Keells in collaboration with the Smallholder
Agribusiness Partnerships Programme (SAPP) under the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) has launched a new initiative called the ‘Keells Govi Diriya’ in promoting sustainable farming by improving soil management practices, saving water and reducing dependency on herbicides and pesticides as well as fertiliser to provide fresh produce to its loyal customers.
Keells is a leader in ethical sourcing with a 4,000-strong farmer network, with seven collection centres in
Thambuthegama, Sooriyawewa, Pannegamuwa,
Kappetipola, Dambulla, Jaffna and Kadawatha. With this step forward, Keells has taken on the task of
developing the next generation of future agripreneurs with a special focus on youth and female-led farm units.
Following the inception of the initiative in 2020, the
project has already delivered benefits to the
participating farmers in the form of significant reductions in input cost and higher yields resulting from the use of sustainable agricultural practices and technologies
introduced through the project. These practices have also led to a significant reduction in use of chemical
fertiliser and agrochemicals, which leads to better
produce and is in line with Keells’ core objective to
improve the quality of life for the nation.
With an overall project value of Rs. 445 million, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)-funded SAPP, provides matching grants to selected farmers to make necessary improvements to adopt sustainable agricultural practices with the technical
assistance from Keells.
Keells Supermarkets Head of Fresh Produce Mifrah Ismail and Technical Head of Fresh Produce Nirmal Hettiarachchi along with SAPP Director Dr. Yasantha Mapatuna share some of key aspects and
achievements of the project in this interview.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What led Keells to take up the initiative for this project?
Mifrah: We realised that there is only so much you can achieve by improving our internal processes. For us to achieve sustainable development, we had to start getting involved at the farm level itself. So, two years ago, we started looking at the issues faced by our customers and root-causes pertaining to this and identified what we need to do at the farm level to improve the quality of produce provided to our customers.
As the initial step, we conducted a series of trials at farm level for six to seven months. This was important to demonstrate to the farmers that what we are talking about is actually practical. Our test plots proved that it is feasible. However, they needed support to implement these sustainable practices, as it is at times, beyond their means.
Nirmal: We identified several problems in water management, appropriate irrigation systems, nutritional management and crop protection in terms of pest diseases and animal damages. In addition, they also struggled with market access and financial literacy. Therefore, we aimed to empower the farmers to become agriprenuers with this program by providing support in these areas.
Q: What’s the importance of this project from the point of the Government?
Dr. Mapatuna: We connect the players in the market to the farmers to bridge partnerships, we call it Public-Private-People-Partnerships (4Ps) to facilitate the smallholder sector to make the transition from subsistence farming practices to commercialised farming.
With this approach, farmers obtain direct access to market information, which in turn allows them to cater to market requirements and they also get access to the right technologies to meet the requirements from the private sector.
To deploy such technologies, we provide a matching grant to the farmer. So the private sector’s role here is to provide required technical knowledge to the farmers to gain the maximum out of State funds given to farmers. That’s exactly what happens in this partnership.
We see this as value chain instead of a supply chain, as these partnerships allows everyone to value-add at each level, creating a win-win situation.
Q: What are some of initial obstacles faced in implementing this project including reaching out to the target groups and how did you overcome them?
Nirmal: We realised that most farmers are hesitant to adopt something new, until they witness it for themselves. So the test plots that we rolled out initially provided them with the confidence that the results of this program do materialise and is actually achievable.
In general, most farmers seek a secure market. Since we implemented this project with our own farmer network with close prolixity to our collection centres, it was an advantage for us.
Mifrah: We consciously ensured that 40% of the selected farmers are below 40 years of age as we believe youth engagement is crucial for sustainability of the sector. The demonstration of the pilot projects and the provision of financial assistance to deploy the technology and tools was key in improving participation.
We also ensured a minimum of 10% of the selected farmers were females, this is significant given only 2-3% of farms are considered to be female-led in the country.
Q: What are the benefits for farmers generated by this project so far?
Nirmal: Under this program, we incorporated drip irrigation systems to improve efficiency in water use, insect proof nets to minimise the damage by insects and other pests and poly mulching for weed control. Moreover, we also introduced new requirements and machinery for nursery trays transplanters, row seeders and so on to make their life easier driving productivity.
With the use of drip irrigation systems, farmers were able to reduce the water usage by 60% and insect proof nets facilitated to reduce the agrochemical related costs by 70% with over 50% drop in usage of agrochemicals, while the farmers saw a 20% increase in their yields.
Further, all these farms will be Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified farms which assures only appropriate usage of agro chemicals. Therefore, we are contributing to reduce the usage of agrochemicals and to sustainable agricultural practices, in supporting the country’s path towards a much greener economy.
Mifrah: This collaborative project has also facilitated the path to set up 25 greenhouses in Kappetipola. Here g we ensured that everyone in this program was below age of 40. By supporting young agriprenuers, we give the tools today to the farmers of tomorrow thus providing benefits in the long term.
Q: In what other ways does SAPP support these small-scale farmers?
Dr. Mapatuna: Under SAPP, we have introduced value chain financing facilities for farmers in Sri Lanka for the first time at a concessionary rate by working with all banks in the country.
We are trying to guide and support farmers to develop themselves as small-scale entrepreneurs at the beginning. This loan scheme links them to a formal banking channel allowing them to move away from borrowing from the informal sector including loan sharks. With the market linkage, the banks are also assured of repayments from farmers. With these developments, I see we are facilitating a formation of an agri-business system, beyond a value chain.
Q: How does Keells plan to move ahead with this initiative?
Nirmal: Our long-term ambition is to convert all our fresh produce displays at Keells Supermarkets to GAP-certified products. When a product is, GAP certified, it’s assured that farmers follow best practices and that fertilisers and agro chemicals are not overused.
Mifrah: Seeing its initial success, we are now charting our path on how to take this forward. We are committed to providing the best quality products to our consumers at any given time while continuously supporting our 4,000-strong farmer network.