By Stephanie Brittain
I recently attended an All Party Parliamentarian Group (APPG) meeting on ‘Sourcing from Smallholders’. This was the second in a series of round-table discussions to gather evidence for the APPG on Agriculture and Food Development’s inquiry into smallholder agribusiness development. One of the African entrepreneurs that spoke about her experiences of supporting smallholder farmers is Sylvia Banda, Managing Director of Sylva Food Solutions in Zambia.
Almost two-thirds of Zambia’s 14.5 million people live in rural areas, where most are engaged in smallholder subsistence farming. However, much of the food they produce is wasted due to a lack of markets for their produce and inadequate knowledge of effective food preservation techniques. The low demand for local farm produce is also driven by negative perceptions of locally-grown food. Sylvia has helped to change this perception by working with women smallholder farmers to teach post-harvest techniques, food processing, marketing skills and nutrition.
“Being the only employee and with no start-up capital, I had to ‘borrow’ the basic materials such as cooking oil, chicken, salt and vegetables from my own kitchen at home. I had so much to arrange that I didn’t have the time or the money to buy furniture. So, on the first day my customers ate standing up! I realised that I had forgotten to buy the tables and chairs. Quickly, I told them that they were having a standing buffet! ” she recalls.
Despite this, her restaurant was a great success. Years later, however, Sylvia was frustrated at seeing how imported food is preferred by the majority, particularly in urban areas.
“Imported food has less nutritional value and is more expensive than local food. This, combined with the poverty of smallholder farmers struggling to sell their crops locally, led me to shift my focus”.
She now works to empower local farmers and promote local food for poverty alleviation.
In 1986, Sylvia established ‘Sylva Professional Catering Services‘ with the intention of offering catering services for events including weddings, business meetings and conferences. In 1997, Sylvia also introduced ‘Sylva Catering Training College’ that expanded rapidly and now has 15 full-time lecturers and 20 part-time lecturers. The College now operates as a division under Sylva University’s Faculty of Culinary Arts.
In order to work more closely with local farmers and link them to local markets, Zambian law dictates that Sylva had to establish a for-profit organisation. Therefore, in 2003, she established Sylva Food Solutions (SFS) to help empower rural smallholder farmers via training and access to markets. By buying the crops from smallholders, processing the products and packaging them, she provides a viable way for rural smallholder farmers to market their indigenous crops and produce for both local and export markets. SFS allows farmers to organise into 16 out-grower schemes, or hubs, based on location, where they can help each other with challenges in production and ensure the quality of their produce. Further, recognising the challenges farmers face in terms of poor infrastructure and transport, Sylvia also established a ‘pay-forward’ system whereby farmers transport their goods to businesses and SFS pays for the cost of delivery.
Through SFS, Sylva has delivered post-harvest training to over 15,000 smallholder farmers in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, 95% of whom are women. The training includes methods of drying traditional vegetables hygienically, education on healthy food and the high nutrition value of the ‘unpopular’ indigenous foods compared to the trendy imported staples. More recently she has designed the Sylva Solar Food Dryer to for use by small-scale farmers to add value to their produce.
The hub structure and training was such a success that Sylvia was forced to innovate again when her farmers began to produce high volumes of surplus crops. The World Bank gave her a grant in 2013 to buy food processing equipment which she now uses to add value to traditional foods and to appeal to international markets and Zambian diaspora. She now produces canned free-range chicken and goat meat, vegetable soups, moringa tea bags and high nutrition porridge for school feeding programmes. The final products are packaged, exported and also commercialised to leading supermarkets in Zambia.
Following her interactions with smallholder farmers, Sylvia compiled a cookbook of remedies and recipes using crops and plants with medicinal properties – a bestselling cookbook called the ‘Zambian Cookbook’. In 2014, Sylvia finished constructing and registered ‘Sylva University‘ which employs 23 full-time lecturers and 26 part-time tutors. She expects to enroll 2,100 students per year when the university is in full operation soon.
Sylvia is an excellent example to demonstrate the transformative impact of training farmers and sharing knowledge and business skills. With more support, entrepreneurs such as Sylvia could improve local value chains and create more rural economic opportunities by linking farmers to markets and equipping them with the necessary skills to succeed.