By Peter Wilson, Food Security Policy, AusAID
Have you ever considered adding cement to your garden? It sounds like a strange practice but farmers throughout Fiji do it. And it is surprisingly effective. As Albert Einstein once quipped, “necessity is the mother of all inventions,” and nowhere is that more applicable than in Fiji.
On a recent visit to a small farm I saw Mr and Mrs Narayan pouring cement onto the soil in the hope of improving their crops. Why? Because years of intensive farming has led to soil acidity which in turn leads to low agricultural productivity. So in an effort to boost productivity farmers started using cement because of its high lime content. Farmers know that lime reduces soil acidity and cement is readily available. But cement has side effects; it is expensive and there are better ways to address the issue.
This is where AusAID’s Market Development Facility (MDF) enters the picture. The MDF uses the Making Markets work for the Poor approach and is based on the understanding that markets play a central role in the lives of the poor. It has been operating in Fiji for about 11 months and is designed to expand into other countries.
MDF partners with businesses that are willing and able to invest in change that improves business and benefits the poor. It was a limestone quarry in Fiji that provided the backdrop to illustrate what exactly this means and provides the link to the farmer pouring cement onto his soil. Limestone is currently being mined for use as aggregate in road construction in Fiji.
The MDF began discussions with the mining business about diversifying into agricultural lime. I’m told that through these discussions it became obvious that agricultural lime could be produced in Fiji at a far lower cost than both imported lime and cement, making it affordable to smallholder farmers and bigger farms that employ labour.
The opportunity was always there for the business to diversify into agricultural lime but due to a lack of information, skills or incentives, the opportunity was not realised. Negotiations are underway to overcome these barriers. Likely outcomes include a feasibility study to determine market size and retail distribution channels, and introduction of the technology required to produce agricultural grade lime. These would be funded under a cost-sharing arrangement between the MDF and the limestone mining business.
The MDF employs business advisors to make these deals happen. They are not foreign experts but locals with an eye for the trends, players and opportunities in the market place. Once opportunities are identified they negotiate agreements with interested businesses that support the ideas and strategies of each business partner. That way the businesses will continue to provide the market service after the MDF arrangements ends.
But none of this will be worthwhile unless we can show that it benefits the poor—that Mr and Mrs Narayan and thousands like them can buy agricultural lime more cheaply than cement, get better yields and increase the family’s income. To that end MDF requires that the bussinesses provide the MDF with data and information that it can use it to continually test and modify the program so that benefits reach the poor. This is done according to the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development (DCED) results measurement standard.
The limestone company is just one example. The MDF is negotiating similar opportunities with six other organisations in Fiji to provide market-based opportunities that address the needs of the poor. These include horticultural wholesalers and exporters, hospitality providers, agricultural input providers, and tourism industry groups. Other sectors, including textiles or office services, are under consideration given their importance in creating opportunities for the urban poor.
The MDF is new and the benefits to the poor not yet realised, so ‘concrete results’ may be a premature claim for the program. But I think we have concrete foundations in place to create income and employment opportunities. What do you think?
About the author: Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson works on food security policy at AusAID, focusing on rural market development and financial inclusion. He recently returned from Solomon Islands where he lived and worked for two and half years. At AusAID Peter has also worked on development assistance in East Timor, South Asia and China. Prior to working with AusAID Peter worked at CARE in Vietnam as a volunteer.