“We are always thinking of ways for farmers to increase their income”
East West Seed International (EWIT) produces high-yielding, disease-resistant vegetable varieties adapted to African smallholder farming conditions. EWIT joined 2SCALE in 2013 and currently rolls out varieties in Benin, Ghana, Mali and Nigeria, with help of 2SCALE. We asked Jan Arie Nugteren, EWIT advisor for West Africa, how the partnership with 2SCALE helps smallholder farmers to boost their income.
Why did EWIT decide to join 2SCALE?
EWIT made the decision to work mainly with smallholders already in 1982 when the company was founded, but the problem is that they are difficult to reach in large numbers. Although our seeds are cheaper than those of other seed companies from the Netherlands, they are still ten times as expensive as the local African seeds that smallholders are used to. We are always thinking of ways for farmers to increase their income, because we need large numbers of smallholders who buy our seeds. That is why we get involved in projects such as 2SCALE, to help us reach the farmers. Another reason we joined 2SCALE is to test varieties in the rainy season, to enable farmers to produce year round and market their products when prices are high, which is of course beneficial for their income. We did that with Prema (onion variety) in Ghana for instance. Prema has very firm leaves that remain standing during heavy rain, which prevents the leaves from touching the ground, which is crucial because fungus diseases start from the ground. You now see that the demand for Prema seed is growing very fast in Ghana, and also in Mali and Benin.
What are your experiences with working with the Base of the Pyramid?
We are working with smallholder farmers, those are not the poorest of the poorest, there is another income layer below that; the people without land. It is very difficult to reach this group, although smallholders often do employ one or two people who don’t have land. What we do try is to grow vegetables that are nutritious and affordable for the BoP, such as Kangkong (water spinach). Although the revenue for EWIT with these kind of varieties is quite small, we do want to continue because of the social aspect.
What challenges do you face in working with smallholder farmers?
African farmers have problems with planning. When the rainy season starts they realize they need specific seeds, which is too late, since it takes at least three to four weeks to get the seeds from our factory in India to West Africa. I try to train local importers to plan the orders, but that is moving very slowly. We are growing very fast in West Africa, which makes it difficult for me to predict how much I need.
What is the added value of working with 2SCALE?
We were already active in these four countries but 2SCALE gave it a big boost, which made it all go faster than if we would have done it on our own. I have to say I had my doubts in the beginning, especially because we are paying 50% of the costs. Eventually I had to conclude that it was a good decision to partner up. The selection of farmers to work with for the demonstration plots really improved with 2SCALE. In Africa farmers are working in clusters; you have farmers who only grow tomatoes, farmers who only grow onion etc. It does not make sense to ask these farmers to grow sweet maize, for instance. The genetic potential of our varieties expresses itself only if you grow them the right way. 2SCALE found the right clusters for our varieties and immediately involved the whole value chain, which is very important for market research and sustaining the activities. Another advantage is that we can ask our importers to join meetings and trainings of 2SCALE, to increase their knowledge and make sure that they are also able to advice the farmers.
Co-founder of EWIT, Simon Groot, once said that implementing EWIT’s business model – working with smallholder farmers at the heart of the company – was much easier to do in Asia than in Africa. Why is this, you think?
Africa has Boko Haram, Ebola, corruption… Our biggest market in West Africa is Nigeria, since it’s the number one economy of Africa and has a large middle class because of the oil. But it’s dangerous doing business there. In the north you have Boko Haram, in the south you have the liberation movement who kidnap people for money, and then you have regular criminality as well. I cannot go there often to talk to the farmers and explain them which varieties are working well in the Nigerian climate.
The principle of our partnership with 2SCALE is that we ask farmers to plant the variety they normally use, a variety of one of our competitors they heard good things about, and three of our varieties. We explain them how to grow the varieties and after a few weeks we visit them and they show us what variety performs best. It is difficult to intervene when something happens to the crops, a pest for instance, if you can’t go there yourself to explain this. All this really slows down the whole process. In Nigeria we are trying to overcome this by working with a locally schooled agricultural engineer who is gradually taking over my job. Another problem is the fact that several African intellectuals claim that African varieties are the best. Technically, that is not true. Most varieties that are traditionally produced in Africa are imported from South America, Asia or Europe. So it’s a non-problem, but it takes much time to explain why it’s not necessarily better to use traditional seeds. Finally, it is a challenge to get our seeds to Africa. In Nigeria we could not import our seeds because of the strict import laws and corruption at the borders. Together with 2SCALE we organized a seminar with Nigerian agrodealers and government representatives, to explain which varieties and amounts are demanded in Nigeria, and to look for importers. We eventually found three local importers through that meeting, and since they are local they know their ways to cope with the corruption at the airport.
Update September 10, 2015: EWIT co-founder Simon Groot received the Mansholt Business Award for Sustainable Entrepreneurship from Wageningen University. This award is given to entrepreneurs who have made a positive impact on society while creating business value.