The core of Producers Direct’s model is its Centre of Excellence (CoE) network. Each CoE is a farmer-run enterprise hosted by a smallholder producer organisation. In partnership with our partner cooperatives, we have launched 7 Centres of Excellence where smallholders access bundled in-person and digital farmer-led support services that respond to their needs. We have partnered with a network of 38 smallholder-owned farmer organisations and cooperatives to deliver our farmer-led programmes across Latin America and East Africa.
Each of our CoEs is led by a manager, who works closely with a network of youth agents. Together, they support our smallholder farmers across the geographies where we work. In a recent conversation with one of our CoE managers Amon, he shared with us his experience working with the smallholder farmers in Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union (ACPU) in Uganda. For over a decade, we have worked with the smallholders in ACPCU who mainly grow coffee and also produce other crops such as avocados, pineapples and bananas and Amon has been a key part of enabling us to reach these farmers.
If I was to come to ACPCU and spend a day with you. What will that look like?
When you spend a day with me, it means that whatever you do, you do it with me. At ACPCU, we have different activities so it depends on that day when you come and on what program I have at the time. Sometimes you find I have field work so I have to be in the field. Then when we don’t have field activities, I come to the office at ACPCU to follow up on the youth agents’ activities and together with our youth coordinator Rachel, ensure that all activities are scheduled to run as they need to.
I have daily or weekly meetings with the Producers Direct team to report on activities that are taking place. I then get help from the finance team to process any finance-related payments. I also coordinate farmers’ trainings in the different zones like Ntungamo, Mitoma and Shema where our farmers are.
Roughly, how many farmers do you work with?
When I saw this question I thought it is a bit tricky because we work with different farmers on different projects and sometimes these projects overlap and we work with these farmers in more than 1 project. So altogether, I’d say over 5000 farmers who are beekeepers, coffee farmers, banana farmers etc.
ACPCU is mainly known for coffee, but farmers grow other crops too. Could you tell me which ones?
We encourage both farming and non-farming diversification among farmers in ACPCU. At the moment, there are farmers who grow bananas, avocados and others who are beekeepers. So if for example a farmer has one acre of coffee and another of bananas, as they wait for their coffee to mature and sell it at a good price, their banana harvests could take care of other expenses like school fees.
Could you share a bit about how you work with youth agents and their role in facilitating your work with farmers?
Youth agents play a key role in the work that we do with farmers. For example, whenever we have training sessions, they mobilise the farmers and ensure they know when and where the training will take place.
They are also our link between farmers and buyers. Through our digital platform, they ensure that farmers get to sell their produce and the produce is delivered to buyers across ACPCU.
The youth agents also help farmers to understand some of the concepts they may have forgotten during training. So some youth agents act as a point of reference for farmers in such instances. In this regard, they are also very helpful when it comes to helping farmers record data in their logbooks that helps them keep track of their income and expenses.
What kinds of challenges do you see farmers experience when it comes to their agriculture enterprises?
One of the challenges is the issue of land fragmentation. You find if one farmer has a small plot, that is where he or she wants to do everything – bee keeping, grow bananas, coffee…
Another thing is the lack of access to farm inputs like manure, mulching materials and other inputs which are expensive.
What, in your opinion, can be done in your opinion to enable them to deal with these challenges?
I think we have to think big to come up with the advanced technology that they can use on their small plots to do diversification activities they can afford to enable them to cope with competition. For example, we’ve recently been introduced to liquid manure made from milk, rice wash and molasses. This will help solve the problem of manure because it is cheaper and readily available. We can continue to sensitise our farmers to consider these ideas that can help them increase production.
Then, of course we can try and learn from advanced countries how they do things in their small pieces of land and how they manage urban farming. Most of the farmers in ACPCU live in urban areas, so they will benefit a lot from learning how for example an urban dairy farmer can be successful in that enterprise.
Are young people in ACPCU interested in agriculture? If yes, what kind of areas do you see them having an interest in?
