Surinamese fruit and vegetable farms are typically constrained by a lack of mechanisation and water management systems. Consequently, production is still very labour intensive and output remains seasonal. Knowledge about modern cultivation methods and techniques is limited, and crop damage by pests and diseases is an increasing problem. Farmers are using more and more agrochemical inputs, such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, to overcome these problems, putting greater pressure on the local environment. Postharvest handling, storage and distribution practices are also rudimentary, making farmers dependent on intermediaries for produce marketing.
The 'Wroko Nanga Koni' project
This situation has led The Caribbean Institute (TCI), a national NGO in Suriname, to develop and implement the 'Wroko Nanga Koni' project, Surinamese Creole for 'work smart'. This supports small farmers to make the transition to competitive organic agriculture and develop a sustainable value chain. The innovative programme has three interconnected purposes: to enhance farmer's access to information, knowledge and technology, thereby increasing production and improving produce quality; to prepare farmers for the transition to profitable organic horticultural production, with an emphasis on sustainable farm management; and to facilitate multi-stakeholder processes to link small organic farmers to local and export markets.
TCI developed a three-phase methodology to help farmers make the 3-5 year transition to certified organic agriculture. In phase 1, farmers participate in group trainings and receive on-farm field guidance to implement the principles of growing safe food (i.e. without pesticide residues). Use of compost is important to reverse land degradation and restore soil health and fertility, with this phase taking 1-3 years, depending on the initial quality of the soil. To aid the transition to organic farming, TCI has set up a large-scale composting facility, which will be fully functional in November 2014.
Rusty Kromopawiro, a farmer from Commewijne district, is enthusiastic about the process. "I never knew that the soil was alive with microbes and other living creatures that are important for plant health. TCI paid for my soil analysis. When my results came back I then understood why I was having problems on a particular piece of land. The pH was too high. With knowledge from the training and help from the TCI coaches, I am now managing the soil to lower the pH". Vinod Sawradj from Saramacca district is also positive: "I am very happy with the training and the field support. I have learned to fertilise my plants with organic fertilisers and to correctly recognise pest and diseases in the field."
Through a cooperative agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture, government extension workers are participating in the training and field support. The goal is to create a cadre of extension workers that are schooled in the principles of organic agriculture and modern extension methods. TCI has also recently completed a manual, Principles of Organic Agriculture in Suriname, to be published in November 2014. The manual and its companion website will provide farmers with all of the information necessary to successfully make the transition to organic agriculture.
In phase 2, farmers sell their safely grown vegetables directly to consumers in farmers' markets and other outlets, and in phase 3, farmers will start selling certified organic vegetables collectively under a brand name. Already, the producers have formed a Network of Sustainable Farmers, to aid their marketing. "By selling my vegetables through the Network I am earning 100-150% more than I get from the middleman," says Vinod. In August 2014, the Network will receive the support of a full-time marketing, sales and public relations manager, who will organise the supply chain to gain access to different market segments. Looking ahead, the expectation is that once farmers have a steady and predictable income through the Network, they will become eligible for bank loans.
Also under phase 3, farmers will begin the process of obtaining organic certification. TCI, with the approval of the Suriname Bureau of Standards, has chaired a committee to draft national standards for organic agriculture, which are now in the public domain for comments. The expectation is that by the end of 2014, the Ministry of Trade and Industries will officially publish these standards, enabling farmers to apply for organic certification.
Surinamese consumers are ready for organic produce and demand is already much larger than the supply. The Network of Sustainable Farmers in Suriname will be able to satisfy this demand and demonstrate that, with the right support, small family farmers are very much capable of participating in a sustainable value chain and contributing to sustainable development, the reversal of land degradation and adaptation to climate change.
By Maureen Silos