Mikestrathdee’s Blog

Mango time


Mango Time

Kenya vegetable packer helps small farmers expand into fruit production

By Mike Strathdee

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018

Jane answers questions best

NAIROBI, KENYA – Jane Maina has a plan to increase the incomes of thousands of Kenyan farmers, and diversify her own business in the process.

Maina, managing director and co-owner of Vert, aims to reduce her vegetable processing firm’s dependence on European markets, and replace some of her nation’s imports of one of its favorite juices.

Through a partnership with MEDA’s M-SAWA project, (M-SAWA stands for Maendeleo- Sawa, or Equitable Prosperity) –Vert aims to train subsistence farmers how to grow mangos and passion fruit that meet international standards.

Vert has focused on shipping and packaging green vegetables since it started 18 years ago. French (green) beans and peas are picked at farms one day, packaged at Vert’s plant the next afternoon, then put on a plane to Amsterdam that evening.

It started small with one or two shipments a week of one tonne at a time. In 2017, Vert shipped 1,300 metric tonnes of beans and peas.

The firm currently has 71 staff. Its entire production is exported to the UK, Netherlands, Denmark,

Germany and Belgium.

In 2013, the European Union brought in new regulations regarding the import of vegetables from Kenya to increase tests for pesticide residues. Because Kenya doesn’t have national regulations on this matter, 10 per cent of all of Vert’s shipments had to be pulled out for physical testing.

The testing adds 24 hours to the time from farm field to store shelf, undermining Vert’s goal of having products on shelves within three days of receiving them.


Many Kenyan mangos don’t make it to market

Maina saw an opportunity to pivot her firm in the face of these rules, and the uncertainty about future access to the UK due to that country’s Brexit plan to leave the European Union.

Farmers producing fruits and vegetables see up to 41 per cent of their mangos being wasted “year in and year out,” because they don’t make their way to market. Of Kenyan mangos that do make it to market, almost all are consumed domestically. The country imports most of its pulp for mango juice, and there are only six pulping plants in the country.

“The need for pulp was very clear,” she said, noting that as consumption of carbonated drinks dips, demand for fresh juices is on the rise.

Fruit pulping, primarily for the domestic market, is the value-added goal of the next phase of Vert’s evolution. “It’s mostly guided by the realization that we are over-relying on the European markets.”

Mango pulp is taken from second-rate fruit that cannot be sold fresh. Unlike the highly perishable raw fruit, mango pulp has a shelf life of up to 18 months.

In April, Vert will move to a new plant in Machakos, about an hour southeast of Nairobi, that is four times the size of the current 10,000-square-foot (932-square-metre) operation. One side of the plant will replicate its existing vegetable packing operation.VERT WOMEN WITH SNOWPEAS BEST

Vert shipped 1,300 metric tonnes of snow peas and beans in 2017.

A larger building will be dedicated to pulping mangos and passion fruit, as well as drying a variety of fruits, including mangos, pineapple and banana. Some of that dried fruit may make its way to North America later this year, once direct flights start from New York City to Nairobi. Vert has landed a private label contract for dried fruit with a major US retailer.

The biggest challenges for mango growers is the middlemen, who want to take the fruit before it reaches maturity, she said “If the farmers take on and sell the fruit (then), it means they will have less than optimal production.”

Middlemen often purchase mangos for five Kenyan shillings, (about five cents US), then turn around and sell them for 15-20 shillings, she said. “We seek to cut out the middleman.”

Doing this will allow Vert to control quality and improve margins both for Vert and its growers.

Matching grants offered by MEDA are very important to this project, as they close gaps that Vert could not do on its own, she said. Training of farmers to attain organic certification and maintain good agricultural practices that allow for full traceability of produce can be an expensive task. Without MEDA’s help, attaining annual renewable certification would cost more than either Vert or the farmers could initially afford.

