Posted by Joe Smith
A few years ago we were working on an organic gardens project in the community of El Ñajo. We introduced a range of different vegetables, some of which the community already ate but did not necessarily know how to produce. Some of the other crops, including radishes, were entirely new to the women planting them. Amongst the older generation in particular there was some skepticism about these small root vegetables. But after a bumper crop, a group of three women saw their potential to make a bit of money. They gathered together their harvest in three sacks and set off to the market in León.
After walking the long steep track to the main road they caught a bus into the city. As well as forking out about $1 each – approximately a day’s income – on their own fares, they had to pay the same again to transport their produce.
When they got to the market, other sellers were very protective of their territory and nobody was interested in buying their radishes. After much frustration, one of the women managed to make a deal with a trader to take one sack off her hands. This would not even cover her return journey, but it was better than nothing. In desperation, the other two women opted to simply throw their radishes away rather than pay to take them home on the bus, haul them up the steep track, and face embarrassment at the other end.
The ladies’ initiative was good. But their unfamiliarity with this vegetable and, more importantly, with the market itself left them out of pocket. Ideally they would have had a list of potential buyers whom they could have spoken to in advance. Or perhaps one of them could have gone to the market on her own to negotiate a deal beforehand. Or maybe they could have sold their produce retail by setting up their own stall closer to home.
One lesson from their ill-fated trip to market has been the need for training in commercialisation. As subsistence farmers, the people we work with are accustomed to growing one or two crops and only selling the excess to make enough money to subsidise their existence. If they are to stabilise their net income and to start increasing it, they will need a new set of skills.
People often look for the quick wins in development work. However, going after them is sometimes like squeezing a balloon. You solve one problem, and another one bulges out elsewhere. In this case, improving agricultural output does not necessarily mean that people know what to do with it. This is why we have made a long-term commitment to the communities we work with. Transforming them goes beyond handing out the basic tools.