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September 25, 2008

UN to buy food aid from small scale farmers in Africa, Central America

More than 350,000 small-scale farmers in Africa and Central America will soon begin selling produce to the UN in an initiative that could transform the way food aid is purchased.

Announcing the five-year $76m (£41m) pilot project, the UN's World Food Programme said it would buy surplus crops from low-income farmers in 21 countries to help boost fragile economies. The food will be used for regional hunger emergencies and safety net schemes, such as school feeding projects.

While the WFP currently buys about 80% of its stocks locally in the developing world, virtually all of it comes from traders and large-scale farmers who can supply significant quantities of staples such as maize, sorghum and beans.

"The world's poor are reeling under the impact of high food and fuel prices, and buying food assistance from developing world farmers is the right solution at the right time," said Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director, who described the Purchase for Progress scheme as a "win-win."

"We help our beneficiaries who have little or no food and we help local farmers who have little or no access to markets where they can sell their crops."

Charitable foundations established by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, are funding the project, which targets some of the world's poorest countries, including Sierra Leone, Malawi, Ethiopia and El Salvador. It is expected that 40,000 metric tons of food - enough to feed to 250,000 people for a year - will be purchased from small-scale farmers in the first twelve months.

The farmers who sign up will be required to form into local collectives, and to set up a bank account in the group's name. The usual UN requirements for the growers to provide surety bonds, transport and packaging materials will be relaxed or waived.

By selling directly to the WFP rather than middlemen it is expected that the farmers will receive higher-than-normal prices. There are also plans to negotiate seasonal contracts with the smallholder collectives to give them additional security.

The announcement was made at the UN general assembly, where world leaders are discussing the progress made towards achieving the millennium development goals, whose targets include halving the 1990 poverty and hunger levels by 2015. Speaking at the launch, Bill Gates said that the new initiative "represents a major step toward sustainable change that could eventually benefit millions of poor rural households in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions".

The WFP, which bought $612m (£330m) of food supplies in the developing world last year to feed 86 million people, said that it will ensure that local markets are not distorted by only purchasing from farmers with surplus crops. In time, it is hoped that the farmers will also be connected to other local and regional markets.

The Guardian

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