Original article appeared in Inter Press Service News Agency on Tuesday July 6th 2021
– If you speak to farmers in El Salvador, many will tell you about the time they were driven to head north across Central America towards the US. The routes to the border are many, but the origins are so often the same: desperation and hope that better employment opportunities can be found elsewhere.
The faces you see of those arriving, in what could be the highest influx to the United States in 15 years, represent the reality in rural El Salvador, where so many people escaping poverty find only a dead-end.
Years of reliance on imported food has held back the development of the country’s agricultural sector, on which so many rural families rely. This has created a vicious cycle that suppresses the domestic market, limits job creation and forces rural workers to look to cities and other countries, particularly rural youth, who are reluctant to work in agriculture because they see limited returns.
For my family, producing on the land has been a way of life for generations, and I am familiar with the challenges that farmers face.
I also know that Salvadoran farmers need not face a binary choice of stay and struggle, or risk everything by moving elsewhere. Instead of carrying a bag of belongings to the border, harvesting a sack of vegetables can represent the way not only out of poverty, but into a position of security and even prosperity, and I have seen how this can work.
Agriculture can offer rural families a pathway to upward mobility and, as we believe at Acceso, a social agribusiness I lead in El Salvador, this is best achieved when the food value chain is “reverse engineered” from market demands backwards, prioritizing farmers’ interests.
By investing in small farmers to help improve their production to meet the demands of large local buyers, and developing solutions to aggregate their produce, we have shown how to create new and more secure incomes and livelihoods that offer rural communities a better alternative right here in El Salvador.
Dionel, a young farmer I work with in the highlands of Chalatenango, considered emigrating to the US seven years ago, but changed his mind when he found he was able to sell his produce consistently, and no longer had to rely on unpredictable informal markets.
For him, Acceso’s model created the market structure that provided income security and allowed his family to be empowered financially. For Dionel and others, this kind of investment in rural areas is vital because, as he says, “that is where the communities with the least job opportunities are found.”
Strategic investments into creating sustainable and profitable jobs can go a long way. Efraín, a 57-year-old farmer, knows this all too well. He has been to the US twice, but returned when he heard about improvements in the agriculture sector back home.
Now, he is part of our Acceso farmer network as well, benefiting from training on good agricultural practices and guaranteed market opportunities. The results speak for themselves: farmers have realized crop yield increases of more than 60 percent in just one year, while farmers’ incomes were more than 250 percent higher in 2020 compared to 2017.
It is not just yields that are increasing, but varieties too. Having started off planting chilli peppers, Efraín is now growing many more crops introduced by Acceso, which then aggregates the produce to sell to supermarkets and restaurant chains.
Increasing the number of crops has required more farm workers on his field, so not only has Efraín benefitted from diversifying his farm, others in his community have also been given the chance of a livelihood. Efraín’s goal is to see his business continue to grow, creating more opportunities for jobs, incomes and economic growth – and reasons to stay – for Salvadorans.
High quality, locally-grown produce is stocking the local supermarkets, something that wasn’t possible just six years ago when low volumes of produce were sourced locally by Acceso’s customers like Subway, Super Selectos, and others. Now, with more market structures in place, imports have decreased; for example, for Super Selectos from as much as 90 percent to less than 50 percent.
This has been made possible in part by Acceso’s work with farmers to improve access to quality seeds and affordable credit, which in turn has led to reliability and variety of produce.
New processing facilities have also meant that farmers’ produce can be handled, stored and packaged according to the standards required by major supermarkets and restaurant franchises.
Improving resilience throughout food value chains has proven to be critical. When the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns hit, certain market sectors, including restaurants and hospitality, slowed down.
Yet the continued reliance on supermarkets and stores for essential food meant farmers like Juan Carlos, who has worked with Acceso for seven years, could continue to benefit despite shifts in the market.
This stability means that he has continued to earn a living throughout the pandemic, and Juan Carlos no longer considers migration. For him, “staying in the country is the best option.”
The El Salvador I know is full of hard workers who want to prosper in their home country and see their children grow up and succeed. Ask many of the farmers I work with, who tried to migrate, and they will tell you that border crossings are often the last resort. Given the opportunity, they choose to remain or return to their homeland.
This logic can be applied to countries around the world. Instead of building walls, we should be building connections between farmers and markets for more secure jobs, economies, and prospects for rural families.
The vision of Acceso is simple: invest in opportunities, rather than barriers, and reduce the need for migration.
Acceso El Salvador, the leading smallholder sourcing company in El Salvador that sources more than 60 types of fruits and vegetables, and fish and seafood from smallholder farmers and fishers and sells to the largest national supermarket and restaurant chains.
By investing in small farmers to help improve their production to meet the demands of large local buyers... we have shown how to create new and more secure incomes and livelihoods that offer rural communities a better alternative right here in El Salvador.– Andres Baiza