Dutch expert visits rural farmers

HARARE - Retired Dutch farmer, organic specialist and PUM expert Coen De Berg was on a consulting visit to farmers in Rusitu and Chipinge last week.

De Berg, who landed in Zimbabwe because of a ZimTrade-PUM partnership, holds more than 40 years’ experience in organic dairy farming and horticulture production for the European market.

Small scale farmers working plots as tiny as half a hectare in Rusitu and Chipinge tapped his expertise as part of their ongoing journey to organic certification.

It is a tricky but necessary hurdle to clear as they strive to reach the lucrative European markets where organic foods are in high demand, and fetch a premium price.

The retired farmer followed farmers through the hills around Rusitu Valley to evaluate their crops and methods. A persistent drizzle typical of the region failed to dampen the mood.

Even through the mist, the beauty and fertility of the area was plain to see. Maize, pineapple, millet and potato fields are lined with citrus, mango, banana and macadamia nut trees, all heavy with fruit.

Arriving at the first plot high above the valley, proud farmer Langton Siyekaya (21) presents his fields to de Berg for assessment. He has worked extremely hard planting neat rows of pineapple suckers on less than one hectare of steep hillside.

Siyekaya and de Berg huddle together over the first soil sample of the day. de Berg is smiling.

“When you see me looking at soil, you will see me getting excited. Organic farming is about having a living soil, and this looks to me like a typical, healthy, organic soil. It’s beautiful,” he declares. He asks permission to dig closer to one of the plants, and his sample comes up with a fine lattice of roots clinging to the deep red earth.

“Look at these roots,” says de Berg, “They are well-spread, and are the reason these plants are healthy. Keep mulching as you have been, but spread your plants more for better yields.” Siyekaya is delighted and is smiling with his chest puffed out when he and de Berg later pose for photos in front of his house.

In his early assessments, de Berg is confident that the transition to organic will be possible for Siyekaya, and the other 1 500 Rusitu farmers that constitute the Rusitu Valley Fruit Growers Marketing Trust.

The Trust, in conjunction with export promotion body ZimTrade, are working hard to capacitate the farmers to export organic pineapples, hopefully within months.  de Berg says that their existing practices will help make the transition a smooth one.

“When we made the move to organic in The Netherlands, it was a complete change from a very chemical intensive approach. The use of chemicals here (Rusitu) is much lower, and so the transition can happen more quickly,” he said.

Tsitsi Mutandwa, market analyst at ZimTrade, says that ZimTrade research points to organic pineapples as being a lucrative and quick-win product for the European market.

“The EU consumes 46 percent of the world’s pineapples. Trade Map (an online research tool used by ZimTrade) indicates that the EU consumed 1,3 million tonnes of pineapples in 2016, 21 percent of which went to The Netherlands. We are also excited by the growth of demand from $210 million in 2012 to $235 million worth of pineapples in 2016 — a trend driven by supermarket sales of the fresh fruit,” said Mutandwa.

Additional data provided by ZimTrade indicates that organic fresh produce can fetch as much as 30 percent more than conventionally farmed produce available on Europe’s supermarket shelves. The growing appetite for organic is a great opportunity for small scale farmers in Zimbabwe.

Dudzayi Ndiyadzo, administrator for the Rusitu Fruit Growers Trust who are coordinating the farmers on the ground as they head towards certification, says that although the demand is there, there are still obstacles in getting their produce to market.

“We struggle with the roads. They are very bad, and our transporters can get stuck moving our produce, especially when it rains. Currently we are sending two trucks of bananas a week to Bulawayo, but because of the logistics, returns can be low,” he says.

De Berg is confident that market dynamics will eventually resolve this.

“If the farmers can provide a high quality organic pineapple, the road issue will eventually be addressed,” he says.

Other options to reduce the risks associated with fresh fruit logistics include the equipping of what is currently a factory shell in the heart of the valley to can or dry the fruit, though the current aim is to sell Rusitu pineapples fresh.

The PUM expert continued his visits through the week, affirming the work of many of the farmers, and directing those with room for improvement towards best practice for organic pineapple production.

He jets out of Zimbabwe next week after a debrief and knowledge sharing session in Harare with the ZimTrade team who will continue working with the Rusitu Fruit Growers Marketing Trust to get Zimbabwean pineapples overseas.

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