Small Farmers, Bigger Markets
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
By Jay Walljasper
Poverty is often regarded as a matter of political policy and economic aid. But for ?Thomas George, who grew up on a farm in India where his family struggled to make ends meet, it’s a simple question of agriculture. The vast majority of the world’s poor live on the land, so how do we make farming more profitable for them?
“A farmer can produce a lot of wonderful tomatoes but that’s no good if there isn’t a demand for those tomatoes at the time they are ready for harvest,” explains George. “The capacity to know what to produce, when to produce it and how to sell is limited.”
New technology and microcredit are often held up as solutions. But George, a former University of Hawaii agronomist who worked many years on introducing new technology to rural communities in Asia, believes high tech isn’t enough. And he contends that microloans-giving poor people small loans to start businesses-offer opportunity only for those who already have an idea of how to get ahead and the capacity to make it happen. He hopes to reach the rest with Vipani (Sanskrit for “marketplace”), an organization that seeks to create “fair play for small farmers.”
George started with three communities in Kenya, a country in the throes of political and ethnic violence. “Our goal is to create a marketplace where everyone can make a profit,” George says. Vipani staff members research the demand for crops, then recruit an agent for each community who works with the organization to create a comprehensive network of farmers, buyers, suppliers and lenders.
Kenyan farmer Johnson Nduati Kimuhu, 34, barely made money on his crops of kale, French beans, tomatoes and eggplants because “the prices kept fluctuating so that I could not plan beyond one day. When Vipani came to my community, it got us a reliable market and my produce got good prices.” After a few months, he had the means to build a kiosk to sell vegetables. After a year, he says, “I now have more, [about $700], saved toward my dream to buy a piece of land.”
The idea for Vipani came to George while he was working on a project to promote new agricultural technology and access to information for Filipino rice farmers. He realized these improvements would make little difference if farmers couldn’t get fair prices for their crops. He researched this idea further during a fellowship at Stanford University, and in 2004 launched Vipani in Kenya to demonstrate how it works. The three communities where Vipani is active have so far been spared the ?violence flaring up across the country. George thinks boosting small farmers will help heal deep-seated ethnic conflicts in Kenya and other countries. “At the root of the crisis is widespread poverty,” he says. “If people have hope for their future and opportunities, they would have little incentive to go on a rampage at each other.”
George is looking at expanding to Rwanda and Uganda. “Because Vipani is built on local resources,” he says, “it can be adapted anywhere in the world.”