Originally posted on the blog for the Caribbean-Pacific Agri-Food Forum 2015.
A two and a half hour drive, over pockets of traffic, past aggressive transport truck drivers, across the rural landscape, and then barefoot through a ravine – all to meet “Rafi”, a Chadon Beni (Shadow Benny) producer of Rio Claro located in South Trinidad. This is a common herb used for seasoning in food preparation across the Caribbean.
The journey was long but so be it, as this is what it takes to meet with rural farmers across the country and many other parts of the region. The visit was meant to assess any possible pests and diseases which may be affecting Rafi’s Chadon Beni crop. Earlier he described a yellowing and stunting effect occurring with the crop. After a few minutes of conversation the situation became clear.
The bowl as it stands
Rafi explained that he farmed Chadon Beni for 15 years, acknowledging it as a crop that holds great profit, specifically due to the fact that a large percentage of Trinidad and Tobago’s local cuisine utilises this herb. Suffice to say the demand for the crop is heavy as the general local preference is that “the food must taste good” in which Chadon Beni is key. Additionally, the crop is highly demanded for export.
Also to note that Rafi has shifted from a farmer, as he also produced dasheen, dasheen bush, plantains and other crops, onto a middleman. This means he has significantly reduced his production levels in order to act as an in-between for other producers and their buyers at the country’s largest wholesale market. Living in the south of the country, he traverses the long journey every day as this activity is also profitable.
Knowing the promise that Chadon Beni holds, is what brought me, as well as a pest and disease consultant to his farm. He explains that the one small plot on which he grows his Chadon Beni, now a part time endeavour, produces 100 bundles,2 – 3 times a week. which is sold for about $4 – $5 per bundle. This does not include a specialty 50 lbs bag that is also sold. In giving us this little information and doing the math, you can see the profitability of the crop. It should be mentioned that none of this profit includes any of the other crops he grew.
But he does not wish to lose his produce through pests and disease infestations. He made sure to point out that this was the first time any person of expertise or authority has visited his farm and that he and other producers have always waited on the government to step in to assist them.
Lastly, he indicated that harvesting the crop is labour intensive as illustrated below. Therefore the number of bundles one gains is limited to one’s capacity for manual work. He added that there used to be just 10 producers of Chadon Beni in his area but now there are close to 100 – so, their are more farmers tackling the high demand.
Looking at the glass bowl
As an objective person, looking at the situation from the outside in, I see the bowl and its half full. The consultant and I have learned so much from Rafi in such a short time but this can also go in reverse. Giving Rafi feedback on his situation we ask if there is so much profit from Chadon Beni, why have you become a middleman? Why are the farmers waiting on the government to assist you with problem of your crops? Why has there been no innovation on this particular crop for 15 years?
To the trained eye, a value chain approach may be the best option. These gaps in the system that bring Chadon Beni to the local and even the export market can be filled with the help of a value chain.
For instance, the problem of labour can be resolved with a simple contraption to make harvesting easier. Many farmers build their own machines. Why has this option not been tried? Alternatively, I do not have an engineering background to build any type of machine but I am certain a hand held device can be made to facilitate this. This is the reason agri-engineers exist.
Rafi also mentioned that some farmers access the export market. One or two cogs in a value chain can facilitate proper post-harvest handling, food safety procedures and packaging of product bringing the export market to all the farmers rather than just a few. In doing so, a much larger demand can be satisfied.
Working as one group transporting goods to the market can be made easier by soliciting a contract for this service. The same can be said for the consultant’s pest and disease analysis which is this case was free but the information itself could have been brought to all the farmers at the same time. Any other concerns they may have could have also been put forward to be resolved.
If the bowl was full
Rafi understood the comments and pledged to work with the consultant and his recommendations. The “wait and see” approach as it relates to government intervention has to go, in my humble opinion. There is no need for that.
Farmers go where the profits are hence the reason for Rafi’s switch to the middle man activity. However, establishing appropriate value chains can make what is already profitable even greater.
Government can assist with this but have not in the past, with emphasis being placed on staple crops. This is understandable if the aim of such an initiative is food sovereignty.
However, with the aim being profits in this case, the approach works better here. As an added bonus, we agri-youth, can become involved as the opportunity exists to provide services and be the cogs in the value chain. All round the approach can work and as this case proves it is much needed.
The Caribbean-Pacific Agri-Food Forum is being organised by CTA and partners in St Michael, Barbados from 02-06 November 2015. As part of the forum, a workshop on “Value-chain approach for developing sustainable profitable market linkages” will be held from 02 and 03 November 2015. Follow this workshop with Hashtags #CPAF15 #WS2! See the full programme of the Forum.