USAID has been working with Myanmar farmers to upgrade their value chains.
In this interview with Mr. Nimish Jhaveri, Chief of Party, USAID Value Chains for Rural Development, we examine how USAID and Winrock International has been helping farmers with coffee, melons, ginger, sesame and other crops for a more sustainable and profitable business.
Please can you tell us about Winrock’s work in Myanmar?
Winrock has been active in Myanmar since the mid-1980s. One of our first programmes in Myanmar was to offer educational opportunities to senior agricultural researchers in the United States at the Master’s or PhD level. I believe we had 20-25 graduates by the time the programme was concluded in 1988. Since then, Winrock has implemented several USAID agricultural projects addressing challenges for farmers and agricultural value chains.
How do you view Myanmar’s social, agricultural and environmental challenges?
It is a tough job being a farmer in Myanmar. Climatic risks here are among the highest in the world – for example among 184 countries ranked in the 2019 Global Climate Risk Index, Myanmar comes third, which translates to high uncertainty in agricultural costs, yields and market prices. In addition, social conflict is affecting about a third the country, introducing additional risks such as labour or service shortages, or product spoilage due to roadblocks or border closures. Together, these factors reduce the farmer’s competitiveness and ability to establish long term customer relationships. Of the many of the environmental challenges related to agriculture, the Myanmar Government has begun to actively develop programmes to address farmer practices, by introducing and certifying production adopting “good agricultural practices” or GAP in agricultural commodities. Through USAID, Winrock has coordinated with them to introduce and implement GAP in four different commodities and are seeing that these practices are contributing to environmentally sustainable farming and farmer health while also capturing higher prices from customers.
As we know, a large percentage of the Myanmar population works in agriculture and the countryside. What are the specific challenges in the agricultural sector?
In many rural areas, farmers face traditional challenges such as access to roads, power, fuel and water for millennia. Particularly in hilly regions, farmers are more isolated, and important farm and financial services have been unavailable. For access to higher value markets, farmers now also need better market information, technologies to increase productivity, new market channels to higher value customers, better quality inputs, affordable financing, and access to agricultural processors serving high-end markets. To address these challenges, our USAID project focused on generating breakthroughs from activities farmers could control, and a key part of this strategy was to promote learning directly from end-customers and organizing farmer organizations to deliver services to farmers.
One area that Winrock is focused on is Value Chains for Rural Development. Can you tell our readers why this is so important?
USAID’s Value Chains for Rural Development project promotes farmer prosperity in rural areas of Southern Shan and the Central Dry Zone. We work directly with over 48,000 coffee, ginger, soybean, melon and sesame farmers in these areas and over 60,000 through partners in other regions. In each of these sectors, our approach to increasing rural prosperity was to form inclusive partnerships between suppliers of agricultural inputs, farmers and agri-processors, working together to meet the needs of their end-customers. Organizing by value chains marks an important shift for individual farmers, since participants must adhere to common quality standards, aggregate production and coordinate post-harvest processes with agri-processors. If successful, value chain partners can differentiate themselves by producing unique, lower-cost products to serve higher-end markets, significantly increasing prosperity for agricultural workers. In the case of VCRD’s ginger value chain, Myanmar farmers learned to produce chemical free ginger and export it to customers in Europe, generating a 400% higher profit than before.
Winrock has programmes focused on improving the value chains for such crops as coffee, melons, and sesame. Could you tell us about these programmes?
Improvement programmes were based on the biggest opportunities to improve each value chain’s performance. For example, the work in melons was implemented primarily through our implementation partner, the Myanmar Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Producer and Exporter Association whose main emphasis was to improve on-farm productivity, establish national product standards and address on-going challenges with cross-border trade. On the other hand, for the coffee value chain, we worked closely with local partners like the Myanmar Coffee Association and local processors to help farmers reach international quality standards, change harvesting and post-harvesting practices and introduce new processing technology, as well as community financing and international marketing. In the sesame value chain, we’ve worked with the Sesame Farmer Development Association to improve farmer productivity and develop a farmer-controlled collection and post-harvest processing channel to deliver a GAP-certified, high quality product to international buyers. In all cases, this work involved support to new or evolving farmer organizations, sometimes at the village level or township and national level, with adequate capacity for governance, service and for leading improvements in each value chain.
The need for gender equality is important in Myanmar. What does Winrock do in terms of giving women a role in the value chains?
USAID’s Value Chains for Rural Development project fosters not only entrepreneurial opportunities for women, but leadership and empowerment generally for women and people from different regions and ethnic groups across all five value chains. Since the start of the project in 2014, VCRD had trained more than 48,000 individuals, about 32 percent of whom were women. Of those women, our year-end surveys indicate about 96 percent are farmers. Encouragingly, we have found that women are now increasingly participating in household-level decision making on important matters including adoption of new farm technologies and management practices. For example, in the first few annual surveys completed post-harvest in 2019 in the melons, sesame and ginger value chains, about 45 percent of producers reported making joint decisions (male and female household members making decisions together) about crop cultivation and use of technologies, up from about 29 percent in 2018. That shows a shift toward increased inclusion and involvement of women in the business of agriculture. Our USAID project, working closely with local partners, also has opened channels for women leaders. We’ve seen in the past year, for example, establishment of the new Myanmar Women’s Coffee Alliance, part of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. Women-owned processing businesses have become industry innovators and champions for improved industry standards both in production and at the processing level. We work with the May Doe Kabar Myanmar Rural Women’s Network, which is now promoting improved soy practices to its nationwide network of women Self-Reliance Groups. Women are also now leading farmer groups and trade associations, proving that experimenting with improved practices and technology, and striving to reach international standards and follow best practices for producing and processing safe, quality products leads to better prices for farmers through premiums, and opens new markets.
A number of programmes have been completed. Can you tell us where Winrock is in terms of the programmes you rolled out in Myanmar?
Winrock completed the five-year USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Myanmar in 2018 and will conclude the Value Chains for Rural Development project at the end of this year.