Lidia Guirguis: demystifying money for smallholder farmers

In Jeroen’s Breakfast Brief, Solidaridad Executive Director Jeroen Douglas listens to people who bring an interesting perspective forward in relation to the topic of sustainable supply chains. In this episode, he speaks with Lidia Guirguis, Country Manager for Solidaridad Egypt.

Lidia Guirguis has a uniquely global perspective, with Egyptian-Canadian roots, and deep connections to sustainable development in southern Africa; her enthusiasm shines through at the intersection of farming and business. Lidia has deep knowledge of building the business case for smallholders in Africa and helping them to become business savvy. “We are closer to the farmers’ side of the equation,” she tells me when explaining how financial literacy training should help farmers to become bankable.

Africa’s annual food import bill of $35 billion is estimated to rise to $110 billion by 2025. It weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.

Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank

For Lidia, the issue of sustainable business is never far from her mind. As she sits down to her breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, the conversation immediately leads to the African food security conundrum. According to Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, “…Africa’s annual food import bill of $35 billion is estimated to rise to $110 billion by 2025. It weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” I ask Lidia, “your coffee is most likely imported. Maybe even also your oatmeal. So, how do we get over this major hurdle so that Africa can feed itself?”

Lidia comes in clear: “There is a tension between survival and the urgency for more environmental production. Many farmers have immediate livelihood needs. When it is all about survival the green agenda is secondary.” She highlights the lack of options or capacity for farmers to tap into professional supply chains as they fight to even meet their most basic needs. “If you are in the middle of rural Zambia, what are your options, then?” And how do we begin to reconcile the issue of survival with the urgency to rethink African agriculture from a resilience point of view? Climate change, lowering yields, poor soil management, and lack of access to knowledge and inputs make survival more important than what is urgent. 

… it becomes urgent to build sustainable value chains with farmers in the driver’s seat.

Lidia Guirguis

But, from Lidia’s perspective, there is a business case to be made for centering smallholder farmers in tackling these issues. “Against the backdrop of these major challenges of growing population, growing urbanization and growing urban poverty, major climate shifts and indeed the growing food imports … it becomes urgent to build sustainable value chains with farmers in the driver’s seat.”

She highlights the case of cotton in Zambia: “Raw cotton goes to a local ginner—already out the hands of the farmer we support. The ginner brings the lint mostly abroad to the yarn and fabric makers in Asia. In these centers, it’s been transformed into high-value garments. And those garments come back to the periphery of rural villagers in Zambia. They are buying these garments as finished garments at exponential costs for a monthly income.”

Be it fashion, chocolate, coffee, or oatmeal, farmers are always on the wrong side of the supply chain. Their business case is ultra thin. How can we turn the tide and build local community wealth as an answer to the exploitative model of current capitalism? 

One solution, at least, lies with the soy farmers of Mozambique. The ‘Southern Africa Towards SoyBean Import Substitution’ programme ticks all the boxes. Growing local soy helps with import substitution. The poultry business allows soy farmers to convert soy into a higher value protein (poultry) so they make additional income and improve their nutrition. Feeding the continent with an improved business model is what inspires Lidia. The soy-poultry chain included forward integration, with farmers looking to become co-owners of the market interventions. 

Lidia explains the different components of the intervention. Most importantly is the financial literacy training. Solidaridad helps with the last mile, from a ‘Farmers First’ point of view. “We need to demystify finance, business and money. Farmers may think this is the work for MBA students, but it’s not. Basic record-keeping, budgeting, and also other data collection with smartphones is a stimulus for youth to remain involved in the local farming community.” 

Solidaridad helps farmers with their digital footprint for banks. Creating a documented footprint for the farmer in the form of a farmer profile is the first step to become bankable. Once business savvy, the sky’s the limit. With proper business knowledge and sufficiently financed businesses, farmers can connect their farms to local rural-urban food supply chains. Even connecting via family ties the farm to the city.

These programmes are what makes Lidia run faster. From Capetown to Cairo, like a modern female Rhodes. 

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