Diary Entry 2

During the month of May TE’s Liesl Truscott joined her team mate Silvere Tovignan (Regional Director for Africa) in Tanzania to visit two outstanding organic cotton producer groups: the pioneering and leading socially-orientated bioRe Tanzania and the dedicated entrepreneurial BioSustain. The two TE colleagues were joined by Laura Reppart director of the Caris Foundation (based in Kenya), who was on a fact-finding mission to better understand organic cotton and organic agriculture generally. Travelling together turned out to be an enormous opportunity to share knowledge and experiences on sustainable agriculture, life skills, and community empowered development in Africa. 

Here Liesl recalls events, anecdotes, and reflections on her inspiring journey...  

Saturday 6: Arriving at bioRe

My colleague Silvere and I had the honour of visiting bioRe Tanzania the organic cotton ‘family’ (which is really the best way to describe bioRe). The bioRe Tanzania headquarters and training centre are located in Mwamishali, which is situated in the Meatu District (one of the eight districts of the Shinyanga Region) in Tanzania.  

We flew into Mwanza on the edge of Lake Victoria and were greeted by John Lugembe of bioRe who drove us the five hours south to Mwamishali.

BioRe Tanzania is headed up by the husband and wife team Niranjan and Priscilla Pattni. Niranjan was away during our visit so we unfortunately did not get to spend time with him. But his charming wife Pricilla made up for his absence.

Priscilla is the heart of bioRe Tanzania; a thoughtful and generous host, efficient organiser, and superb cook! She is clearly loved by her staff and during our stay quite simply couldn’t do enough to make our time at bioRe as enjoyable – and as tasty - as possible.

Sunday 7: A full day’s itinerary

Getting to know the bioRe team Our first full day at bioRe started with a tour of the training centre, and being introduced to the core team; Peter (ICS manager), Justina (social program implementer), and Pilly (in charge of training). We were to experience this ‘A’ team in action many times over the next few days.

Training is of course provided in the field but bioRe also has a dedicated training centre; with accommodation provided. One thing that struck me were the posters and articles dotted around featuring bioRe/Remei finished products. bioRe farmers know exactly where their organic cotton was going and what the final products look like.

The beautiful artwork in the residential suite visually describes and profiles each bioRe village and the calendar of activities is a sight to behold. Have a close look at the detail and accuracy of each month represented in the ‘wheel’ below. I was intrigued to have the illustration of the Maasai warrior (featured in August) described. The Maasai are employed to chaperon bioRe's delivery of payment to farmers in their villages. Definitely a high-risk operation. 



Visit to an organic cotton village - Bulyashi

Around mid-day we headed out to one of the bioRe villages - Bulyashi - the first to grow organic cotton for bioRe in 1994. We met with the local ICS supervisor Jisena and two extension workers Jamesy and Bida. These young men talked us through the procedures involved in managing farm standards record-keeping, farmer training etc and allowed us to look through their meticulous books.

A family plot We then took a tour of one of the organic farms, a 3.2 ha (8 acre) plot owned by Tumar and Justina’s grandfather Sampson Maganga. Tuma’s three year old daughter Patricia (proudly named after Patrick Hohmann the founder of bioRe) accompanied us, observing us rather shyly from a distance. It took a while to win Patricia over but she finally allowed us to take her photo and even rewarded us with a glowing smile and little wave.

Working with nature As with most of the bioRe farms, the family’s land is divided into food crops (In Samsons case: 8 acres growing maize, sweet potato, long grain rice, mungbeans, sunflower, and groundnut)) and cotton (Samson has 3 acres this year).

Like all farmers, Samson rotates three main crops: (1) the cotton, (2) the food crop (sorghum or maize), and (3) the soil nitrogen-fixer (peanuts or pigeon pea). Both maize and sorghum are staple food crops in the area and the beans and nuts accompany most meals. Each year the crops rotate so every third year the land is benefiting from being under the leguminous crop. Farmyard manure is usually applied and the green stalks and other remains after harvest are either mulched back into the ground or mixed with the manure to produce a rich compost. The vibrant yellow of the sunflowers lining the cotton crop create a vibrant splash of colour but are more than cosmetic; they have the integral role of louring pests (such as the American bollworm) away from the young cotton bolls. Regular bug monitoring is key, and if necessary, a botanical solution of extract from the neem tree is sprayed on the cotton to keep pests under control. 

As we strolled around the plot we came across wild cucumber, watermelon, and pumpkin growing randomly as 'undercrops' beneath the taller plant varieties, and the occasional stand of okra (ladies fingers) was evident. This family also has a kitchen garden where salad vegetables are produced.

A good season for cotton In terms of the organic cotton, the first pickings were about to start and due to the timely rainfall the plants were looking healthy and laden with cotton bolls. On one plant Silvere was excited to count 30 rather large bolls – which is indication of a very promising yield. Provided all goes well from this point on bioRe is expecting a bumper crop this season. Things are due to get very busy from June to September. For bioRe organic cotton is picked by hand 3-4 times in one season, and the selling, transporting, and ginning subsequently kicks-off once picking starts.

Impact of the earlier drought Alas, the farmers have not enjoyed the same good growing conditions for the sorghum and maize. Throughout the entire region these vital food crops have suffered from an extended drought period. The rain never came at the usual time to provide the young plants with the vital showering they needed for viable growth. In terms of food security this shortage of grain has been devastating for many families. Emergency supplies of maize have been trucked in to help relieve the hunger. bioRe has of course helped out with food shortages and by providing school meals. 

