When I first saw this handwritten sign, I wasn’t sure if I was reading it correctly. It is my first time in this village, even in this part of N. Uganda, so it might be a local word I don’t know. But as I get closer, no, it really does say “organics talking” on the door of the store where farmers bring their sesame to be bought. Balmoi, the storekeeper from whom Gulu Agricultural Development Company will buy the sesame, is smiling from ear to ear, and telling me that yes indeed, he just made the sign. He wanted the farmers to know he was only buying organic. His friend and fellow field officer, Jimmy set up just across the village square is equally serious. He has posted signs insisting he will buy only quality white, organic sesame and even posted a sample for the farmers to see.
It brings a giant smile to my face - not only has our company training on quality resonated but its spreading to our farmers and even encouraged this enthusiastic tagline response: “Organics Talking” .
Later in the season, I am next to Balmoi in a company truck bringing some of his stock to our main store in Gulu. A child darts out in front of us and after a near miss, the driver of the truck, a Ugandan from the south tells me that he heard in the North, everyone walks on the tarmac because the ditches had too many landmines and even now people don’t trust it. I turn to Balmoi for confirmation and am met with a stone face and silence. I didn’t probe any further but am reminded that the conflict in northern Uganda between Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA and and the government is never that far from memory.
Like other parts of EA and these developing markets, Northern Uganda poses great challenges in culture, education and infrastructure making daily operations and scaling difficult. But equally great is the potential of organic and fair trade agriculture for sustainable impact. This potential grows from the ft and organics network that breeds trust, creates belonging and builds partnerships.
Let me explain what I mean. First, If I’m going to borrow Balmoi’s expression, “organics talking”, I must do him proud and define it. Organic agriculture in short means: No pesticides or chemicals anywhere in the value chain. It requires registration of all farmers and all steps in the value chain, trucks, warehouses, processing facilities, containers, rigorous monitoring and then external audits to verify the integrity.
Fair trade agriculture, a separate set of standards, mandates price floors on crops and community bonuses be set aside for collective community benefit. Ft also requires standards for workers for fair wages and working conditions.
Now, Organic and FT agriculture are a promising structure for development for many reasons.
First, Organic and fair trade both offer premium prices to farmers. The higher price helps to cover the additional costs of monitoring and audit but also pays the farmers and workers a higher wage for the added value.
Second, Organic agriculture is also lower cost to farmers. The organic pesticides made from naturally occurring ingredients are less expensive in the short and the longer term. Organics is also less costly in terms of the environment and the health and safety of the workers. Just as the consumer in the US buys organics thinking of their health, they are also supporting the health of the farmers and the environment in which they live.
Third and, I would venture the greatest benefit, is the network of organics and fair trade. Agricultural extensions services for trainings on proper techniques, shared ag inputs and the monitoring and audits to guarantee integrity all requires a complex network. You can’t just buy from farmers. Staff spend hours with them, see their fields, teach them, get to know their families and friends. The supply chain becomes a partnership, a community. One of our fair trade organic cotton buyers who makes towels for the Japanese market comes annually to visit, farms alongside the farmers, works in the warehouses. Then he goes back and shares with his staff and customers. He calls it the organic family. Its big players and small. We’ve worked with Noir, a luxury designer in Denmark and met with H&M about organic cotton. Japanese cosmetic companies are interested in buying sesame. We are working in communities where ex-Lord’s Resistance Army fighters are farming organics in groups with former victims. This network offers support, shared resources, and interaction and brings trust and a feeling of belonging to a recent war zone where there has been so much distrust, and conflict within communities.
Now, this potential long term impact also requires that we talk honestly about the challenges.
1) Infrastructure is first and ever present. Electricity cuts, roads where you can travel 20 km in an hour, this comes as no surprise and is to be expected. It slows down operations to the extent that the costs can threaten the viability of an organization
2) Corruption is equally debilitating. It slows the system, adds costs and destroys trust
3) And attaining the high quality produce expected means facing cultural challenges and paying upfront costs to put systems and inputs into place to reach the standards of organics and fair trade.
Bbut he way that we can conquer these challenges is through the sense of belonging and partnership from farmer to consumer that the organic and fair trade network allows us to build. And at the end of the day, while the income generation is incredibly important, even more so is the community building: Bringing together people torn apart by war around a common goal, a common conversation and people and companies that they can rely on. Organics gets us talking and will keep us going.