Vegetables from Benin: Opportunities, challenges and recovery strategy
By Eric Lakoussan, Industry Team Leader – Vegetables
In Benin, two things have quadrupled over the last ten years. The number of motorists has increased from 700,000 to 3 million; and consumption of vegetables has risen from 5 to 20 kg per person per year. These two trends are driven by very different factors, but they both point to the emergence of a growing urban middle class. This new, still-developing market is a major opportunity for small-scale vegetable producers, given the dietary preferences and health consciousness of these consumers.
The market: challenges and opportunities
Small-scale vegetable producers in Benin face numerous (often inter-related) challenges. Yields are poor because they use traditional varieties and poor quality seeds, are often unable to buy fertilizers, and unable to access credit to invest in improving their farms. In addition, farmers are poorly organized, usually acting individually rather than collectively and therefore unable to negotiate good prices during input purchase or sale of produce.
Some companies are not afraid of these challenges. East West Seed International (EWIT) produces tropical seed varieties that are helping to catalyze the vegetable sector in Benin. Over the past for 4 years I have been happy to facilitate the development of a partnership between 2SCALE and EWIT.
During the 2013-2014 season, 6,400 Beninese producers tested EWIT varieties and subsequently adopted them. Yields increased by 30%, turnover (in a single season) exceeded FCFA 14 billion. This performance was due to a combination of factors: new technology, training and credit. Microfinance agency ALIDé provided loans of 620 million FCFA at 12% interest (the usual market rate is 24%) for input purchases.
Growth of the sector has not been uniform or even predictable. Prices fell sharply in 2015 due to factors in Benin and elsewhere (e.g. policy changes in Nigeria, which is a major market for Beninese vegetables). Another factor is climate change, which has made rainfall more uncertain. As a result, off-season (irrigated) tomatoes and rainfed tomatoes may arrive in the market almost simultaneously, affecting prices.
To face these new challenges, 2SCALE organized a workshop with key actors involved in the partnership. The discussions helped develop a four-pronged strategy:
Ignite the interest of local processing companies to start producing tomato juice and puree for domestic and export markets. 2SCALE partner Promo Fruits, which specializes in pineapple juice, is interested in expanding into tomato; their experience and distribution networks would be major assets.
Encourage the government to speed up privatization of the state-owned tomato processing plant. Private ownership (which should have been the case since the beginning) could help in the medium term to absorb a large part of domestic production.
Encourag collective action through hubs: 2SCALE has supported the development of several hubs or platforms dedicated to business intelligence and experience sharing. The increasing use of social media (WhatsApp, Facebook) will enable farmer organization involved in these hubs (sometimes hundreds of kilometers apart) to plan their campaign in a concerted way, to produce shareable knowledge (on innovative technologies, climate-resistant seed varieties, good farming practices, markets, etc) and, above all, to enter the markets in a coordinated manner.
Stimulate local consumption: vegetable exports (mainly to Nigeria) have always been important, but we also need to penetrate local markets. Imported tomatoes, carrots and lettuces are sold in supermarkets in Benin. Quality is not necessarily superior, but they have an advantage: they are well washed and cut in small portions, packed to seduce the eye and titillate the palate. Local actors can capture a part of this huge cake, if they can overcome the challenges of quality and distribution.
This last issue (buy local, not imported) is not straightforward, and will require a change in the mindset of Beninese consumers. But we could take heart from the words of Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN: “Use your power as a consumer, which is now unparalleled in history. Every time you buy a product or service, you are supporting a company. Before you decide which sneakers to buy or financial services to use, consider its business practices. There is a wealth of information out there on how businesses behave. Through our collective buying power, we can set the agenda and drive up standards”.
I have been pondering this “call to action” for a long time, and I still wonder: How much power do Beninese consumers really have? Are they aware of this power? How can they affect the balance of power in this battle between local and imported vegetables? No evidence here, but the rapid growth of social media use in both urban and rural areas is opening up new options for action. If you want to join this discussion, join the WhatsApp or Facebook pages of the 2SCALE-supported vegetable hubs.