The Power of Collective Action

It’s busy at the Magway Regional Farmer Development Association warehouse in Myanmar’s Central Dry Zone. Trucks loaded with bags of black and white sesame have been lining up since 4 am, queuing row by row and waiting their turn to unload. Farmers, truckers, young labourers all mill about in organized chaos.

The Power of Collective Action

Blog post by: Bram Peters and Daan Mulder

Magway Association Farmers Demonstrate the Power of Collective Action. 

For the past 11 days, the 15 members of the RFDA (Regional Farmers Development Association), employees from MMTW company (Myint Maw Taw Win), Department of Agriculture extension officers and NAG (Network Activities Group) field coordinators have been working from dawn till dusk to manage the flow of sesame bags brought in by member farmer groups. More than 400 metric tonnes have already been collected, and there is more to come throughout October. Here, the Magway RFDA organizes collective marketing in partnership with the MMTW company, and facilitated by local ICCO partner NAG (Network Activities Group).

Although many farmers have to wait for hours before it is their turn, positive energy fills the crowded space: the yield and quality of the sesame provided by the farmer member groups at village level is very good and the market demand from other countries is also high. Not just any sesame is marketed here, as only farmers complying with the standards of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) are accepted – this enables export possibilities.

A highly organized process

The process is highly organized: first, all the bags from the village trucks are brought down one by one. All bags are opened, and a sample is taken from each bag to be checked by the quality control team, made up of two farmer members and the director of MMTW. Together they decide whether it is quality A, B, or C. The criteria for each grade is listed on big posters on the wall. Once the quality is established, the next step is weighing and getting the warehouse receipt. The better the quality, the better the price; and all prices are listed on the wall and updated daily. Once the farmer receives the receipt, he or she can go to the registration to track whether a loan repayment needs to be deducted from the payment amount, or whether they want to wait with selling. Today, all farmers choose to sell and collect their payment straight away: prices are good, and almost 5 times higher than farmer gate and local market prices.

We join in a new ritual, every day around 10:30 am the RFDA and MMTW establish video calls with three selected sesame buyers. Two operate in China and one in Japan. Every day, the RFDA asks their buying price per bag and per basket for black and white sesame. Each buyer sets their price and once all three bids are collected by the farmers, RFDA and MMTW both decide which one to sell to on that day. The highest bidder gets the day’s volume, at about 12,9000 kyat per bag, 86,000 kyat per basket is the day price for the best quality sesame. Here, the price per bag is about 5,000 kyat higher than the regular market price.

Controlling the quality

The strength of the RFDA’s quality control process was also tested that day. One truck arrived from a member village group with the positive recommendation of the local Department of Agriculture (DoA) extension officer. However, upon checking the content of the bags, it was discovered that the good quality product was only found at the top, and covered lower quality sesame below it. Some confusion ensued: how can these bags be accepted if they don’t even meet the Grade C standard? The RFDA decided to reject the entire batch, reasoning that one farmer group’s disregard for quality may devalue the entire collective marketing system because all sesame seeds of the same quality will be mixed in the end. One RFDA leader appealed to the entire group of farmers gathered: if their product is to be sold, the quality needs to be ensured and this is everyone’s responsibility. The truck was then re-filled and RFDA and MMTW offered to pay the transport costs back to the village the produce came from. More sensitive is the decision of the local DoA agent to give their GAP recommendations to this group. It later turned out that the extension officer only did one inspection visit, which is not enough according to the RFDA standard.

Power of collective action

The Magway Regional Farmer Development Association in full power showed us the value of the collective action of farmers and public and private sector actors. Executing GAP and providing access to finance, quality inputs and technical services does not only give the farmer a more reasonable price for their goods, it also ensures buyers of a sustainable source for safe quality products. Although the involved parties are increasingly aware of the importance of collective action, this is only the beginning. Hopefully we can use our experience at ICCO to reach many more farmers and private sector actors to create a sustainable agrifood sector together.

ICCO, together with Network Activities Group and East West Seeds, implements the Pulses, People, Planet, Profit (P4) project in the Yangon and Magway regions, supported by DaNa Facility. In this story, both P4 as well as Danish Church Aid / Norwegian Church Aid support the Magway Regional Development Association.

Author Bram Peters and Daan Mulder
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