Brazilians are no strangers to bouts of high inflation, but when grocery shopping became a “painful experience,” Priscilla Veras decided to find out what was happening to prices on the journey from farm to supermarket.
Through her former job at a humanitarian aid nonprofit, Veras got in touch with small-scale farmers across Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, most of whom blamed middlemen for eating up their modest profits even as consumers paid more.
“And who were the ones suffering most from middlemen? Organic farmers, family farmers,” Veras said.
She sensed a business opportunity: If she could bypass the intermediaries who bought goods such as potatoes and onions from producers and transported them to stores, she could benefit farmers and consumers.
Her idea developed into Muda Meu Mundo, meaning Change My World in Portuguese, a start-up that connects small-scale family farmers to big supermarket chains in Brazil by handling logistics, transportation, and offering credit and technical assistance to help growers boost output.
Global food prices hit a record high in March as Russia’s war in Ukraine compounded supply concerns linked to climate worries and the COVID-19 pandemic, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data showed.
Smallholders are responsible for about one-third of global food production, according to the FAO, and are bearing the brunt of a surge in fertilizer costs as sanctions on leading producers Russia and Belarus cut global supplies.
Helping small-scale growers weather the crisis is vital to warding off a global food crisis, experts say, with some calling for a major rethink about social inequalities in farming and the sustainability of mineral and chemical-based fertilizers.
In Veras’ case, that means training her network of about 350 family farmers and helping them increase crop production, while also using less resources, such as fertilizer and water.
Nutritionist Constance Oderich took a different approach to achieve her aim of boosting farmers’ income in southern Brazil: Instead of cutting out middlemen, she formed a start-up that bypasses banks and credit card companies.
Papayas, the company she cofounded in 2019, allows customers at the two largest agro-ecological fairs in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul state to buy produce directly from organic and small family farms using an app.
Farmers pay less in banking charges and receive their payments within a week, but usually on the same day, instead of having to wait a month. The company built up its customer base by partnering with local firms who provide their staff with in-app food vouchers.
“Nowadays, we are in almost 100 percent of stalls,” said Oderich, adding that about 600 family farmers in the state participate in the two agro-ecological fairs.
“We have more than 4,000 people using our app,” she said.
More recently, they teamed up with authorities in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. They hope at least 30 percent of the food purchased by the state’s schools, prisons and hospitals will be bought from family farmers through the app.
Latin America’s vast agroindustrial sector remains male-dominated.
A 2019 report by the Inter-American Development Bank said that women are cofounders of just 11 percent of agricultural start-ups in the region.
For some, such as Veras and Oderich, the primary goal is empowering small-scale growers, but an increasing number of women entrepreneurs are turning start-ups into major players.
In Ecuador’s mountainous Amazon rainforest, offering financial and technical support to family farmers is paying off for Maria Del Carmen Narvaez, who cofounded a plantain business, Agroapoyo, with her brother in 2001.
Their company was last year bought by US-based Barnana and Narvaez now leads Barnana Ecuador, the local branch of Barnana in Ecuador, which supports thousands of indigenous plantain and banana farmers, many of them women.
“It’s a chance to give women some income that goes straight to their kids to help them go to school,” Narvaez said.
Working with more than 1,700 farmers from mainly Kichwa indigenous jungle communities, Narvaez leads initiatives to encourage growers to adopt organic farming methods, which can boost a farmer’s monthly income by up to 200 percent.
Barnana buys plantain directly from farmers at regular intervals, offering 30 percent over the market price, providing farming families with a steady income.
With grants and loans provided by Agroapoyo five years ago, farmer communities have gained organic certification after a 12 to 18-month process costing about US$10,000, which is renewed annually.
“When we began to buy from the farmers, we deducted one or two cents on the plantain bought to get back [the loan]. That’s not going to generate a big impact on them,” Narvaez said. “This has worked really well, otherwise communities wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
While few agroindustrial entrepreneurs are female, women make up about one-quarter of the agricultural labor force in Latin America and about 40 percent globally.
Yet female farmers often earn less and produce 20 percent to 30 percent lower crop yields than men, mainly due to the barriers they face in accessing loans, insurance and quality seeds, as well as a lack of land rights, equipment, storage facilities and training.
Research by the UN and the World Bank shows that women-focused initiatives such as Barnana Ecuador help reduce rural poverty.
Narvaez said she has seen first-hand how such projects can improve education and health outcomes, because women are more likely to spend their earnings on their children and reinvesting in their business.
“The impact you have with women is bigger, because women spread their income and their knowledge better,” she said.
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