Mwamisali women’s sewing group

Before returning back to base we called in on another village – Mwamisali – here we visited a women’s sewing group. Inside a small building located within the village there were about 8 or 9 women busy at their machines or at the cutting bench.  As we arrived a young boy was trying on his brand new school uniform produced by the women. He then jumped on his bicycle and was gone, ready for Monday morning when he would sport his crisp white shirt and tan coloured shorts for the first time.  In the beginning of this venture, the bioRe foundation had provided the machines to the group on a hire-purchase agreement and had sponsored a local tailor to train the ladies in the art of sewing and pattern making. These skilled-up seamstresses are now producing uniforms for the boys and girls in the area, making an income, and are newly defined as independent business women.  

Monday 8: Cross country adventure

Before setting off for the day all visitors had the honour of planting a Neem tree on the bioRe property.  It felt good to be a part of the tree-planting project at bioRe and I hope that one day I will return to see ‘my’ tree standing tall and strong – alongside the others.

Joining a farmer workshop in Nata

After making sure our newly planted trees had plenty of water we embarked on an off-road adventure to get to the isolated village of Nata to see a training session in action. Here Pilly along with the local co-ordinator Alfred and the extension worker Peter Constantine were giving a workshop on a range of subjects including pest control, production and yields, and everybody’s favourite topic ‘pricing’.

The bioRe price BioRe has always been completely transparent about their pricing methodology, and the training team were today performing the calculation in front of the farmers to demonstrate exactly how they arrive at the bioRe price for cotton seed each year. The simple calculation involves taking an average of the past 5 year’s commodity figure and adding a 15 percent ‘value addition’ premium on top. It’s worth mentioning that it’s not only the better price that bioRe offers their farmers, but they endeavour to provide additional farmer security and benefits such as guaranteed purchase, timely payments, seed supply, support with farm inputs (such as botanical sprays, etc), among a host of other contractual terms and policies revolving around improving livelihoods and incentivising organic production.   

Discussion time Manjale, the appointed farm leader for the Nata farm group, ran the workshop discussion time in an orderly manner and managed questions from the floor. I noticed a good number of women present at the meeting and although they were less inclined (than the men) to raise questions they tended to be seated at the front and were taking in the exchanges – particularly enjoying the jokes and banter that would arise from time to time. The workshop was presented in Swahili of which everyone could understand (except us) and many of the questions were asked in the local dialect – which clearly did not present a problem to the bioRe team who were fluent in their responses.  

Peter Mashamba’s farm After the meeting Peter, one of the organic cotton farmers who attended the meeting, took us down to his 7.2 hectare (18 acre) plot. Peter has approx. 3 ha in food crops and 4 ha producing cotton. His food crops this year include: maize, sweet potato, mungbeans sorghum, and rice. His farm was a picture of health and Peter clearly knew what he was doing. His farming skills and range of biological farm techniques employed including an appreciation of environmental conservation were evident. With pride he told us how he was going to expand his organic rice paddy on his recent acquisition of a further 27 hectares.

BioRe housing for teachers in Paji It was a fascinating day and ran longer than expected so we missed the opportunity to visit the school while class was still running. We did call in though, and met with three primary school teachers who subsequently invited us in to inspect their houses - which had been built by bioRe to accommodate the teachers coming into the area from a far.

Tuesday 9: Finally get to meet the kids!

Visit to a school We had a long trip ahead of us to our next destination, but before we left Meatu we called in on one of the local schools, to catch the kids at their desks. The school we visited (one of many in the area) was located in the village of Dakoma. Here, bioRe had sponsored the instalment of a large water tank which was collecting rainwater off one of the classroom roofs. This water tank not only provided the children and neighbouring families with fresh water but has allowed the staff to transform the bare earth outside the class rooms to a lush and shady garden.

bioRe smokeless stoves Further improvements were on the way for this community since bioRe has Dakoma next on the list for their smokeless stove implementation program. These stoves are built together by bioRe and the local community, and made out of locally available materials. The smokeless stoves drastically reduce a family’s exposure to woodfire smoke (which normally fills the air inside the house with polluting particulates during cooking), and reduces wood consumption. These stoves are also part of the CO2 project designed by Remei AG and bioRe® to reduce the overall CO2 emissions of its production. bioRe has an awesome mission to eventually provide every family with a smokeless stove.

Discussion and exchange We took the opportunity to have a chat to the headmaster and two of his staff about the virtues of organic kitchen gardens and the potential for the school to provide nutritious food at lunchtime to the 230 primary school kids. There was quite some interest and the headmaster noted that they had plenty of space and of course thanks to bioRe the water to do it.

Before I had left home my two sons (Sebastian and Hugo) had made cards for the ‘Africa kids’ and I had promised to hand these works of art over to some of the children should the opportunity arise. With the remote location in mind, I had also packed a bundle of books and pencils for the school children... as a small token of gratitude for having so warmly welcomed us into their school and classrooms.

We had been informed that children at school in Tanzania are being taught English however it was quite difficult to get even a whisper out of them when approached directly. However, as we departed the school we could catch the whoops of laughter coming from these 'shy' children... once they were free from the presence of their strange visitors!

Time to say farewell It was hard saying good bye to Priscilla, her team, and the other guests - our new friends. Time had raced by yet each day had been so full with enriching experiences and opportunities (did I mention Priscilla’s cooking?). I envied fashion-student Laura armed with her ‘how to speak Swahili’ language book and her month-long stay with the bioRe family ahead of her.   

For full profile and further details on bioRe Tanzania Ltd visit http://www.remei.ch/en/biore-foundation/biore-tanzania-ltd 

By Liesl Truscott
Farm Engagement Director
Textile Exchange 

Next diary entry: We head down to Singida to visit Riyaz Heider and co at BioSustain