Connecting Small-scale Vegetable Farmers to Fair Trade Markets

September 2, 2011


Elizabeth KaimenyiGrowing up on small farms in Kenya, Sylvester Maina and Arnold Ngari witnessed first-hand how lack of access to markets affected their families and communities. In 2009, they helped found Tropical Fresh, a company that purchases vegetables under fair trade terms from small-scale Kenyan farmers and exports them to European markets. Tropical Fresh’s supplier base has grown from fewer than 30 to more than 300, and has given many Kenyan produce farmers their first reliable source of annual income.

Client Profile: Tropical Fresh

Kenya has an abundance of fertile farm land, but its small-scale farmers have historically been at the mercy of a volatile and unreliable market for their goods. The founders of Tropical Fresh set out to change this by building a stronger bond between producers and buyers. Today, their firm is one of only three companies in the world exporting Fair Trade Certified vegetables.

By guaranteeing that they will receive a fair price for their crops at harvest time, Tropical Fresh has given many farmers a degree of security they’ve never had before.

“My dad would deliver his crops to a broker’s grading shed, and not be guaranteed of any price, or be certain they would even buy the product at all,” says Arnold Ngari, one of the four co-founders of Tropical Fresh. “That was a primary motivation for me when I was setting up this business. I wanted there to be a value chain where every single component is taken care of.”

“Previously, farmers would sell to brokers for a spot price at harvest time,” explains fellow co-founder Sylvester Maina. “Prices might shoot up for a few weeks, and then be very low for the rest of the harvest. This uncertainty meant that farmers couldn’t know how much to plant, and if they thought prices would be too low they would sometimes stop tilling their land altogether.”

To break this cycle, Tropical Fresh enters into fixed-price contracts with European buyers before the Kenyan growing season begins. With support from Root Capital, Tropical Fresh then helps farmers purchase the agricultural inputs, such as seed and fertilizer, that they need to fulfill their orders. Tropical Fresh also employs agronomists who teach its suppliers how to plant in an environmentally responsible way, and how to meet strict EU quality standards.

The combination of guaranteed contracts and technical support is transforming Kenyan farming communities. Elizabeth Kaimenyi is a farmer who grows snap peas and green beans in the shadow of Mt. Kenya. She is the vice-secretary of the Mt. Kenya Border Multipurpose Cooperative society, which was founded in 2008 with only three members. Today, it has more than 400.

“With Tropical Fresh we can be sure that our produce will not get lost on the way, and we will get a good price,” Elizabeth says. “We have been taught how to manage our crops to get the fair trade premium, and with that money we can plan for the future.” For the first time, many members are able to pay for tuition for their children, and the cooperative is planning to build a hospital with a maternity ward – something that is quite rare in this poor, remote region.

George Waweru, an agronomist for Tropical Fresh, says, “There is nothing as good as seeing farmers cross the poverty line, seeing them go from dust to being able to put food on the table every evening, send their kids to school and think about the future.”

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