Smallholder Organic Fresh Produce Exports: Lessons from GreenPath Food in Ethiopia

Interview to Ele Gower, Sales & Marketing Manager, GreenPath Food

GreenPath Food is an Ethiopian agribusiness that supplies premium quality organic certified produce to the European and Middle Eastern markets. One of the few agribusinesses in East Africa, GreenPath Food grows organic produce using the latest thinking in agro-ecology and regenerative agriculture, with production led by smallholder growers.

It primarily exports legumes, perennial fresh-cut herbs, chilli peppers and avocados. Depending on the season fluctuations, GreenPath Food can export around 20 tons per week of organic produce. The company partners with more than 150 smallholder farmers, most with plot extensions of just under half a hectare. When partnering with GreenPath Food and dedicating their plots to organic production, farmers receive credit for inputs and technical assistance on the field in order to comply with European Union organic certification. GreenPath Food also takes care of the quality control and manages the process of sorting and grading in order to reach required standards, and deals with the export process.

GreenPath Food has a very strong commitment to work with smallholder farmers and enable them to enter and participate in export supply chains that are usually inaccessible for them. Starting in 2020, the group of partner farms will increase to 250.

What are your current export markets? Do they have equal complexity in terms of processes?

Our current export markets are the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and the UAE. As markets, they all are very different and they all offer different benefits and challenges to growers like us. In terms of regulation, of course, The Netherlands, Germany and the UK are currently very unified. However, although the regulation is the same, each plant health office and each port can do small things differently. For example, in some plant health offices it is required to present a simple scanned copy of the certificate of import, while in others, it is necessary to present the physical document ahead of time in order to clear the system.

The UAE has similar phytosanitary standards to Europe. For example, the recent controls around capsicum were also applied to the UAE, but the way that it is managed is slightly different, with different registration processes such as needing to send a certificate of origin every time. So there is a learning curve.

What is the most challenging aspect of the process of exports?

In my sales and marketing role, probably the most challenging aspect is finding the right balance between good service and committing to fulfilling all the requests of our customers. But at the same time, as a grower operating in a more challenging territory, it’s really important to remind your customers that farming is a physical act, and as such it carries risks and it is not possible to have total control. Achieving the balance between customer expectations and risks is challenging but it is the fun part of what we do. Communicating well and early is the most important thing you can do to maintain customers trust.

How do you deal with phytosanitary certifications? Has it been a complex process for you, considering the current regulation changes?

We rely heavily on market news and trade press, as they provide important information on prices, trends and regulation changes, including the technical aspects. So my recommendation is to be constantly updated using different sources of news. The second most helpful thing is to have good connections with import agents in the countries where you are distributing. Most of our client’s agents are very proactive about sharing news on how regulations are changing and helping us to be ahead of the curve. This allows us to give our full attention to the export process and the freight, without worrying too much about the import process.

The capacity to provide steady volumes is one of the barriers in export. Considering you source from smallholders and engage with international clients, how do you manage to achieve the expected volumes?

In our case, having so many small supplier farmers is actually a strength. We maintain a close relationship with our farmers that goes far beyond just sales. Our approach is that for every 25 farmers, we have a dedicated staff member who does frequent site visits, and provides very tailored agronomic advice and support for them. We also manage the quality control and the distribution of seedlings from our nurseries, which allows us to have a very clear picture of what is going on in the ground. We e are able to provide what is necessary for the farmers to succeed with their planting. We then build our production projections using real data gathered from each farmer’s land. The close relationship and trust with our partner farmers allow our staff to gather data and have a clear picture of what is expected to happen on that land, which is key for planning ahead.

The ease of planning also varies according to the type of crop. We have products with which we have significant experience in growing, so our ability to estimate and forecast is strongest for these. So working closely with farmers and focusing more on familiar crops allows us to plan our seasons well.

 What is your strategy and process for identifying and engaging with export clients?

It has been really helpful to have the support of organic certifying bodies, which are taking a more active role in business development for their clients. Additionally, you can do your own research into organizations by consulting their websites and directories, where you can see who are their members and their customers worldwide. Another strategy is getting support from trade agencies. In our case, we were very lucky that we were connected with the IPD – The German Import Promotion Desk, who identified several Ethiopian agribusinesses to support to enter the European market. In our case, they have invited us to trade fairs, they’ve connected us with fresh produce traders, and they’ve organized buying missions to Ethiopia. We got the opportunity to meet the traders, to show our facilities and farms, and get them excited about our story, such as the social impact that our business has.

So my advice is to seek opportunities to meet your potential clients in person. For instance, meeting them at a trade fair is a great first step, but even better is to get people coming out to visit you in your facilities, understand the reality of where you are operating, meet the full team and be excited about doing business together as a result.

One of your clients in Europe is ElbeFruit in Germany, with whom you built a solid partnership. How did you get connected with ElbeFruit and what has been the key aspect for succeeding in a trade partnership?

The first link with ElbeFruit, a German importer, was through a buying mission in Ethiopia, organized by IPD. We first met in Ethiopia, but we took some time to get started, as we were not ready in terms of production volumes. So one year later, we met again in Berlin, at Fruit Logistica. They’ve been an amazing partner for us. It is worth mentioning that they were not trading organic before, but when they came to Ethiopia, they were so impressed and excited by the way we are growing and the way we operate with the community, that they decided to open a new business line and start building out organic sales. It showed an amazing vote of confidence. I believe the partnership has worked so well because we have maintained very open and honest communication. It truly feels like we are on one team rather than two businesses in a trade relationship. Also, they have paid significant attention to our challenges, by giving us tailored technical support such as connecting us to their production managers in Guatemala and doing shared marketing efforts in Fruit Attraction. A long-term commercial partnership is one that takes into account all the processes happening at the source, such as planting, and not just harvesting and shipping.

You recently invested in a food-safe packhouse and cold storage in Butajira, Ethiopia. How has this helped the logistics and certification compliance?

Opening our new packhouse and cold storage has definitely been a turning point, which has allowed us to move forward quickly with certifications. Our new packhouse with an integrated cold room was built HACCP mid-care compliant, so it has efficiently upgraded our processes regarding quality control, packing and temperature management. I’m very proud to see us grow fast and sustainably and the packhouse extensions are one way of measuring that. By mid-2019, we had unveiled our 240sqm packhouse. By the middle of 2020, we will add another packhouse of the same size, with cold storage, reaching 480sqm total. The modularity of InspiraFarms is a great thing for an ambitious business growing fast, as you can add more space and adjust the infrastructure according to the growth and needs of your business.

What is your main recommendation for other agribusinesses who aim to start exporting?

Build your network in order to learn. For instance, building a network of agents in the country that you operate in to better understand the logistics and distribution; listening to and learning from other farms that are also trading; investing in attending trade fairs, and, if you have the chance, schedule as many meetings as possible or just walk around and learn.