October 11, 2022, is an important day for more than 600 farmers in Surin, a province in northeastern Thailand. The members of the Organic Agricultural Social Enterprise Innovators of Surin (OASIS) community enterprise network have gathered in the provincial capital for their second General Assembly after a long break due to Covid.
For Khun Watcharaphorn Prakhongchai, the Director of OASIS, it was not an easy job to find a sufficiently large hall to host such a crowd. As a Helvetas advisor to a project within OASIS, I had the privilege to attend this event in person and to get to know the producers of a product that I enjoy as an exquisite dish at home: the organic and fair-trade Jasmine rice from the shelves of Coop, one of the largest Swiss retailers and a company that belongs to the global leaders when it comes to the promotion and sale of organic products.
The members of OASIS grow one of the globally best-known fragrant rice varieties, which is locally known as Hom Mali. In addition, their product is certified by BioSuisse – one of the most demanding organic labels – and by Fairtrade International (FLO) for their compliance with the fairtrade standard.
More than 80% of the rice produced by OASIS is sold to Reismühle Nutrex, a rice mill in Switzerland that belongs to Coop. The collaboration between Reismühle Nutrex, Coop and the farmers from Surin started 11 years ago. Funding from Coop’s Sustainability Fund allowed the farmers to become organized and capacitated to comply with organic and fair-trade standards. Helvetas has provided technical and organizational advice throughout the collaboration.
Today, there is a well-functioning value chain with stable relationships among the value chain actors. This project has been so successful that Coop agreed to fund a new project, the Coop Organic Rice Project, from 2022 – 2025 in Thailand and India. In addition to consolidating and further growing the value chain in Thailand, this project also focuses on two aspects that go beyond the value chain. First, the project studies and then facilitates a discussion on “Living Income,” addressing the issue of whether in today’s world it is still possible for a farming household to make a decent living from agriculture. This topic is not only discussed in developing economies – it is equally relevant in Switzerland, despite of all the subsidies that are paid out there. Second, in a time of global warming and a progressing loss of biodiversity, the project applies a landscape approach to develop and later implement a landscape management plan in the area where the rice for Coop is produced. In addition to Coop’s corporate responsibility for ecological sustainability, Coop wants to ensure through this engagement that sourcing of rice from Surin will be possible in the long-term.
The General Assembly is followed by a ceremony that brings a celebratory moment for all in attendance: The organic premium for the 2021 crop paid by Reismühle Nutrex is distributed to each member in cash. On average, each producers gets an amount equal to more than 120 USD. I’m surrounded by smiling faces and remarks of thankfulness. Lottery ticket vendors have now arrived in front of the meeting hall. They know that some of the OASIS members use this fortunate day to invest a small portion of the premium they have received in a lottery ticket with the hope to multiply their luck. However, the prudent farmers know that a better investment is back into their families and fields.
Helvetas 2022 Symposium
The Coop Rice Project, which runs from 2022 – 2025, is one of the very few Helvetas projects that is entirely financed by a private sector partner. This collaboration, and the experiences from many other projects in which private sector partners have engaged, builds the body of experience for Helvetas’ upcoming symposium: “Private Sector Engagement: From Aspiration to Reality.” This free hybrid event takes place on November 23, 2022.