Planting the Seed for a More Sustainable Type of Vegetable Value Chain in Ethiopia

The Development Fund of Norway (DFN) and Farmforce embarked on the Sustainable Vegetable Value Chain (SVVC) project to improve the farm-to-fork production traceability of cabbage, tomato, and spices (i.e., hot pepper) in Ethiopia.

The DFN, an organization that focuses on, inter alia, food security, climate change, natural resources management, and agricultural value chain development, initiated, coordinated, and funded the SVVC project. Since 2019, the DFN has supported Ethiopian farmers in the Amhara and Tigray regions to achieve the following two objectives:

  1. Increasing the income of 3,000 smallholder farmers
  2. Doubling the export market for 50 medium and large-scale farmers

When selecting farmers, the DFN valued their motivation to participate in the program as a top criterion. Once onboard, the organization provided them with free seedlings for the first year and a 50% discount for the second year.

Harnessing the extension workers’ expertise from the Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara Region (ORDA) and Women Empowerment  Action (WE-Action), the DFN could train farmers on how to grow vegetables sustainably (e.g. land preparation, agronomic practices, integrated pest management, post-harvest handling) and on how to market their produce effectively. On the other hand, they noticed that Ethiopian farmers’ data tracking mostly relied on manual workers and paper-based methods rather than leveraging a record-keeping software. Therefore, to enhance their program outcome, they required a smarter and seamless system of tracing and managing agricultural inputs, types of crops produced, farmers’ access to market, etc. This is why they turned to our software for farm data management.

“That entire chain of results gets captured when they’re using the Farmforce technology, and that has proven to be extremely valuable,” Ulf Flink, DFN’s regional head, said.

Farmforce: Food Tech Worth Investing In

After testing our sustainable food supply chain management software as a service (SaaS) on a pilot scale, the DFN has already appreciated that it can be beneficial for all players engaged in the project.

“We’re getting some preliminary very positive results in terms of how extension workers and our partners can extract data from this technology in the projects.” Ulf Flink said.

By digitizing farmers and integrating all relevant data (e.g., productivity/yield of the cultivated vegetables, agricultural inputs delivered, training records, etc.) in one place, our food traceability software has made the life of DFN’s workforce much easier, thus increasing the farm productivity.

“It reminds extension workers where the activities are, what they have to do. So, they support each farmer regularly because all inputs, all technical training, and all its checklists are in the system.” Alemayehu Sitotaw, Senior Agri-Business & Value Chain Advisor at DFN, said.

Aside from supporting project developers, our agriculture management software has been a game-changer for smallholder farmers. For example, by collaborating with Women Empowerment Action (WE-Action), one of the project’s operational arms, we have empowered Ethiopian female farmers to play a more prevalent role in the farm-to-fork value chain. With nearly 20 years of experience in promoting gender equality, this indigenous community-driven organization enables women to fulfill their potential and gain financial independence.

While optimizing working conditions for all project players, our sustainable food supply chain technology has faced some technical hiccups. While the information is recorded offline on the mobile app, the lack of a strong and stable network in some of the rural areas occasionally delayed data synchronization on the cloud. Nonetheless, as the country’s Internet coverage expands, connectivity will no longer be an issue.

Other than technical limitations, some of our collaborators raised concerns about the financial side of our solution. To be more specific, when no funding is available, companies may struggle to cover the initial cost of external training and the purchase of technical equipment (i.e., tablets).

“The initial investment cost is the problem. Otherwise, the technology is very important in supporting the extension workers.” Alemayehu Sitotaw said.

Having said that, according to web users from the two on-the-ground project partners, ORDA and WE-Action, Farmforce’s sustainable supply chain solutions streamline farm management, thus saving on human resources. Additionally, our digital infrastructure eliminates the stationery cost implied by paper-based data recording.

