Farafena, a Vancouver-based company, is working with women smallholder farmers in Mali to grow and harvest grains and fruits. Through these efforts, the company strives to strengthen local markets in Mali, empower women farmers, and use agrobiodiverse farming practices.
Farafena–which means Africa in Bambara–was created around eight years ago by Oumar Barou Togola, a native Malian. “We decided to figure out what we could do in order to work with women in agriculture,” Kevin Wilson, the Vice President of Value Chain at Farafena, tells Food Tank.
Wilson explains that Farafena decided to focus on the production of fonio, moringa and baobab following consultations with women smallholder farmers in Malian villages. “It became apparent to us that there’s this wonderful grain called fonio, a grain that is gluten free, has a naturally low glycemic index, a protein profile, and a very good impact story,” Wilson tells Food Tank. “We also chose moringa because there is a market for it and baobab because it was available in many of the communities that we are working with.”
Farafena works to invest in women farmers to grow these grains and fruits by purchasing directly from them, helping them achieve financial independence. To do so, they purchase 80 percent of farmers’ products to be sold in North America, for which they pay their farmers double the market price for their products. The remaining 20 percent are left to be sold locally to ensure farmers can also access the foods they grow. So far, Farafena has helped over 850 Malian women access global markets.
Fonio, moringa, and baobab are three of the 25 crops that the Lexicon highlights in their Reawakened Foods Initiatives. The initiative aims to raise awareness of these crops through the power of storytelling. They hope to diversify crop production and consumption to improve local economies as well as human and planetary health. One of the case studies of Reawakened Foods focuses on Farafena due to the company’s work with fonio and their approach to agrobiodiversity.
Carlo Fadda, Director of Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture in the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), explains that agrobiodiversity is essential for planetary health. “Agrobiodiversity is a crossroad to address the four crises–climate change, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and nutrition,” Fadda tells Food Tank. “All of these four crises are interconnected because they are all linked to the way we produce and consume our food.”
To support the Lexicon’s work, the Alliance is providing technical and scientific expertise and is “defining the ten principles for agrobiodiversity, developing case studies related to agrobiodiversity, and organizing an agrobiodiversity conference,” he tells Food Tank.
But for agrobiodiversity to succeed, Fadda says a focus on conservation alone is not enough. “The farmers need to eat. You need to create a favorable market environment for that agrobiodiversity so that it can be a significant contributor to the livelihood of farmers,” he tells Food Tank.
This is why, until recently, Farafena focused on strengthening markets within Mali, before transitioning to agrobiodiversity. Then in 2019, Farafena obtained organic certification for their products.
Once the local market is developed, “we want to go beyond not just not causing harm, and actually [be] a part of a regenerative process,” Wilson tells Food Tank. They have plans to introduce multi-crop, multi-farm, agroforestry, and agrobiodiversity in the Malian farms. These practices have a number of advantages, including promoting healthy soils, food and nutrition security, and adaptation to climate change.
As Farafena grows, they hope to promote the social benefits of agrobiodiversity, including women empowerment. “Agrobiodiversity can really be something that can generate a lot of revenue and jobs for the youth and women, and address a lot of inequalities,” Fadda tells Food Tank, “and from my view it’s really important that it becomes central to agricultural policies.”
Wilson explains that Farafena is “trying to uplift the lives of women by removing the obstacles and the system barriers which have hindered their full participation in society,” he tells Food Tank.
Farafena is also committed to operating a fully transparent supply chain. The company can provide consumers with information on the products’ origins, how it was produced, and the farmer who grew it.
With all these elements of transparency, empowerment, and agrobiodiversity, Wilson tells Food Tank, “our hope for the future is that we will be able to provide a platform that will become the de facto standard for how you engage with smallholder farmers in local, regional and global supply chains.”
Photo courtesy of 2 Photo Pots, Unsplash