How will we feed the growing cities?
Nda Danielle, 32, holds a license degree in Marketing, and has been involved in vegetable production since 2011. She is now General Secretary of l’Association des Maraîchers de la commune d’Abomey-Calavi, southern Benin, where 2SCALE supports a vegetable partnership driven by East-West Seed International (EWIT).
Why would a marketing graduate choose to grow tomatoes?
Moving from marketing to farming, for me, is not a 360° turn. Studying Marketing had to drive me to work in a company to sell products and services. I just decided to produce and sell vegetables. In addition, studies are not an end in themselves but a means, that of a successful life. As for me, farming is a way to get there. Today, I’m running a small farm of less than one hectare where I do several vegetables, especially onion, tomatoes, carrots, papayas and many popular vegetables in the market.
Talking about market, what is yours? What’s its size, its requirements, what does it want from you?
I sell to traders of Cotonou and Porto Novo, but Benin is directly connected to Nigeria by a nearly 800 km border, and Nigeria is Africa’s largest consumer market. This is a giant client with hundreds-of-millions of consumers, and the demand for fruit and vegetables remains high throughout the year. Buyers come from Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, etc. This is a huge business opportunity for vegetables.
Opportunities barely go without challenge. What challenges did you face?
Before beginning the partnership three years ago, we first submitted our business idea, and it is on this basis that we were selected. Then 2SCALE organized workshops where our business ideas must pass a strength test, to see if they are realistic and deserve support. The third step involved a participatory diagnosis to develop an action plan. This diagnosis has revealed some problems: access to investment credit and especially, access to quality inputs, starting with good seeds. I should say that in Benin, the degeneration of seeds and monoculture are two key factors that limited our yields. There is also the use of unregistered pesticides, or even the misuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Low water control is still an issue. But the most alarming issue was related to the bacterial pressure. Our local seeds for example are not resistant to the bacteria called Ralstonia. Because of this bacteria, the producers of our association were ruined. Many growers found themselves in debt, and many fled this work to try to survive in the cities.
How did you overcome these challenges?
First, we established the ABCs (Agribusiness Clusters) to better work together alongside the value chains. This includes input suppliers, we as producers, traders, wholesalers who buy our products and a BSS (Business Support Service). This BSS was contracted to implement a work plan aiming to improve our capacities through training both on-site and in the fields. For example, our association was selected to host a learning plot, were we learnt good agricultural practices. The learning plot was also used to test the performance of EWIT’s products in comparison with other local varieties or marketed by other companies.
I can say that the turning point of this process was our linkage with EWIT. You know, their tropicalized seed are truly exceptional. And let’s say that beyond seeds, EWIT also gave us a lot of skills and competencies in innovative farming techniques: We discovered plastic mulch, which improves the protection of young plants against fungal attacks. We learnt about staking, which promotes the development of plants, and we were introduced to drip irrigation, which saves three times more water and watering time.
What was the impact of these innovations?
They are clear: EWIT’s seeds are unique in that they provide firm and compact fruits. This firmness reduces transport-related losses, and for the traders who buy our product, this is a lot of money. We also sell to restaurateurs who say that the Padma variety for example has a great taste and a beautiful bright color, which embellishes their dishes. We as gardeneres experienced average yields that have increased from 35 to 59 tons. I can tell you that this is a true performance. No one has ever achieved such a record here in the town of Calavi.
Because of the good performance of Padma, the producers are back in their gardens, and we resumed business. I should say that the business had been seriously affected by this bacterium history, but today in Abomey, as well as in Grand-Popo, producers and traders are reconnected and they discuss to plan new activities. We can say that vegetable production is reborn, although we can still not meet the demand.
How would you explain the gap between demand and production volumes?
I think this is due to the rudimentary nature of our work equipment. To produce more, we need modern equipment, and this requires agricultural credit. After solving the question of seeds, we have been working on this issue too. 2SCALE put us in touch with ALIDé, a local microfinance institution. Through this mediation, and because of the organization and technology package we had, ALIDé funded 77 members of our association, amounting to 105.8 million FCFA (€ 161,281). This money has allowed many to improve irrigation systems and to purchase inputs.
Personally, I have received a loan of 300,000 CFA (€458), which I have already paid back with the first harvest in 2013. In 2014 I had a loan of one million CFA, which I have also paid off. Now my goal is to move from one to five hectares, because the market is really big, and I think the industry has a future.
Looking at the future, can we conclude that we are on track for sustainable change in the vegetable market in Benin?
You know how it works: You solve one problem today, and other ones will arise tomorrow. One of our concerns is to secure our access to EWIT seeds. Then we have to expand credit facilities and other financial services to the greatest number of producers to allow dissemination of innovations we have learned. We are also facing the issue to secure our lands, and this requires strong advocacy with the authorities in order to implement land policy that protects small producers against uncontrolled urbanization and land speculation.
Eating habits are changing because people know more about the nutritional value of tomato, cucumber and onion. Market farming and urbanization feed off each other, but the trend today is that luxurious houses are replacing our gardens around our cities. Perhaps only one in ten producers has a land title. If nothing is done to enable them to become landowners, in ten years cities will eliminate the gardens that surround them and feed them. And if so, how will we feed the cities, which are growing a bit more each day?
For more stories of young people involved in 2SCALE, check our series “Youth in Agriculture.”