Diary Entry 3

8th May: Arrival

It took us 6 hours to drive from bioRe headquarters to BioSustain in Singida. We – Laura (our guest from Caris Foundation), Silvere, and I - travelled south east into the Singida region until we reached the main town of Singida where we were to spend the next two nights. Riyaz Haider, founder and managing director of BioSustain met us at his office, located on the premises of the company’s ginnery. It was good to see Riyaz again and catch up on his activities – the highs, the lows, challenges and opportunities... always great to share news and views.

BioSustain is a limited company, headed up by Riyaz Haider (as explained above). BioSustain is working with 2,095 farmers, grouped into 396 FBGs, located in 44 villages in the Singida region. The video here features Riyaz explaining the origins and vision of his company.

Our itinerary for the next day was built around a farm visit and farmer meeting in Nkundi (about a 2 hour drive from Singida), then back to base for a tour of the ginnery and look at the BioSustain ICS books, records, and policies.


9th May: Visit to the village of Nkundi

Eight of us piled into – or on the back of – Riyaz’s utility vehicle and headed south to Nkundi, home to around 500 people. We arrived to find a hub of activity, the sound of a generator indicated that the processing of maize was going on, and another group were shelling peanuts.

The 25 organic cotton farmers were gathered inside the meeting house, the village elder (also heading up the farmer group) and his book keeper were sitting near the door and the rest of the farmers were seated along the walls. We were invited to join them and welcomed into the meeting. I sat next to Octavian who managed a few words of English and we did our best to find out about each other’s children and make small talk. 

The meeting began with a formal welcome from the village elder, Riyaz, and then Silvere and I got to do the same. Thankfully Francis a research student based at BioSustain was with us and he translated between us all beautifully...

After the formalities it was clear the group wanted to take advantage of Riyaz’s visit and he spent a good hour or so responding to their questions. By this time I moved to position myself next to Francis who patiently translated the Q & A into English for me. I thought it was such a fascinating insight into the concerns and preoccupations of this group so I have provided a transcript of the discussion below.

Farmer Q & A with Riyaz

To begin Riyaz makes a point that there are only two women at the meeting and that the men needed to encourage more women to join. I notice 3 or 4 more women slip into the room.

First Question: I want to know more about how the contract works and why the price was higher last year and less this year?

Riyaz: [explains the volatility of the world market and how the prices spiked last year...]. Prices for conventional cotton move around but are lower this year.  Prices for conventional cotton are broadcast on the radio each week, on a Tuesday. This is a good way to follow the market. BioSustain pays a premium of 5 percent on top of conventional cotton prices.

Question: Can BioSustain provide money for us to buy our farm inputs?

Riyaz: BioSustain can provide inputs on credit. We can keep this on record and payment can be left until after harvest.

Question: Could BioSustain provide a closer storage facility the current one is too far away.

Riyaz: We would be happy to assess the situation. We would need to look into the number of farmers this could service and the production levels so we can plan adequately and before any decision could be made.

Question: I’m finding botanical pesticides are not very effective – what do you suggest? Should we go to the shop to buy pesticides?

Riyaz: No – never go to the shop – it’s not always possible to know what you are buying. If you need help come to BioSustain and we can arrange botanical pesticides for you.  If you are finding botanicals are not effective it may be a matter of technique. For example you should spray them in the evening. They are more effective at this time than during the day.

[Riyaz also explains the benefits of crop rotation as a measure for controlling pest infestations. He also reminds the farmers of the dangers and problems of using chemicals.]

Question: There are not enough pumps for spraying botanicals – just one per group. Can you provide more?

Riyaz: Equipment is an issue. There are 400 groups and 25 farmers per group. It is difficult to build up supplies but we are trying to provide. Also extra pumps can be bought on credit from the Cotton Council – and payment made later.

Question: With our rotational crops such as groundnut and sunflower the local traders are not paying very much – can BioSustain help us with our sales?

Riyaz: We are currently looking into setting up processing facilities for organic groundnuts and sunflower – so all our growers can avoid exploitation by local buyers. Right now it is in development and we will keep you informed of progress.

