Farming as a business: not a mirage, but a reality
By Moses Abukari, Daniela Cuneo and Roxanna Samii
One of the highlights of the 2010 West and Central Africa regional implementation workshops was the field trip. While we were sorry that we could not visit an IFAD-funded project and programme, we were excited to visit the modern village farm of Djilakh - government financed activity in cooperation of the Spanish government, covering the entire agricultural, production and marketing value chain.
At IFAD, we talk about farming, regardless of size or scale, as a business, and smallholder farmers as small-scale business owner rather than poor rural people. There is now a growing recognition and understanding that smallholder farmers and their rural communities are a major part of the solution for food security and rural poverty eradication. As development workers, our goal is to help smallholder farmers go beyond subsistence farming and help them turn farming into a viable business.
The Djilakh farmers we met personified the concept of farmers as small-scale business owners and farming as a business.
The idea of Djilakh farm goes back to 2007. It was born in response to the urgent need to reverse the trend of migration from rural to urban areas and at the same time to address the challenge of young people migrating to Spain.
“Our objective was to create the conditions so that smallholder farmers, including the young farmers would stay in the rural areas, re-engage with and in agriculture and have a secure source of income”, said Sabacar Faye, the Farmer Association Executive Director.
To make sure that the farmers really embraced agriculture and dedicated their efforts to farming, the government had to ensure that they were employed all year long.
“Before this farm, we were lucky if we farmed for a maximum of 5 months a year. As a result what happened, was that men, women and the young people left their villages to go to urban areas for seasonal work”, says Faye.
The social impact of this outmigration was strongly felt. Households were divided. Women had to abandon their children and the young people ventured into urban areas or in extreme cases, took the dangerous route of the sea – often a journey of no return.
The Djilakh farm is approximately 100 hectares and is located in the administrative region of Thies in the Department of Mbour. The 100 farmers, aged between 18 and 35, use rainfed technique for cereal cultivation and irrigated agriculture for fruit and horticulture.
“This diversification has allowed us to ensure reasonable harvest and employment opportunity all year long”, says Faye.
The farm is lucky enough to avail of relatively good rural infrastructure. It may not be fully mechanised, but has a tractor which is used for heavy-duty work. The drip irrigation system is in place and the farm is connected to the main road, through a dust road.
We were quite impressed to find out that 50% of the farmers on the farm were women. Women always talk from their heart and have no qualms sharing their challenging in talking with Madame Gaye, a lady farmer who joined the farm in 2008 she told us: “I am happy that the farm is connected to the main road through a dust road, but as you saw, the farm is located 3 kilometres from our village. It would be so nice if we could have some means of transportation so that we can spare a 6 kilometre walk every day”.
“We can become more productive, if we could use a milling machine to process the sorghum as opposed to doing it manually”, remarked Gaye. “And, I hope sooner rather than later, they will provide us with some protective gears, such as wellington boots so that when working in the farm and preparing the land we are protected from snakes and scorpions”.
The farms governance structure was also equally impressive. The farmers come together in a general assembly to plan and decide on what to plant when and what to produce for which market.
The farm produces fruit, horticulture and cereals for three different markets. Their primary market is exporting fruit and horticulture to Spain. We were told that the farmers process and package their products for export on the farm, but were unable to independently verify this.
Their second market is the local one - partially horticulture but mainly cereals. Last but not least, the third market is for their own household consumption.
For the farming year 2010-2011, the plan is to cultivate:
- 35 hectares for exporting tomatoes, watermelon, squash and okra to Spain
- 20 hectares to sell pimento (spice) tomatoes, peppers and squash in the local market
- 50 hectares of sorghum and 12 hectares of maize for local and household consumption
Last farming year (2009-2010), the farm:
- Exported 1099 tonnes of fruits and horticulture products for a total of 39,168,380 FCFA
- Produced 55 tonnes for local market, which it sold for approximately 8,406,000 FCFA
- Produced 75 tonnes for local consumption for a total of 9,375,000 FCFA thus ensuring food security for numerous households
The farm has a steering committee composed of village elders, civil society, farmers, women and youth association and meets on a weekly basis. The steering committee has a chairperson, a vice-chair, a treasurer and is supported by the following of technical committees:
- plant protection
- implementation support
- packaging and distribution
The steering committee determines the selection criteria for choosing the farmers who will work on the farm. To ensure adequate income for all, the size of the farm determines how many farmers will be selected.
As small-scale business owners, farmers do not have monthly salaries, rather they get their money when they sell their products, which can be every 3 to 4 months. This means, the farmer entrepreneur needs to manage their cash intelligently and responsibly.
To make agriculture enticing and to ensure that young people do not abandon rural areas or for that matter give up agriculture for going into urban areas, the government’s vision is to ensure an annual income of 1,440,000 FCFA – approximately $3200 – for farmers working in similar types of farms.
“Our vision is for the farm to become a rural agriculture engine. To achieve our vision, we know we need to diversify. By diversification I mean, we need to also expand to husbandry, increase our yield and also reach out to and market our products and services to the surrounding farms and villages. For example, we could sell seeds and fertilizer to the neighbouring farms and if we manage to hook them up to our power grid, provide them with electricity and charge for this service”, explains Faye.
“For us, smallholder farming is very important and the last thing we want to do is to undermine this sector. This is why, we encourage the farmers to continue farming their own land”.
In an effort to continuously improve and better meet the needs of the different markets, the farm’s sophisticated governance structure also provides a feedback mechanism to assess the social, financial and technical impact of their work. Furthermore, the implementing agency provides the farmers with a technical, financial and marketing of extension services.
The goal is for this farm and others like it to become fully sustainable. Thus the farmers are learning how to run and manage the farm, manage and maintain infrastructure, avail themselves of credit, engage in service agreements with contractors and negotiate prices with exporters.
“We’ve adopted a win-win business model when it comes to the export market”, explains Faye. “We sit down with the exporters and find out what are their needs. We negotiate the price and once we’ve reached an agreement, then and only then we start cultivating. This way, we know what is needed, we do not over cultivate and we sell whatever we produce”.
The export market may be a relatively well-oiled machine, however, the local market remains a challenge. This is mainly because the local market is highly disorganized with too many middlemen. To overcome this challenge, the government assists the farmers to sell their products in weekly markets just outsides of urban suburbs.
Mbaye Tine, youngest farmer – 23 years old - told us that he joined the farm in 2008. “Before that I spent three years in the city looking for a job as driver. Life was really hard and miserable. I am really pleased to be working as a young farmer and have a secure income”, says Tine. “I am determined to continue as farmer and I am no longer planning to go to the city looking for a job!”
As our visit was coming to a close, a number of us had an “Aha moment”. We finally saw first-hand what it really means when we talk about farming as a business. These farmers were indeed businessmen and women.
And this was echoed in Mohamed Beavogui’s closing remarks. In thanking the farmers, Beavogui said: “On behalf of everyone present here, I want to thank you for dedicating so much time to us. We know this meant you cannot be on farm and not working on the farm means not making money!”
“We wish you all the best and we are confident that this farm not only will grow and prosper, but will also become a model for many more to follow”.
As we were leaving, we commented that farming as a business is not just a concept, it can be and is a reality.