The fruits of green growth

A small start-up has de­vel­oped a niche in pro­vid­ing or­ganic pro­duce grown by small­hold­ers to mar­kets in places like London and Dubai

The Africa Report - - AGRIBUSINE­SS DOSSIER - By TOM GARD­NER in Ad­dis Ababa

The la­bel ‘Grown in Ethiopia’ is not yet com­mon on su­per­mar­ket shelves across the world, but one day it may be. That, at least, is the goal of Green­path Food, an Ethiopian hor­ti­cul­ture start-up founded in 2015 by for­mer staff of the gov­ern­ment’s Agri­cul­tural Trans­for­ma­tion Agency.

Green­path is Ethiopia’s first cer­ti­fied or­ganic fruit and veg­etable pro­ducer. It works with more than 150 small­holder farm­ers across more than 80ha in the district of Bu­ta­jira in the fer­tile south. In ex­change for grow­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles on be­tween a third and half of their plots, the com­pany trains farm­ers to com­plete Euro­pean Union or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. In ad­di­tion, the farm­ers re­ceive credit for in­puts like seeds, and, most im­por­tantly, mar­ket ac­cess.

“A huge pro­por­tion of the farm­ers al­ready have what it takes to grow ex­port-quality pro­duce,” says sales man­ager Ele Gower. “The is­sue is re­ally the lack of links to global mar­kets.” An av­er­age dis­tance of 44km to the clos­est road keeps many farm­ers and the pro­duce they grow iso­lated. Through pur­chase agree­ments, Green­path aims to bridge the gap be­tween Ethiopia’s re­mote small­hold­ers and con­scious con­sumers in Europe, the US and the Mid­dle East.

It also aims to boost pro­duc­tiv­ity. With a ded­i­cated staff mem­ber for every 25 farm­ers, each re­ceives a visit from an agron­o­mist at least every three weeks, with ad­vice on crop se­lec­tion and farm management. Such is the de­mand for Green­path’s ser­vices around Bu­ta­jira that the com­pany has tem­po­rar­ily stopped tak­ing on new part­ner­ships with farm­ers.

In­ter­crop­ping

The com­pany’s an­chor crop is av­o­cado (see box), and most of the farm­ers switch to it from sta­ples such as maize. But the em­pha­sis is firmly on bio­di­ver­sity and in­ter­crop­ping. At least four crops are grown on each farm, since a var­ied port­fo­lio bet­ter pro­tects farm­ers against shifts in both mar­kets and weather.

“The big idea is to make the small­holder plot as pro­duc­tive as pos­si­ble,” ex­plains co-founder Ja­cie Jones. “In­ter­crop­ping makes

the land more re­silient to climate change and crop fail­ure […]. People might think it’s this warm, fuzzy, en­vi­ron­men­tal thing but ac­tu­ally it’s very prac­ti­cal.”

Green­path is mak­ing two key bets: the first is that the fu­ture of Ethiopian agri­cul­ture lies pri­mar­ily with small­hold­ers rather than with large-scale com­mer­cial farms, and the sec­ond is on the value of or­ganic-cer­ti­fied pro­duce.

Small is good

Large-scale farms have at­tracted con­sid­er­able in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion – and cap­i­tal – in the past decade but the sec­tor has been plagued with dif­fi­cul­ties. Com­mer­cial land deals in Ethiopia have of­ten pro­voked anger among com­mu­ni­ties whose plots were ex­pro­pri­ated with­out ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion. In­ten­sive monocrop­ping also dam­ages soil fer­til­ity, which re­duces pro­duc­tiv­ity in the long-term.

Green­path reck­ons both can be avoided. “Small­holder farm­ers are per­fectly ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing very high-quality prod­ucts with­out tear­ing up their hedgerows and con­sol­i­dat­ing with other farms,” says Gower. “So we are sup­port­ing people to grow on their own land, where they have al­ways lived.”

Or­ganic farm­ing, too, should pro­duce so­cial as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­van­tages. One hope is that the higher pre­mi­ums trans­late into higher earn­ings for the farm­ers them­selves. This is by no means a cer­tain out­come: a re­cent study of the or­ganic and fairtrade cof­fee in­dus­try in Ethiopia found that, on av­er­age, less than a third of the price pre­mi­ums re­alised at the ex­port level were passed onto farm­ers. How­ever, Green­path says its farm­ers re­ceive on av­er­age 22 birr ($0.76) per kilo­gram of pro­duce – about twice what a non-part­ner farmer might earn.

Jones ex­plains that Green­path was in part in­spired by “the huge amount of or­ganic land in Ethiopia […] most of our farm­ers al­ready have de­fault or­ganic land.” When this is so, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion – usu­ally a three-year process – can be done in a mat­ter of months.

More­over, she adds, the com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage of small­hold­ers in or­ganic farm­ing is a di­rect func­tion of size: “We can grow prod­ucts which re­quire more dili­gent care and which would be too ex­pen­sive to pay for on a larger scale.”

Green­path hopes to spread across East Africa within the next three years. It re­cently closed a $2m in­vest­ment round and is search­ing for more land in south­ern Ethiopia. In May, it opened a new site in Bu­ta­jira – in­clud­ing a pack­house, cold stor­age, nurs­ery and dry­ing fa­cil­i­ties – which will al­low it to triple the num­ber of farm­ers on its books by 2020.

Green­path hopes to spread across East Africa within the next three years

The com­pany ships fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles to London, Am­s­ter­dam and Dubai, and herbal teas and botan­i­cal in­gre­di­ents to Bri­tain and the US. Ne­go­ti­a­tions with su­per­mar­kets are un­der way.

There are, of course, chal­lenges. One is find­ing the right area for ex­pan­sion: “It needs to be re­mote enough for us to be a value propo­si­tion for small­holder farm­ers, but also close enough to Ad­dis Ababa to be lo­gis­ti­cally pos­si­ble,” says Jones. An­other is in­tro­duc­ing new, high-value pro­duce: Ethiopia’s strin­gent reg­u­la­tions make it eas­ier for large ex­port­ing farms to grow new va­ri­eties. Com­mer­cial farms also get duty-free ben­e­fits based on their land size.

Ul­ti­mately Green­path’s am­bi­tion is to turn or­ganic Ethiopian pro­duce into a con­sumer brand. “Fruit and veg­etable is the only fast-mov­ing con­sumer good in su­per­mar­kets which is un­branded,” says Gower. This presents per­haps the tough­est, but most inspiring, challenge: to create “a sense of ex­cite­ment around the story of the farm­ing families where the pro­duce has come from.”

Be­lay­nesh Berhe, a head of house­hold of one of Green­path’s part­ner farm­ing families

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