Previously, young people looked at agriculture as a thing for old and not very educated people. But I’m seeing an interest from young people, especially because most of them have not been able to find formal employment. Of course the percentage is still low, because most of them are still thinking of formal jobs, but I see some improvement.
Young people are now learning about agriculture even through TV programmes where they get to see how different young farmers earn a living from agriculture. They also get to see other young people who have formal jobs, but still do agriculture on the side, using their income earned from their formal jobs. Some of the farmers grow coffee, bananas, and some are dairy farmers. This way, young people see the different opportunities that they can tap into in this sector.
There are also young people who have been given units of land by their parents and they farm on those plots of land. Other young people offer delivery services and help move agricultural produce to where it is needed. In the past, coffee was grown only by old people , then when I joined Producers Direct and began attending the online meetings for some primary cooperatives, I would take that opportunity to speak to parents about considering giving their children land where they can also grow coffee.
Growing up, I saw my father growing coffee and from that I understood a lot about this type of farming. So in these training sessions, I would request parents to involve their sons and daughters when they are at home during school holidays, especially in day-to-day tasks that they can handle at their age to help grow their interest in agriculture at a young age.
Over the years, we have been hearing a lot about climate change. Is this something that farmers in ACPCU have noticed and if yes, what kind of things are they doing to cope with this?
Yes, they have noticed it, because they say they notice the changes in seasons, the rain patterns are not as they used to know and so what they are doing is to monitor the rain patterns , so for example they first wait for the rain and then they plant and if the rains fail to come as expected, they find ways to improvise. We have experienced unusually short and poor rains in the last like three to five years and farmers have just been coping.
Farmers also receive training from ACPCU where coffee farmers are encouraged to plant shade trees to protect the coffee when it is too hot and also in cases when there’s too much rain. Some farmers also practise irrigation. Last year in March, I planted coffee then it rained for three – four days then it stopped. So, I had to do irrigation for that coffee which is now in the flowering stage. So that is usually the case for other farmers as well.
The farmers have also developed a savings scheme with their primary cooperatives. So if a season doesn’t do very well, the farmers’ families can still survive through savings in that scheme. This is helping farmers develop a habit of putting some money aside especially for those bad seasons.
What are you currently working on with farmers that farmers feel will bring value to their enterprises?
The exciting thing right now for farmers is the Croppie app. Just yesterday I was in the field, I sat with the farmers and I explained to them that Croppie is an app that is designed to help them make better yield estimates for their coffee and how by doing that, the farmer can know how much coffee and in the end estimate how much money they will get from their farms.
The other thing is the logbook. I was speaking with a farmer who took me through the process of how he keeps track of his income and expenses from farming. When I asked him how much he made from coffee, he said he uses records that he gets from the cooperative. But these records only take into account the income from ACPCU. So he was not able to accurately account for his expenses.
I then told him about how to use the logbook and the importance of keeping a record of all his farm activities. It was so exciting my friend. This is what he told me “ … so now when I record what I earn, what I spend, I will know how much profits I have made then, I decide what to go with, what to continue with or what to adjust you know?” So using logbooks was so exciting to the farmers I talked to.
What would you say have been your low and high moments in your time working with farmers?
The low moment I ever encountered working with the farmers I think, is when I did three consecutive training sessions with 100 beekeepers. Everything was going well and they appreciated the training and even went on to implement what they had learned. However,
Because they faced several challenges and were not able to report these challenges in time to allow us to fix things and offer solutions, we ended up having only 22 out of the 100 beekeepers harvesting honey. This was a low moment for me, because I had hoped than all of the trained beekeepers would harvest the honey and also have a place where they could sell their honey like we’d assured them they would during the training.
What about one of your highest moments?
My highest moment was when we were doing the Milken project project. We trained farmers, we gave them what was required, we gave them loans and gave them the support they needed. And I remember when an evaluator came to check the progress of the work we had been doing, they were able to get first-hand information from the farmers and understand the farmers’ experiences as well.
The evaluator was mostly asked different questions, what the farmers learned, what kinds of training they got, what loans they received and what the loans were used for and it was nice to hear the farmers respond and say how they were able to grow their enterprises.