“The fact the grants take care of this training cost for us is invaluable. We are then able to go in and provide the training with the support of MEDA, and make sure the farmers are using good quality produce, and we are then able to use these products, either for our drying line or our pulping line.”

Over the next three years, Vert hopes to work with 5,000 new farmers in addition to the 1,726 vegetable farmers that they currently have contracts with. They will also hire another 88 workers for their processing plant. Vert has consistently strived to engage women, both by requiring that groups at the farmer level select one female leader and practicing gender equality at all levels in its factory.smiling snow pea packer

Vert practices gender equity throughout its factory

Many of the farmers that supply Vert have plots of land of only one to two acres, including their home and the area where their animals graze. A mango farmers co-op that a group of MEDA supporters visited in January claims almost 470 members, a slight majority of whom are women.

Members of the group admitted that they need help with marketing, caring for trees and financing inputs for production.

Vert has had its own struggles when it came to financing growth. Local banks were not receptive to lending for Vert’s new expansion project, which cost $2.75 million US.

“It isn’t a very easy thing,” Maina said.

The firm needed patient investors for the expansion. Because Vert has earnings in hard currency, it could get equity investments from Belgian and French social investment firms. Equipment for the new plant is being debt-financed from a third European social impact investor. The company hopes to repay those lenders within seven years.

Maina’s life and business partner in Vert is her husband Maina Inderito. “We tend to stay as far away (from each other) as possible,” she said with a smile when asked about how they divide responsibilities at the company. He focuses on construction and getting increased production from farmers. She does finance, administration, operations and contracts with retail customers.

In the past four years, the number of women-led food processing firms has increased greatly. About 40 per cent of company heads in her industry are women, particularly among medium-sized firms.

She is quick to respond when asked what motivates her desire to work with more farmers. “Being able to put products out that are safe, that I know where they have come from, and by who they were touched,” she said. ◆


For a greener future
June 26, 2018, 7:59 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, Recycling, stewardship, Theology, Uncategorized


For a greener future

As printed in The Marketplace – May/June 2018

Kitchener group helps build more sustainable communities

By Mike Strathdee

Kitchener, ON — Mary Jane Patterson takes a long-term view when she describes the work of the environmental charity that she heads.

“It grows out of caring,” says Patterson, executive director of REEP Green Solutions. “Caring is in our vision. We believe by acting today we can leave our children a community that is more sustainable, vibrant, caring and resilient.”

A Catholic who is active in her local parish, she sees her work as being grounded in an expression of her faith. “There’s a sense of social justice in environmentalism, and recognizing that we have an impact on others in the way we live our lives. That is also faith-based for me.”

Patterson left a career in television production to enrol in a master’s degree in Environment Studies at the University of Waterloo in 1999. The environment faculty was using home energy evaluation software to do residential audits. Patterson was one of two people hired for the Residential Energy Efficiency Project (REEP). Audits cost only $25 back then, but drumming up business wasn’t easy in the early days, even with on-campus acquaintances. “People started ducking when they saw us coming down the hall,” she recalls.

Two years later, she became REEP’s manager, part-time at first. As the organization grew, it moved off campus, incorporated as a non-profit, and a few years later, became a registered charity.

Brendan and water tanksBrendan Schaefer, REEP House Facility manager, talks to a group about harvesting rainwater.REEP Green Solutions now provides services in many communities adjacent to the region where it was founded. It is one of a score of environmental organizations that are part of Green Communities Canada, a national association of community-based groups working with homeowners, businesses, governments, and communities for a sustainable future.

A nimble, highly entrepreneurial organization, REEP Green Solutions is often exploring new areas to provide service and generate funding for that work. About half of its budget comes from fee-for-service work and contracts with municipalities to provide services such as domestic water-use audits.

In addition to home energy efficiency audits and providing advice about worthwhile improvements, REEP Green Solutions advises homeowners on water conservation, RAIN Smart landscaping to manage runoff, waste reduction and related education around environment issues.

