From rural farmer to food entrepreneur: a conversation with lead farmer Edgar Cancax
Edgar Cancax is one of the few smallholder farmers in Guatemala to receive a food safety certification from the Guatemala Ministry of Agriculture. Edgar has grown to become an entrepreneur in his own right. Moving from a modest, traditional brick and mortar packhouse in Guatemala’s highlands, now with his 150m2 food-safe InspiraFarms modular packhouse, he has expanded the family farm and diversified the business with a bustling 90-person food-safe certified processing operation.
How did you start the processing business on your farm and how has it grown?
This opportunity emerged when InspiraFarms brought the on-farm food processing facility to our community (Patzun, Chimaltenango) in 2014. From there, we were able to develop a project with our community, and it really helped us to see new business opportunities, such as transforming our own produce for a group of fixed clients and undertaking outsourced produce transformation (maquila) for other companies.
We started doing fresh produce transformation work for Alimentos Sumar, back in 2014. We achieved a total of “maquila” work for them of 60% of their production. But now we are no longer working with them as their operation changed and they are doing almost all their processing in their own plant. For a couple of years, we rented out the processing facility to a local agribusiness. Two years ago, in 2017, we retook the rural processing business when we connected with a new client, Planesa, a leading Guatemalan producer and exporter of berries, peas and other produce. And, since a year ago, we have also been working with two other clients, including Verdufrut which is also a Guatemalan agro-exporter of peas, and occasionally with Alimentos Sumar once again.
From there, our production in the field has grown, not at the level we were initially expecting, due to a long dry season, but we have been able to maintain 60-70% of value added produce to send to off-takers. Now we are processing about 15,000 pounds of snow peas daily, and about 10,000 pounds of sugar snap peas. We are processing day and night, with about 80-90 seasonal workers, working exclusively in processing. About 30% of those workers are women.
How is your business currently organized?
Several members of my family have joined the business and are helping me to run it. This is my personal business, but it is also providing jobs to a significant number of community members. My role is more administrative, and supervising the production in the field. In terms of quality supervision, we have sourced a couple of people locally who had previous experience working in quality control. With regards to our timetables, we work 4 days a week, so we have Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays off. The work delivery is guided by the demand, so for instance, sometimes a client sends the produce to transform and we are able to deliver the same day, then the next day another batch and so on. Depending on what we receive from clients, we also coordinate and manage our own produce that we need to transform and deliver.
This new business model has made you move from a producer to be an agro-entrepreneur. What changes and impacts have this opportunity brought to you?
The new business has changed us in different ways. One from a personal point of view and also from an economic side it has grown, and it has helped a lot. And now, we have accumulated knowledge and experience gained from the years of using the processing facility, and it is bringing the opportunity of value addition to our own produce and the ability to provide this as a service to others.
Before, we were just harvesting our produce and putting it into a truck that travelled a long distance to sell it to other companies. But now, the situation is different; we are making significant savings, with our produce travelling less, thus saving on fuel. This positively impacts the price of our production, and thus has an important economic impact on our community and us. Our producers have a closer location point to deliver to, which is reducing the logistical hurdles for mobilizing their production, and also reduces the risks of losing quality. Also, having processing capacities, through the facility and also through our knowledge and experience, this is bringing us new business and harvest opportunities that we didn’t have before.
What do you think are the key factors that allow farmers to participate in food supply chains through value addition? What would be your recommendations for other producers that aim to do the same?
First, you have to have the willingness to start a business. That in my view, is a personal decision, and means not being afraid, and being able to take on the potential risks. Often, people don’t even consider starting a business because they focus too much on the risks. So my advice is to be sure about what you want to do and what you think is possible. Also, you must be able to embrace new opportunities, which in my case, was deciding to join and participate in the project of InspiraFarms, with the collaboration of Alimentos Sumar and Fernando, for that first on-farm aggregation pilot back in 2014.
When I started to run the facility, if must say, I felt a bit scared. I worried that the business was not going to take-off and I was going to fail. But with time, that feeling started to go and we started to be more determined in exploring how to make the business succeed and grow.
What are your plans for the future?
First, we will be investing in a cold room for our facility, and secondly, we will focus on increasing our harvest to offer more produce to our customers.