"Crate" ideas put quality in the box

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Getting good prices for produce is a worldwide challenge for smallholders. Covid has often made this even harder. Training and appropriate contracts can be a big help.

The pandemic-related challenges faced by Chinese smallholders are typical of those experienced by many low-income growers. Mianzhu, Sichuan Province, is an example. With travel restrictions and a weakened economy limiting job availability in urban areas, many Mianzhu smallholders have struggled to sell their produce at a reasonable price.

Kiwifruit is a popular local crop, but demand is volatile and production is vulnerable to labor shortages in orchards.

In addition, long-distance transportation of the fruit is associated with deterioration in quality. By selling kiwifruit directly to supermarkets, rather than to local fruit dealers, smallholders would be able to command higher prices – usually a 20 percent premium on typical rates. However, supermarkets require the fruit to be grown to an accepted quality grade and appropriately packaged. This is a challenge for many growers.

“When Mianzhu smallholders approached us about these issues, the Syngenta Foundation arranged a program to train approximately 1800 of them”, says Program Manager Yuwei Duan*. “The focus was on techniques to help them improve their kiwifruit production and attract the interest and confidence of lucrative retailers.”

That training is now paying off, with about 100 smallholders already selling selected fruit to supermarkets. The Foundation has linked smallholders to premium stores, encouraging them to also grow other crops in demand from urban shoppers. Such crops include sweetcorn and pumpkins. (See our recent article).

A contract with a large supermarket chain in Sichuan has brought double benefits. As well as selling considerable quantities of kiwi, many smallholders are also earning additional income as packers. “Around 100 women chose to pack fruit for the supermarket in the quiet, post-harvest period”, Yuwei explains.

“As a result, they have extra money to put towards savings or household improvements.” Subsequently, through a major fruit supplier, more smallholders have found extra work as packers of other fruits, such as longan (a fruit related to the lychee).

Ms. Tang – one of the smallholders involved – reflected on Yuwei on how the pandemic has changed her life. Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, she acknowledges how much she has developed as a result: “I feel the need to move forward,” she says. “I’ve learned and grown so much.”

*Yuwei is also one of our Diversity & Inclusion champions.