Storm water management is increasingly a concern for cities across North America. U.S. organizations working to educate people about best practices in this area include Blue Thumb in Minnesota, Riversmart Homes in Washington D.C.- Maryland, RainReady in Chicago, and the Watershed Management Group in Phoenix.

REEP Green Solutions operates and maintains the REEP House for Sustainable Living, a century-old property in a Kitchener residential neighborhood that has been upgraded to top level (LEED) energy efficiency. The site is a demonstration property where people can view several types of insulation, ground source heat pumps and other energy efficiency measures. Patterson is pleased with “all the things we show in the house that you can do in your own house (to reduce energy consumption).”

Solar panels, two large rain water cisterns that are used to flush toilets and irrigate plants around the house, and permeable paving are features of the property.

REEP House is also home to tours of school and university groups, as well as lecture series dealing with home energy use, upgrades and a variety of topics related to sustainable living, including green burials and electric vehicles.

The latter speaker series was “the beginning of opening our mind up to a broader vision of what we offer to the community.”

Wanting to reach people who aren’t homeowners, REEP launched a Zero Waste Challenge in 2016. This annual event asks people to try to send less waste to landfill. For five days, participants use a mason jar to hold all home garbage that would be destined for the trash. Refusing or reducing packaging, recycling and composting are all steps toward that goal.

RainGarden 33“The more we make requests of our vendors, the closer we will get to zero waste.”“The more we make requests of our vendors, the closer we will get to zero waste.”

REEP Green Solutions partners with Sustainable Waterloo Region (a group that helps businesses become more energy efficient) and the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge in Ontario in a collaboration known as Climate Action WR. That group will present a plan to area governments this spring on ways to achieve an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. Several other Ontario communities, including Toronto, Hamilton and London, have already set similar targets.

Patterson has seen her organization change and expand in reacting to what people say they need, or what municipalities or utilities are doing that they can support. Some programs have come and gone, including solar assessments, audits of church buildings, and helping rural landowners ensure their wells were being safely maintained (in response to a water contamination crisis in Walkerton, a rural Ontario community.)

New areas of emphasis include green infrastructure, helping people to put native plants in their yards and plant trees. She hopes the program will help people know what species to plant, where to put them and how to keep the trees thriving on their property.

REEP Green Solutions is as much part of a broader movement as it is a purveyor of individual services. Patterson acknowledges that staff efforts are multiplied by the support of a network of engaged volunteers, including the organization’s board, local students and community members. Even REEP’s volunteer co-ordinator is a volunteer. “This is work that is really meaningful to all of us working on it.”

Patterson is encouraged to see senior levels of government paying attention to climate change, “looking it in the eye and figuring out what we have to do.”

At the same time, while senior governments come and go, “the municipal level is where it’s at. This is where the work continues. That is really inspiring to be part of, and to see.

Growing vanilla in Tanzania
June 26, 2018, 7:43 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, gardening, Uncategorized, Work

Growing vanilla in Tanzania

2 Rehema and Martha KisangaRehema and Martha Kisanga grow over a dozen different crops on their three-acre farm.

MEDA partnership helps with irrigation, training

2 polinating by handVanilla flowers must be pollinated by hand.As printed in The Marketplace – May/June 2018

Like many Tanzanian farmers, Martha Kisanga has a lot on the go.

She grows a dozen crops on her three-acre property in Lyamungo Village in the Machame area of Tanzania.

Squash, corn, yams, coffee and bananas have been among the mainstays until the last few years, when she began growing half an acre of vanilla.

She has three dairy cows that supply milk for her household plus a bit more to sell to neighbors. The primary value of her cows is in the by- product. Cow dung provides a free source of fertilizer to promote the growth of various crops. She needs to buy more cows to have enough fertilizer on hand.

Kisanga is also a lead farmer who has received training from MEDA partner NEI (story on previous page). She works with other farmers in quarterly training sessions that include best practices in planting, use of mulching and bio-pesticides, reducing harvest losses, and where to take beans after harvest. She is paid for her time, which includes recruiting new producers, and has an incentive to ensure farmers she works with do well, receiving a percentage from their production.

