Africa Fairtrade Convention - a smallholder perspective

7 Jan 2013 16:10

Smallholder tea farmer in Malawi

by Dyborn Chibonga, CEO of NASFAM

More than 200 Fairtrade certified producers met at the Africa Fairtrade Convention in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the end of last year. Dyborn Chibonga, Chief Executive Officer, National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) shares his thoughts on the conference.

The theme of this year’s conference was Equal trade, equal development
- Strengthening African producers’ role in the value chain. A broad cross section of value chain players attended including African smallholder farmers and workers, service providers, buyers, financiers and International organisations.

The multi-day event afforded a time of learning, experience sharing, connection with friends and strengthening networks through plenary and group discussions, producer training workshops and field visits.

Representatives shared their own experiences and this ranged from producers of tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, groundnuts, and those working in the flower industry.

I was there as the representative of the Mchinji Association of Smallholder Farmers (MASFA). Many smallholders in Africa in general, and Malawi in particular, are subsistence producers who are working independently. In introducing them into value chains, substantial investments have to be made in education and training them to take farming as business. Capacity building is essential for them to start producing for the market by meeting requisite quality and safety standards. The work is often hampered by organisations that promise freebies and politicians who want to ‘buy votes’ through promises of free inputs, especially in election years.

In entering Fairtrade markets, smallholders need to be encouraged to produce adequate volumes of quality crops to meet the Fairtrade audit and certification fees. MASFA has been through a lot of growth and development since its incorporation in 2003. When it started producing Fairtrade groundnuts in 2004, as diversification crop from overdependence on tobacco and maize, a lot of investments were made to get the membership understand that this was for the long haul.

Partnership between National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM), Twin & Twin Trading and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) was instrumental in getting Fairtrade groundnuts.

Over the years, MASFA Premium Committee decided that Fairtrade Premiums earned should be used to  help the Association to improve their market access, build a guardian shelter at the Mchinji District Hospital and Buying Centres for improved trading and storage at local level.

The work has been affected along the way by chancers joining the Association with hopes of getting free inputs and members selling their relations’ produce through the ‘back door.’ Less diligence by committees at Buying Centres has allowed groundnuts with high Aflatoxin levels to enter into the system. Quality of membership and produce is affected by these practices.

Competition and commodity price instability greatly affects management of local market activities in terms of quality, pricing, member loyalty, and monitoring resulting in marketing information distortion. These are important challenges that all actors interested in sustaining the future of Fairtrade groundnuts in Malawi must act together to overcome.

The availability of markets within the African continent and innovative financing is an opportunity that many Fairtrade producers should utilise to improve their lot in the value chains. In 2014 Malawians will be going for tripartite elections, MASFA should look back at the challenges that it has faced in the past and use them as building blocks to emerge as a strong Association supplying large volumes of Fairtrade groundnuts to European and African markets. 

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