborne diseases.

“Having our own market stand allows us to educate consumers and build a brand for organic produce”, explains Maureen.  “By cutting out the central distributors we keep retail prices affordable for consumers, while offering higher returns to farmers”. Maureen sees a strong potential for export to other Caricom countries in the region. The Institute intends to implement a certification programme to ensure the quality of the produce. “Besides organic, we also see opportunities for biological production (elimination of chemicals in the production). “We are ambitious, we want to position Suriname as an organic farm brand, but we have to grow one step at a time”.

Organic farming requires a different attitude from the farmer 
Farmer Marlene turns out to be a bubbly personality and a hardcore fan of the Barcelona football team.

She is full of stories and thrilled with her new born grandson. Marlene entered the programme three years ago and is one of the strongest advocates amongst the farmer community.

“People have a wrong perception of farming and see it as low skilled labour. Don’t be fooled, you need to have expert knowledge on so many things”. Through the workshop Marlene has gained knowledge on agro-chemicals, plant and soil biology. “I now know so much more and feel more empowered when dealing with agro-dealers, because they also know so little”.

Organic farming has also increased the enthusiasm and dedication of Marlene for farming. It is far more labour intensive than traditional methods as it requires manual intervention and detailed planning. “But it makes me feel much more connected to the people who buy my vegetables, as I know that I have the responsibility to make their food safer. I also feel more responsible for protecting the ground I am living and working on”.

Organic farming is quite labour intensive

The programme has also yielded more tangible benefits.  

A business woman
With the higher returns from the Caribbean Institute market stall Marlene bought a second hand car and is the proud owner of a new computer with wireless access.

A picture of a recent harvest has been installed as a background image on the desktop. “I am a farmer, but also a business woman” she proclaims enthusiastically as she poses for us behind the computer. Her children giggle and tease her about her emerging computer skills.

How to grow the business
Currently a large percentage of Marlene’s crop is organic. We question whether it is viable to expand. Marlene vows that she is keen to scale her organic output but acknowledges the challenges.  There would be a need for additional farm labourers, but labour costs are high and there is a high risk that farm hands will be less dedicated in applying the strict organic guidelines. Marlene feels that she can only depend on her family. “With this organic brand we are building a totally new consumer concept. Food safety means gaining consumer trust, trust in the farmer, trust in the brand and trust in the certifying unit. We cannot have uncaring people risk that”.

For more information
You can find the organic market stand at the sunday market at Kwatta Market. For further information on the Wroko nanga Koni programme please contact the Caribbean Institute.
Contactperson: Maureen Silos
Hoekstrastraat 5
Paramaribo - Suriname
T. (+597) 550048          
M. (+597) 8587027 

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