She harvests between 15-20 kilograms (33-44 pounds) of vanilla pods annually. Vanilla is by far the most lucrative crop of the many she grows. Top quality beans, 17 centimetres (almost seven inches) or larger, fetch $30 a kilogram. Smaller pods sell for $20 a kg. Martha earned about $400 US from the vanilla she sold to NEI in 2017.

2 Neil Ashworth deputy supply chain manager for NEINEI staffer Neil Ashworth works with farmers.Vanilla has to be pollinated by hand, producing one bean per flower, a labor-intensive process. The plant flowers for three months. Six months later, the harvest starts, continuing between July and October. Vanilla vines are not terribly thirsty. But they do need a regular drink, about a litre of water per week. That’s increasingly a problem in some parts of Tanzania. There is a short rainy season of a month or two from the end of November to early January, followed by a couple of months without rain. A longer rainy season begins in April. Then it gets really dry again in September and October. Many crops can’t wait that long for water.

2 IMG 9426Harvesting rainwater for dry season irrigationClimate change is leading to more erratic weather patterns. Some years the short rainy season hardly comes at all. “Every year it’s different,” says Neil Ashworth, NEI’s deputy supply chain manager. “Some years you have heavy long rains, and other years, you miss the short rains completely.”

Getting water from a nearby river is neither practical nor sustainable.

That’s where MEDA and NEI come in, by helping farmers like the Kisangas harvest rainwater from the roofs of their homes into large plastic collection tanks.

The project will supply 300 farmers with tanks, giving them a dependable water source during the dry months. “The more that we can supply (with barrels), that have no access, or very little access to water on the farm, it makes a big difference for them, not only in terms of vanilla, but other crops,” Ashworth said. “They are able to water in the dry season. It helps them with their income.”

MEDA also does training to promote capacity-building. NEI provides vanilla cuttings to farmers, covering 80 per cent of the cost. Farmers pay the other 20 per cent. A two-metre vine takes four years to reach a harvest. ◆

Climate and Coffee – Kenyan firm helps farmers grow beans amidst changing weather patterns
June 26, 2018, 7:39 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, gardening, Generosity, Uncategorized, Work

Climate and coffee

CDD WORKER WITH SEEDLINGS 3 Women make up most of the workforce at Caffe Del Duca’s seedling nursery. Photos by Mike Strathdee

Kenyan firm helps farmers grow beans amidst changing weather patterns

By Mike Strathdee

As printed in The Marketplace – May/June 2018THIKA, KENYA — Arabica is the most popular coffee variety in the world, accounting for three-quarter of worldwide production by some estimates.

It’s also something that future generations will have to do without due to climate change, a Kenyan coffee expert suggests.

“Eventually, this type of coffee will disappear,” Elio Lolli predicted while giving a tour of his coffee plantation to MEDA supporters earlier this year. “It’s not (going to be) economically viable.”

Lolli, director of Caffe Del Duca, is looking for ways to develop new coffee varieties that will be able to thrive in the changing weather conditions.

A woman mixes coffee beans that are drying on long tables in the sun.Caffe Del Duca, located in Maboromoko- Thika, 26 miles north-east of Nairobi, works with thousands of farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to source quality coffee, roasting the collected product for local and export markets.

Through a recent partnership with MEDA, the company will work with 1,000 new farmers and 100 micro-enterprises in Western Kenya over the next two years, targeting an equal number of female and male entrepreneurs.

cdd OWNER SMILINGElio LolliLolli’s father came to Tanzania from Italy in 1954 to work in coffee, planning to stay for two years. “Since then, we’re still here.”

Throughout his working lifetime, Lolli has been involved in growing coffee and making machinery, including pulpers that reduce water consumption.

Climate change is a concern that forces the development of new coffee blends, including Italian blends. “We are actually seeing the climate change,” he said.

