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Clean Veggies, Green Veggies

Feleku Dubale is 35, a mother of four, and part of a unique agribusiness experiment in Ethiopia. She works for the Meki Batu fruit and vegetable cooperative near the capital Addis Ababa. Support from 2SCALE project has helped the Meki Batu expand membership, improve yields and quality, and win new supply contracts.

The 8,000-member cooperative, once loosely organized, is transforming itself. New seed varieties have been introduced, production is now coordinated, new markets are being tapped. Most importantly, the cooperative focuses on not just production but value addition, investing in a processing unit where Feleku works.

Feleku’s job is to grade, process and pack fresh produce, and make sure it meets the quality standards of the cooperative’s biggest customer, Ethiopian Airlines. Meki Batu supplies the airlines with a range of fruits and vegetables – onion, tomatoes, cabbages, eggplant, papaya, watermelon.

“We process nearly 1 ton of fruits and vegetables every day, so the work is not easy,” Feleku says. The working day begins at 8 am, when fresh produce arrives from farms around Meki town. Of course, Feleku has been at work long before that – at home, cooking breakfast, and a quick clean-up of the house (no time for a proper cleaning – that has to wait for weekends, when she has a day off).

“We begin by sorting, throwing away anything that is even slightly damaged. The next step is grading, based on size, ripeness and color. Some products require an additional step — for example, cabbages are ‘trimmed’. Then we wash, peel and wash again, and cut if needed. Finally we do the weighing and packing. We make sure the portions are the right size and that everything is shrink-wrapped, sealed and immediately refrigerated, ready for delivery.”

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The women work in teams of four – two older women who are experienced, and two younger ones who are still learning. The teams work well together, and each week teams rotate between jobs, so that, in Feleku’s words, “Nobody is bored and everyone is learning.”

How does she balance work versus family, especially with four children? “I have to,” she says. “And after all, now I am sure of getting money every month, so I can plan things better.” The family helps as well; the two elder children do the cooking on days when she has to leave early for work “Their injera is terrible,” Feleku laughs. “But they know how to make good wat.”

Two years ago, Feleku was unemployed. Today she earns about 60 birr ($ 3) per day, well above the average blue-collar wage in this small town.  After years of living on the brink, she now has the luxury of stability. “Now I know we can pay the children’s school fees and buy uniforms in January.” The income is sufficient for the time being (her husband has a job as well), but she has ambitions. “My youngest daughter is 8 years old. By the time she reaches high school, I want to open my own small vegetable shop, selling what is grown by members of our cooperative.”

And does she think this will be easy? “Of course not, things are never easy. But there is no problem with demand, because people need vegetables every day. The problem is only with finance (to buy my stocks) and storage.”

Feleku’s story – and her ambitions – are an example of how 2SCALE works. The approach is purely business: creating the networks and the conditions that will allow small agribusinesses to thrive. We help smallholder farmers organize themselves into groups, and help the groups connect with other market players such as buyers, banks, transport providers and other services. The aim is to create agribusinesses where even the smallest players, like Feleku, can participate and equitably share benefits.

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