Battling Against COVID and War

The last couple of years were not ideal for developing solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic was a hard-to-predict risk and caused severe disruptions to the SVVC project. For example, the DFN struggled to set up any link between farmers and traders, thus limiting their vegetable sales.

Aside from global food supply chain problems, the ongoing armed conflict in Ethiopia halted the project in the Amhara region between July and December 2021. In addition, farming interventions in Tigray have been frozen since mid 2020.

“We did not have access and we could not reach the farmers with inputs. We could not train. We could not sow, we could not cultivate, we could not harvest.” Ulf said.

This prevented DFN from fulfilling one of the project’s goals, which was supercharging the vegetable sales of medium-to-large-scale Tigray-based farmers on regional and international markets. Besides reducing accessibility, the war had indirect economic impacts on the program. For instance, hyperinflation drove up the cost of seedlings, thus biting into farmers’ revenues.

Excellent Results Cropping Out

Nevertheless, despite technical and financial challenges, the results achieved in 2021 showed that the program successfully met one of its objectives. Farmers’ incomes were 20% higher than those gained in the 2020 cropping season. On top of that, 2021 earnings more than doubled compared to the pre-intervention level.

“The farmers are still making surpluses in terms of income. They are able to provide for their families through vegetable production. And they continue to produce at a much higher rate than before the project started.” said Ulf.

The contribution of Joytech, one of the SVVC implementation partners, was key to achieving this unexpected yet remarkable progress. Their high-quality seedlings boosted farmers’ yields, thus increasing their productivity.

When looking at single crops, the SVVC initiative slightly improved hot pepper production. In contrast, both tomato and cabbage productivity flourished, hitting an over 100% rise compared to the project baseline.

As highlighted by Joytech, Farmforce’s extensive data storage and effective information exchange allowed them to maximize the impact of their seedlings on farmers’ productivity. Based on the plant’s growth stage, their operators fed multiple agricultural input parameters (e.g., rate, amount, etc.) into our supply chain visibility software. Field staff could then readily access Joytech instructions and relay them to the farmers for timely and efficient crop protection.

“We feed these data to the system, so, when the field staff says to sync, they will get everything from the software. So, they directly apply my recommendations, which lets the farmers increase their production and productivity.” Yitagesu, Technical and Research Manager at Joytech, said.

Turning a New Leaf in the Ethiopian Food Supply Chain

Combining Joytech’s high-quality seedlings with the planting-to-harvest monitoring of our agricultural supply chain software, farmers are gradually adopting more sustainable farming techniques. By doing so, their harvest is becoming more resilient and cost-effective.

In the Northwestern Amhara region of Ethiopia, where agricultural activity is heavily reliant on rice, increasing vegetable productivity lets farmers diversify their income. Thanks to the higher earnings, some of the farmers were able to buy the seedlings themselves. In addition, other growers invested their sales proceeds in livestock or living expenses (e.g., school fees, clothes, etc.). To add to that, superior traceability in their food supply chain will attract more buyers for their produce, thus unleashing new market opportunities. As a result, farmers will be moving away from the poverty line, bringing their livelihood to the next level.

But it’s not just about money. Introducing crops like pepper, tomato and cabbage and establishing a profitable and sustainable supply chain for them, means enriching people’s diets and strengthening their nutrition security.

Based on the encouraging trend observed so far, there is a high potential for extending the SVVC project adoption to other regions of the country.

Two farmers discuss crop data using a tablet

At Farmforce, food’s first mile is our passion. Our SaaS solutions provide organizations with the confidence to secure sustainable sourcing, improve farmers’ quality of life and protect the environment. We turn data into tools, which means more vetted acres, more measurable impact on communities, more financial opportunities for farmers, and more clarity for customers. We believe in building a better food supply where it starts. Farmforce customers span 28 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. With over nine years of experience now managing over 735,000+ farmers in 27 crop value chains in 15 languages on our platform. A continuous loop of innovation with our customers in the center of food’s first mile journey.

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