Caffe Del Duca used to get a late crop in November or December. Now they get the crop in May or June “which means the quality is going down, not up. Any good food or fruit, it takes a long time to ripen.”

In addition to declining quality, “it’s getting more difficult to produce because of the climate change.”

Finding the right moisture levels for coffee is challenging. If there is not enough rain, the beans become too light, Lolli said.

If there is too much rain, the coffee berries (also known as cherries) become diseased.

A woman mixes coffee beans that are drying on long tables in the sun.Historically, Kenya has had two distinct coffee crops, Arabica and Robusta, says Leonard Murwayi, a value chain specialist with the firm. Farmers have been marginalized as Kenya imports Robusta, so Caffe Del Duca is working to increase the domestic supply of Robusta.

Robusta coffee has generally been less favored than the Arabica. Robusta is more bitter and less flavorful than Arabica. Espresso in Kenya and Ethiopia has historically been 70 per cent Robusta and 30 per cent Arabica, according to Caffe Del Duca’s web site.

Over the past four years, the company has been working to create a nursery to cross-pollinate and create a Robusta coffee that is water resistant and high production.

Caffe Del Duca has 14 employees, two-thirds of them women. Women have better manual dexterity than men, making them better suited for working with seedlings, Lolli explains.

The partnership with MEDA will help Caffe Del Duca gain improved access to local, regional and international markets and strengthen the business capacity of the 100 entrepreneurs (coffee vendors) it works with.

It  will also train farmers in post-harvest operations for improved quality, using collection points and helping groups to acquire drying tables.  Soil conservation activities such as protecting water catchment areas will be stressed to prevent soil erosion.

A gender consultant will be hired to train both men and women on equity leadership, decision making, business development and financial literacy, including bookkeeping and tracking money. CDD will help entrepreneurs get the public health licences they need to enter the coffee business and assist some of them in buying subsidized coffee-making cans.

Some farmers will receive assistance in purchasing pruning tools, sack sprayers and affordable fertilizer.

Kenyan coffee growers prune their plants, something that is foreign to Ethiopian farmers. (In an unrelated consulting project, Lolli is trying to teach sustainable farming practices to Ethiopian growers.)

One part of the MEDA project targets one of Kenya’s most vulnerable populations — widows who are farmers. Caffe Del Duca will help widows to set up five demonstration farms and nurseries.

CDD SEEDLINGSCaffe Del Duca grows up to 100,000 coffee plants a year to produce disease-resistant varieties.Vulnerable widows have been identified by CDD and MEDA as a specific group that  will be targeted within the overall client population, says Lloyd McCormick, MEDA’s country manager for MEDA’s M-SAWA (equitable prosperity) initiative.

“Western Kenya was hit hard by the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the recent past, thus leaving a significant number of widows,” McCormick said. “The project will help a number of these widows access better livelihood opportunities (including) farming and small-scale vendor retail.”

Each new farmer needs five seedlings and a tree to provide shade to get into coffee production. Coffee bushes are intercropped with both food crops and shade trees. Plants take two years to mature enough to produce and will yield for five years.

A coffee bean (or cherry) is a seed of the coffee plant and the source for coffee. It is the pit inside the red or purple fruit.

CDD’s nursery grows plants from cuttings and seeds, producing up to 100,000 plants a year, focusing on varieties that are resistant to several diseases. “As the climate gets warmer, it (coffee plant) is more susceptible to leaf rust,” Lolli said.

Climate change is also increasing the size of insect pests. As temperatures increase, yields drop. Yields were down by 50 per cent in 2017, he said. “The taste varies from the date of the rainfall.”

