Henriette Sahengema exits a big cinderblock building happily counting new bills. In the midst of several farmers, she smiles.
This is the first time that she has had $280 US in her hands from selling maize. Amazed, she says, “I am happily surprised to touch this much money as a simple farmer.”
Mrs. Sahengema is 43 years old. A nurse by profession, she has been growing maize for the past seven years on a 25-hectare field in Rutshuru, in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is a member of the farmers’ group Kiwanja, which formed a co-operative three years ago to better market their harvests.
The farmers used to sell one 120-kg bag of maize for $15 US. They sold to local middlemen, who then sold their maize at a higher price in urban centres.
Mrs. Shahengema remembers that she was a bit skeptical about collective marketing in the beginning. But after the 2016 season, the farmers decided to bring together their produce. She says, “It was about 15 tonnes of maize and we stored it in one person’s house to sell later.”
The co-operative decided that a group of members would look for buyers in regional markets. They were able to sell a 120-kg bag of maize for $40, more than double the $15 offered by local buyers. The co-operative distributes the revenue based on how much maize each member has stored.
Mrs. Shahengema says she has always harvested about five bags or 600 kilograms of maize from her 25-hectare field, but that now she earns double or sometimes triple the amount that she used to make. She says, “I know the secret today: It is necessary to produce quality and quantity and then join with other farmers to store and then find a good market together.”
The marketing co-operative is known as COPROVEPA and has a hundred members who produce and sell agricultural products. They have a warehouse to store their grain, built with support from a local partner.
The co-operative has several management committees: a management board, a storage committee, and a farmer’s committee. These bodies carry out the instructions issued by the farmer-members during general meetings, which are held twice a year.
It is the responsibility of one committee to find new markets to sell their products, with the goal of improving the lives of farmers in Rutshuru. The co-operative counts the World Food Program and United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation among its clients. The two organizations recently purchased 280 bags of maize.
Lwanzo Lupeta paid $5 US to join the co-operative, and the 38-year-old does not regret it. Since 2016, he has added his harvest to the group three times to be sold collectively. His revenue has more than doubled.
For a long time, Mr. Lwanzo sold his maize to small local buyers. He remembers with bitterness, “I sold a 120-kg sack of maize at $10 or $15. The worst was the buyers who used traditional methods for weighing the maize.” They used a large aluminum bowl to estimate the weight, a form of measurement that is not accurate and leaves farmers feeling like they have been cheated.
Mr. Lwanzo says that collective marketing gives him a bigger profit and allows him to more easily pay rent and school fees and buy food for his family.
Sindibuve Fabien is the president of the co-operative. He says the group is drowning in applications from farmers wanting to join. The challenges are ensuring that all the harvested crops can be stored effectively enough to avoid losses, but most of all to sell them at a fair price. Buyers are demanding when it comes to quality, and the co-operative is training producers to meet their standards. Mr. Sindibuve says, “We ensure that the farmers have sorted and dried the product well before storing it on board pallets in our community depot.”
To lengthen storage time and protect the maize from pests, the co-operative uses Purdue Improved Storage Bags, also known as PICS bags. These bags have been developed to improve storage of grains like maize because they have a double lining that reduces losses from pests or moist conditions. The bags create a vacuum that kills pests by excluding the moisture they require to live.
With good quality maize, good storage practices, and direct connections with consumers, this co-operative is making sure farmers in Rutshuru get a good income from their hard work.