In the meantime we will also try and arrange for the better companies to come out and buy your groundnuts and sunflower so you can avoid the exploitative ones. 

Question: We would like to have more meetings like this one to help educate our farmers on crop rotation and other things.

Riyaz: Our strategy is for our extension workers to educate group leaders and for these leaders to run meeting with the groups.

Question: At what price will our cotton be bought this year?

Riyaz: It’s not easy to tell yet. The prices change all the time and I don’t want to say a price and it goes up!

[Riyaz encourages farmers once again to keep track of the price by listening to the radio broadcast. He also encourages them to diversify income by growing other crops and to keep records to find out which ones are the most profitable for them. He says BioSustain will work on ways to promote other organic crops, along with the cotton.]

To give a flavour of the meeting – view the mini-clip below which features Riyaz addressing the farmers in Swahili.

The meeting appeared to go very well and after the formalities of closing we left the room to take a look at the cotton. From my experience the questions from the group were fairly common issues, and although I was relying on translations it was clear that Riyaz was managing to answer the group and that they were satisfied with the outcomes. Talking with Riyaz afterwards he revealed that he would love to do much more face-to-face with the farmers but to be practical he had to rely on the expertise and competency of his team to carry out the extension services and to train group leaders.

In to the field

The entire group, and of course the inquisitive young children, escorted us out to the fields. As with bioRe the cotton here was getting close to picking. Sorghum, groundnuts, and sunflowers were evident alongside the cotton. It was quite an amusing sight as the farmers dotted themselves amongst the cotton plants posing for our cameras.

Before stepping into the car I handed out a colouring book and some pencils to a small group of hovering children. Never sure if this is ‘the right thing to do’ or not I must say I enjoyed showing the littlies how to colour in the pictures – who knows what they thought of this – but the exchange satisfied my maternal instinct and indirectly connected me to my young sons all the way back home.

Back at HQ

Riyaz talked us through the ginning process, and although not yet running, we could see how efficient it was (not always the case in all parts of Africa). BioSustain own the gin which is a major advantage and although they can process conventional cotton, they can control the timing and procedures for their organic cotton; something which burdens many organic cotton producers who have to wait patiently for their turn. Remember that machines must be cleaned out before the separate stockpiles of organic cotton can be run through. This 'change over' requires a disruption to the flow of cotton which is not so easy to dictate under conventional practices.

A look at the books

Riyaz’s right-hand man Henry is responsible for looking after the BioSustain books. Well, much much more than that... The role of an ICS manager is to keep the handbook up to date, record everything from each farmer’s name, farm description, production and yields, rotation crops, you name it... Each and every site visit is entered, the training received – and Henry is forever updating these records, plus archiving annually. Each and every farmer has his or her own file. I was particularly impressed with the training schedule; all the usual components were there of course but there were subjects such as HIV/Aids, leadership selection and principles of good leadership, and issues of gender.

Henry explained that he was looking into ways to more securely pay the farmers. Currently it involves an escorted drive out to the villages and a handing over of cash. He wants to improve the system to make it less risky for the exchange and better for the farmers. With only one payment a year it’s clearly vital that this money is well managed within the household budget.  Obviously a big challenge, but potentially exciting opportunities for the company to further support their farmers beyond the trading of the cotton, and into financial management. People centred challenges and solutions are what the organic cotton ‘business’ is all about.

BioSustain’s evolving business strategy

BioSustain started life deeply committed to the goals of organic cotton and remains that way. But as the company grows and the market for organic proves unreliable Riyaz has made the decision to diversify his production. BioSustain will now also be producing cotton for the Cotton made in Africa scheme. Riyaz knows there will be no premium for his ‘CmiA’ but at the same time he has a definite market partner and this will help keep his business viable – which in turn can only be a good thing for his organic farmers. This year, BioSustain will be working with Compaci to produce 2,880 mt of lint cotton for CmiA and 1,600 mt of certified organic.

By Liesl Truscott
Farm Engagement Director
Textile Exchange 

Find out more about BioSustain visit: http://www.biosustain.de/