Why Business Matters to God – And What Still Needs to Be Fixed
January 9, 2013, 9:50 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, Generosity, Investing, Theology, Uncategorized, Work

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)
Jeff Van Duzer Inter Varsity Press, 2010, 201 pages
For Van Duzer, business is about much more than the bottom line. “Business is intended to serve the common good by providing goods and services that enable the community to flourish and by providing opportunities for individuals to express aspects of their God-given identities through meaningful and creative work,” he writes in Why Business Matters to God.
The author is a lawyer and Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. His keynote address at the opening of the 2012 Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) convention of in Niagara Falls in November was by far the highlight of the event.
Van Duzer’s reflections on business and why it does matter as part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity encompass the scope of the biblical narrative – creation, fall, redemption and consummation. His incisive analysis will give pause to entrepreneurs and church leaders alike, for a variety of reasons. He persuasively explains why the cherished notion of the free market, for instance, is a post-fall construction, given its dependence on scarcity. His analysis touches on the role of a providing a living wage and care of the environment in conducting business, among other considerations. “Business must concern itself with redemptive as well as creative work.’’
The even-handed approach that he brings to this work is shown by the fact that early reviewers – business people and theologians, all found something different to pick at. “Business associates criticized the text as being too negative about business… My theology friends, however, argued just the opposite.”
I often read while traveling, but have never been asked by strangers about what I am reading. This book elicited questions from several people curious about its message. Well worth taking in at several sittings and pondering at length.

Time to stop burying high value recyclables
January 1, 2009, 5:45 pm
Filed under: Environment, Financial Management, Investing, Recycling
Time to stop burying high value recyclables – Wloo Regn Record

Can plunderers see the value in a discarded resource?
March 25, 2008
Mike Strathdee

The first sure sign of spring on Homewood Avenue appeared on Friday morning.

The man carried plastic bags in each hand, criss-crossing the street as he conducted a careful harvesting operation.

If this year is anything like last spring, summer and fall, others will soon follow, in a regular Thursday evening and Friday morning ritual. Last year, they came on bicycles, on foot, in old cars, and on one warm evening, a father and son team who brazenly used shopping carts to ensure that neither full arms nor bags would slow down their treasure hunt.

I’m not fond of these boulevard visitors, as they could be partly responsible for the region’s foot-dragging in rolling out an expansion of the promised residential green bin program.

On the other hand, at least these scavengers recognize something that eludes our municipal and regional politicians: a resource worth more than $2,000 a tonne is too valuable to bury.

The resource in question is aluminum cans, one of the few components of municipal recycling programs that fetch more than the estimated $216 a tonne cost of operating the blue box program, according to a recent Waterloo Region Record story on the blue box.

By stealing the most valuable commodity from curbside blue boxes, the roving can grabbers make the recycling program more expensive to operate, and by extension, more difficult for governments to contemplate expanding.

At least those cans aren’t bound for the landfill, unlike the majority of soft drink containers consumed in public in Kitchener parks and at summer rituals such as the multicultural festival. Look around in months to come, at trash cans brimming with high value recyclables, and rarely a recycling bin within walking distance, let alone nearby.

One estimate suggests that use of recycled aluminum saves 64,300-kilowatt hours per ton of recycled material. That saves as much as 96 per cent of the electricity needed to make virgin material.

Organizers of University of Waterloo’s Canada Day celebrations understand that people will not go out of their way to recycle. They make it easy by having recycling bins beside every garbage can. Municipal governments should copy and model this enlightened approach.

Requiring construction firms to make best efforts to recycle as a condition of getting municipal work would also be a big step forward. When our street was dug up two summers ago for the once-a-generation replacement of sewer pipes, our family collected an extra blue box of cans every week, merely by collecting the small fraction of the workers’ castoffs that we could carry on evening trips home from the neighbourhood pool.

Anything we did not pick up was generally gone by the time I left for work in the morning. Some days I’d get to see cans and bottles being bulldozed under, a practice a neighbour ruefully referred to as standard operating procedure on a construction site.

It’s long past time to stop burying material that is far too valuable to be plowed under.

Mike Strathdee is a Kitchener resident. Second Opinion articles reflect the views of Record readers on a variety of subjects