Things we learned this year: how we can help smallholders sell to each other and not just to Olam
In August this year, as part of our commitment to Re-imagine Global Agriculture, we celebrated National Farmers’ Day in Zambia by hosting an agricultural fair at our coffee plantation. Little did we realise the impact it would have amongst the farmers themselves.
Connecting isolated coffee farmers in northern Zambia
Taking his stock to an agricultural fair isn’t normally a possibility for a small-scale farmer like Gabriel Katongo. For big companies and large-scale farmers, sure. But not for him, the chairperson of the smaller-scale Tilabemba farming group in Zambia’s Northern Province.
So when he did get the chance to go along to one, he was delighted to see just how rewarding these kinds of events can be.
“We sold everything we brought with us.”
“Chickens, goats, vegetables, pumpkin cakes, sweet potatoes, soya sausages and everything else – every last thing”, Gabriel said. “It normally takes us a long time to sell the amount we’ve sold here today.”
On 6th August – Zambia’s National Farmers’ Day – 200 people like Gabriel descended on Kateshi Coffee Estate in the Mafinga Hills of Zambia’s Northern Province for the fair, dedicated to showcasing smallholder farmers. It’s one of five estates owned by Northern Coffee Corporation Limited (NCCL), which has been part of the Olam family since 2012.
NCCL’s role in the region extends well beyond hosting events like these. Coffee farming was abandoned in Zambia years ago when crops were destroyed by disease. But NCCL is helping it make a comeback and putting Zambia on the coffee growing map.
For some farmers, the sheer abundance of customers at this event made it one of their most lucrative days of the year, by a distance. And that income can go towards helping them develop their businesses.
“We’ve never really been able to save money before,” said Estella Chisanga from Tusungane Farmers’ Group. “But we can take the money we’ve made today and earn interest on it. Eventually, we’ll be able to buy a water pump to irrigate a much bigger vegetable garden.”
“We shared stories; exchanged ideas.”
The day wasn’t just about farmers returning home with empty shelves and full cashbooks, though.
In part, the day was about farmers learning about the important technical skills and knowledge to operate a farming business.
It was also about building a closer sense of community – a community we’ve supported by things like investing in local schools, clinics and teachers’ housing, and building a bridge to help farmers get to local health facilities.
That sense of community is essential for smallholder farmers, who can often end up feeling cut off from the wider farming community: working in isolation, and missing out the opportunity to chat to others in their industry.
“Spending time with other farmers was really enjoyable,” Theresa Chipupila reflected. “We shared stories, exchanged ideas and talked about ways we can solve problems we all have.”
NCCL served hot coffee, fresh from the estate, and gave talks about the lifecycle of the coffee plant and its journey from crop to cup. Zambia is mostly a tea-drinking nation, so this was a rare chance for farmers to taste the drink they help to create.
“It’s so nice to feel valued.”
The day was a chance, too, to celebrate these farmers as the backbone of what we do.
Students from two local schools – PEAS Kampinda Secondary School and Kateshi Primary School – sang, danced and read poems in praise of farmers.
And NCCL rounded off the day with an awards ceremony to recognise the project’s outstanding farmers, farmer groups, women groups and entrepreneurs.
From all the farmers we spoke to – like Annie Chewe from Tusungane Farmers’ Group – it was that sense of feeling properly recognised that stuck with them the most: “It’s so nice to feel valued – to see that Olam knows who we are and wants to help us make our farming even better.”
NCCL’s female tractor drivers showed off their machines too, and the art of operating them.
And what about the future for the region’s farmers?
Beauty Namukoko, the local District Administrative Officer, said she was keen to make this event a starting point for more prosperous, sustainable farming in the region. Perhaps an even bigger event next year – with more produce, more training, and bigger exhibitions.
So if Gabriel is planning to sell out for the second-year running, looks like he’ll need an even bigger supply of chickens, goats, pumpkin cakes and everything in between…