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How Dutch Entrepreneur Built ‘Shares Uganda’, An Organic Farm in East Africa

Dutch Entrepreneur, Marck van Esch has built ‘Shares Uganda’, an agribusiness company, which specializes in exporting chia seeds, sesame seeds and bird’s eye dried chillies from Uganda to Europe.

Van Esch decided he wanted to build a career in agriculture when he was backpacking around Africa after finishing high school in his home country, the Netherlands. Working on a mission in Kisumu, Kenya, his interest was piqued.

He returned home, studying in the evening to obtain the required permits to enroll in a tropical agriculture program at the university. He has been involved in organic farming since he graduated in 1987.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Van Esch initiated projects to grow organic cotton in various regions – India, Turkey and South America – by working the cotton for his company’s textile line. “Around that time, I got in contact with a group of people who wanted to start organic cotton cultivation in Uganda with the help of Swedish donor money,” he says.

The Lango cotton project partnered with Van Esch, who already had buyers, to secure a market for cotton. “When you work with organic cotton, you also have to consider rotating crops as part of the organic farming system and that’s when we decided to include sesame in Uganda,” he says.

“However, to scale the cultivation of sesame and control its quality, it is necessary to establish a processing factory for cleaning the seeds with high purity (natural fumigation). We then worked to put it into action and in 2002 a factory was commissioned that can process and clean any high purity seed or grain, up to 99.95%.

The factory, 20 km from Kampala, includes a natural fumigation system ideal for organic processing.

Develop the offer

Equities Uganda always has and will continue to source from smallholder farmers. The company provides training to farmers through qualified field officials. Through a contract with farmers, it guarantees the purchase of all income crops.

The company no longer focuses on cotton, with strong competition in that market making the company unsustainable in the long run. Now he procures sesame seeds, bird’s eye chili, and chia seeds from his contract farmers. Van Esch explains that the company has built up good relationships in Uganda over time, which helps to find farmers to supply in Shares Uganda.

When Shares Uganda wants to settle in a region, it first investigates whether it can find producers who are already organically growing. It also checks whether potential contract farmers are in line with the requirements of organic certification in terms of the use of pesticides.

“Then we reach out to local leaders at all levels and present the program, including by putting out radio announcements. Sometimes we start with demo fields first. You have to show the farmers that this would be an interesting business for them. “

Sometimes having a contract with a farmer still doesn’t guarantee supply, admits Van Esch. “At the end of the season, if there is another party offering a higher price than what we agreed before the season, it could sell to the highest bidder. We try to fight it by making sure that our position in the area and in the community is strong. “

Why sesame, chia and chilli?

Van Esch says sesame was a clear decision as it was already grown by smallholder farmers.

Bird’s eye chillies, on the other hand, work well because they are easy to combine with other plants such as beans. “By the time your perennial chili bush has grown, you may have already had two harvests of beans. You can also plant the chili peppers in a ring around your field as a pest repellent, or soak the chopped peppers in water and use them as natural pesticides against soft-bodied insects, “adds Van Esch.” These are the things we teach children. our farmers “.

Chia is currently bringing a lot of money to farmers. South America, the main producer of the crop, had a bad season. This means that many buyers are looking for alternative suppliers. “Suddenly we have requests from all over the world. How long it will last, we do not know, but farmers will be able to benefit from it next season. “

As it is a short-cycle crop, farmers can respond quickly to market demand and collect the highest prices.

Organic potential vs safety against malaria

To protect its organic certification, Shares Uganda has had to shift its agricultural hub twice since its inception. Each time it was because of the government’s indoor residual spraying program (IRS) aimed at eradicating the prevalence of malaria in the country.

“The Ugandan government used dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to spray the walls of the huts where people live,” says Van Esch. “If you spray DDT inside those huts, where our farmers were also storing their crops, you could get cross-contamination that could result in the loss of our organic certification.”

In 2008, Shares Uganda had to abandon its original site and all small farmers who had settled there as a result of the spraying program, and move to another district in northern Uganda to rebuild. (The company has since re-engaged the original farmers to supply her with conventional and non-organic crops.)

But it wasn’t long before the Ugandan government took the IRS program to the new Shares Uganda organic base and had to relocate once again, this time to the West Nile sub-region in northwest Uganda.

“Unfortunately, there is a new IRS program in the West Nile area. It has been postponed due to Covid-19, but sooner or later it will happen. We are just continuing and hope to buy the next crop again in December. You can clearly see how difficult it is to establish a certified organic program here. Uganda has a great opportunity when it comes to organic production and the organic market, but because it is not taken seriously and unprotected, the whole of Uganda and all the many small farmers miss this opportunity. “

Risk hedging: enter the conventional market

To remain sustainable and continue to grow, Shares Uganda had to move from being entirely dependent on certified organic products and moving to the conventional (non-organic) agricultural product market.

With this market in mind, it continues to purchase all three crops from regions where it can no longer guarantee the biological integrity of the supply chain due to the IRS program. “When we first went through the conventional way, it wasn’t a joy for me. But over time, I saw the opportunity to distribute the risk ”.

Finding global buyers

Van Esch attributes the company’s success in securing buyers to its experience in trading certified commodities over the past three decades. “We have never had a problem finding customers. I think it’s a combination of knowing the market and building a good track record. It’s always important to make sure you can provide your customers with a product they really need and that meets all the requirements, “he says.

Actions Uganda is FSSC 22000 certified, one of the highest food safety standards available. “We have also been certified for fair trade for a long time. We invite our customers to Uganda so that we can show them what we are doing, which is more important than just having certification ”.

Building a successful value chain

For anyone interested in setting up an agricultural commodity business, Van Esch has some advice.

“It is necessary to establish whether there is a demand in the market and the standards required for the raw material. So create a reliable supply from the farmers themselves, instead of buying from agents where you don’t have control over what is happening in the field.

“Quality control and audits at all different levels are also crucial,” he says.

Thirdly, Van Esch stresses the importance of having a processing system capable of guaranteeing consistent quality.

“You don’t want to expose yourself to a nasty surprise and lose a customer. It’s like everything; a method for learning by doing. Each commodity has its own specific challenges that you need to understand to ensure good quality delivery. “

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