Original article appeared in Agrilinks on Tuesday July 30th 2021
Sliced tomatoes, diced onions, chopped lettuce — the foundations of a delicious sandwich or salad. Until recently, purchasing any of these in El Salvador’s bustling capital city meant these ingredients would most likely have been grown, processed and transported from hundreds or even thousands of miles away from another country — despite the fact that many in the country cultivate the land for their livelihoods.
Surging demand at high volumes and stringent quality standards for high-quality processed produce have made it difficult for El Salvador’s smallholder farmers to keep up. This is changing, however, thanks to an innovative approach by social agribusiness Acceso El Salvador (Acceso), with support from Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, that is equipping smallholder vegetable producers with tools to connect to the country’s burgeoning high-value agricultural opportunities.
In Chalatenango, a rural area located about 30 miles outside the bustling capital city of San Salvador, smallholders like Marlon Dagoberto are hard at work cultivating their crops. As a member of Acceso’s farmer network, he is able to obtain high-quality and disease-resistant seedlings, affordable credit, technical trainings on quality control and food safety and other types of vital support.
The assistance bolsters his productivity throughout the growing season, as well as his confidence come harvest time — the lettuce he grows will reach a guaranteed market, like local supermarkets and restaurant chains, and garner a competitive price thanks to Acceso’s commercial relationships. In fact, a recent survey found that Acceso’s technical assistance generated a 63% jump in productivity for farmers in their network. While they are not required to sell their produce back to the social agribusiness, most farmers choose to do so, reflecting their desire to continue receiving quality technical assistance, accessible and affordable inputs and consistent and fair market prices.
While the presence of COVID-19 in the country has brought significant challenges during the past year, Acceso provided stability for its farmer network. To date, Acceso has achieved sales of nearly 10 million pounds of vegetables to supermarkets and restaurants through its collaboration with Partnering for Innovation. The business is also continuing to support farmers in its network by ensuring that unprocessed vegetables — currently in high demand due to their longer shelf life — are reaching markets. As mobility and access restrictions begin to ease, Acceso anticipates achieving more than 10 million pounds of processed lettuce and 500,000 pounds of washed potatoes over the next five years.
Tapping into New Opportunities
With support over the past two-and-a-half years from Partnering for Innovation, Acceso is expanding the ways it connects smallholders in its network to new opportunities. The business built the first-of-its-kind Community Processing Center in the country, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment — one to process lettuce and other vegetables, and the other to wash potatoes. These enable produce to be processed, stored and packaged according to the standards required by major supermarket chains and restaurant franchises.
Farmers like Marlon are very optimistic about the impact the processing facilities will have on their livelihoods. “The processing center has the necessary technology for all the steps required and demanded by the markets,” he said. “It is also a good space for producers to be able to transport our vegetables to without any complications, [allowing] greater economic growth to be achieved locally.”
The processing center has also boosted skills development predominantly for local women who work there. “We are getting more opportunities to grow as employees, since the center is outfitted with both processing areas and [new] machinery, which requires us to develop higher skills and experiences,” shared Elsa Méndez, an Acceso employee.
Additionally, Partnering for Innovation supported Acceso in accelerating efforts to develop new business opportunities, particularly in the restaurant, food service and hotel industries. These markets offer exciting potential to reach new customers and increase volumes of processed vegetables, which in turn directly benefit network farmers. Understanding the market landscape for these opportunities and crafting a strategic plan to effectively engage them requires specialized expertise.
With that in mind, Partnering for Innovation supported the short-term hiring of a local professional with extensive experience in the food services sector to help accelerate business development and sales efforts. Following a successful consultancy, Acceso decided to hire the individual on a full-time basis to further develop and manage new customer leads, enabling it to become more competitive and to diversify its customer base over the long term.
At a time of great opportunity, reliance on imported produce has only stymied growth of El Salvador’s agricultural sector. The partnership between Acceso and Partnering for Innovation, which successfully concludes this month, has helped to unleash a market-focused agricultural transformation in the country, with smallholder farmers squarely at the center and delivering high-quality, traceable and competitively priced produce across the country and beyond.
This article is co-authored by Andres Baiza, managing director of Acceso El Salvador, and Laura Harwig, director of USAID’s Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation program.