Over a 14-year period Helvetas, with the support of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, supported farmers in their efforts to adopt more sustainable organic production practices. A key element of our support was technical, extension support and acces to markets that value organic and fair trade cotton. Over 22’000 farmers could reduce their cost of production, improve their own working conditions and health and grow both food crops and a cash crop for the market.
Helvetas started supporting farmers to grow organic and Fairtrade (O&FT) cotton in Mali from 2002. This was later expanded to Burkina Faso, Benin, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Despite the diverse contexts, a majority of conventional cotton farmers faced similar challenges: monoculture cropping systems and over application of chemical pesticides and fertiliser led to health problems, depleted soil fertility, and reducing yields. In many places, the low yields combined with volatile world market prices resulted in negative gross margins and increased indebtedness of farmers. Despite the low profitability of conventional cotton, farmers had few other options due to lack of market access knowledge on and experience of alternative cash crop production systems.
Under such circumstances, organic agriculture offered a way out of indebtedness and reduced exposure to health hazards of farming families. With no expensive and harmful chemical inputs and premium prices, farmers had a better income and a better quality of life.
The introduction of certified sustainable production and trade standards like organic and Fairtrade was new to the countries at that time. The projects focused on developing technical and institutional competences of producer organisations and external service providers to offer rural advisory on organic production, supply of production inputs, organisation of internal control and external certification, and marketing of certified crops. Furthermore, the project facilitated important partnerships with market actors.
Impact assessment studies have revealed that social benefits were a major reason for farmers to adopt organic practices. The benefits included improved human and animal health thanks to no use of hazardous pesticides, improved access to land and cash crops for women in West Africa. Other benefits were more resilient production and marketing thanks to enhanced soil fertility and diversification, access to rural advisory services and markets for rotation crops. The introduction of rotation crops was so beneficial that several organic farmers reduced cotton production in favour of more beneficial organic food crops, such as vegetables or sesame with positive effects on cash flows and food security.
In addition, the reduction in use of an estimated 6000t of synthetic fertilisers led to a calculated reduction of around 11 mio t of CO2 emissions for the agricultural seasons spanning 2004 to 2015.