Ethiopian farmer Nuri Awel was quite skeptical about the Israeli project Fair Planet, a nonprofit that gives smallholder farmers access to cutting-edge seed technology and shows them how to get the most from these seeds with minimal changes to their traditional practices.

Awel was so skeptical, in fact, that at first he was lax about following the training recommendations. But once he saw the quality of the new plants, he became an enthusiastic follower.

“His yield was fantastic and he sold his tomatoes at excellent prices,” reports Fair Planet founder Shoshan Haran. “Nuri doubled his annual income from his 1,000-square-meter plot and is using the money to fix his house and send his son to college. One year later, Nuri has tripled his plot, bought more seeds and is implementing everything we taught him.”

Fair Planet’s seed program helped these Ethiopian farmers grow better tomatoes. Photo: courtesy
Fair Planet’s seed program helped these Ethiopian farmers grow better tomatoes. Photo: courtesy

One organization can have a profound effect on the cycle of poverty, says Haran, whose kibbutz upbringing instilled a strong sense of social awareness.

After earning her first degree in agriculture at the Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot, she worked the fields on her Negev kibbutz for 12 years before returning for a doctorate in plant protection followed by a Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“When I came back to Israel in 1999 I joined Hazera, the largest seed company in Israel, as head of research collaborations and intellectual property,” she tells ISRAEL21c. Then she headed the Trait Exploration and Discovery Unit, and after Hazera was bought by the French company Limagrain, she led its Genomic Expert Group.

After 11 years of developing seeds for feeding people and livestock, she realized that high-quality seeds could go a long way toward increasing agricultural productivity in developing countries.

 “Their tomatoes used to be small and soft. Now they are bigger and firmer with a longer shelf life… This is a life-changing opportunity, a tool to exit the cycle of poverty.”

“This is something I could personally do through my professional connections around the world,” says Haran.

She approached Limagrain with an idea for a nonprofit to be managed by seed professionals. “I explained that I wanted access to their seeds and knowhow, and we’d do the work on the ground with the farmers.”

Limagrain agreed, so next she went to Hazera CEO Rami Dar to hand in her resignation. Dar provided Haran with a letter of intent in support of her new initiative.

“That was my first IP asset in Fair Planet. Then we got other seed partners on board to help us choose the right seeds for the local conditions of the farmers we work with. We have to consider soil, climate, plant diseases and local agricultural practices, for example.”

Seeds are chosen by Fair Planet for the exact conditions of the local farms. Photo: courtesy
Seeds are chosen by Fair Planet for the exact conditions of the local farms. Photo: courtesy

Haran registered the nonprofit in Israel in 2012, taking on Alon Haberfeld as Fair Planet’s technology manager. He holds a PhD in genetics and an MBA from the Hebrew University, was a research scientist at the government’s Volcani Institute and was a plant breeder, product manager and marketing manager at Hazera Genetics. The team also includes Chairman Amnon Tamir, production and marketing specialists Erez Gozan and Avi Einstein, and lead adviser Orlando de Ponti from The Netherlands.

“We all worked on a voluntary basis for three years until we raised money,” says Haran.

Fair Planet’s current partners include the Limagrain Group of France; Syngenta of Switzerland; Enza Zaden and East-West Seed of The Netherlands; Bayer CropScience of Germany; Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF); Israeli drip- and micro-irrigation pioneer Netafim; MASHAV-Israel Agency for International Development Cooperation; and Haramaya and Gondar Universities in Ethiopia.

Fair Planet focused first on famine-stricken Ethiopia, in cooperation with the universities as well as local experts and the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture. Vegetables here are grown in open fields using basic traditional methods.

Ethiopian subsistence farmers use animals to work the fields. Photo: courtesy
Ethiopian subsistence farmers use animals to work the fields. Photo: courtesy

“The seed companies do have varieties suitable for these practices, but we need to match them carefully. First we did variety trials in Ethiopia to select the seeds that perform best for them,” Haran explains.

“Seed companies develop thousands of varieties every year for different conditions, and they share this information with Fair Planet so we can narrow down to five to 10 varieties from each company.”

Ethiopian farmers working with Fair Planet can increase productivity more than five times and increase income up to eight times. “A bit of knowhow to support production helps them do it right with better seeds. And the quality of the produce is much better,” says Haran.

“Their tomatoes used to be small and soft. Now they are bigger and firmer with a longer shelf life, and can be marketed to a higher-end markets in a wider window of time. This is a life-changing opportunity, a tool to exit the cycle of poverty.”

Tomatoes grown from high-quality seed fetch a higher price at market. Photo: courtesy
Tomatoes grown from high-quality seed fetch a higher price at market. Photo: courtesy

She says there is a trickle-down effect, too. “If people have money, they will improve their nutrition, and vegetables are cash crops.”

Fair Planet started with tomatoes in all four Ethiopian regions in which it is active, and then introduced chili peppers, an important local ingredient, with excellent results. “Next year we will bring in onion seeds. The idea is to bring the masses to higher quality crops but not to flood the market.”

Fair Planet recruits leading farmers to take part in its training and capacity-building programs so they can then pass the word on to fellow farmers. Fair Planet volunteers visit participants’ fields every week and provide agricultural extension services as well.

“We have 30 to 40 Israeli volunteers per year in Ethiopia, from age 20 to 75, each serving three to six months. They are the spirit of the project on the ground, and are very passionate and dedicated to the project,” says Haran.

Fair Planet volunteers visit each participating farmer weekly to give advice on best practices. Photo: courtesy
Fair Planet volunteers visit each participating farmer weekly to give advice on best practices. Photo: courtesy

Each participating famer receives two training production seasons. In the first season they get free sample seeds. They buy seeds for the next season after having gained trust in the product and practices.

“It is sustainable from their point of view,” says Haran. “We connect them with micro-credit services from organizations that provide it, as well as marketing assistance from other organizations. We provide a lot of information, but the main advantage is the seeds themselves. We simply transfer technology and knowhow. Fair Planet is not engaged in any commercial aspect.”

She calls it “a unique pre-competitive collaboration in the seed business.” Seed companies face no risk to their intellectual property and benefit from doing good and earning a name in the African seed market.

Fair Planet aims to reach more than 50,000 rural households within five years, thus improving the lives of an estimated 350,000 people. Uganda and other Sub-Saharan African nations have expressed interest in participating.

“We are eager to work in more countries because the need is there,” says Haran. “We need to raise more funding to do this, and we also need more volunteers from all over the world — anyone who has the passion and an agricultural or training background. We rent them modest apartments and take care of their expenses aside from air fare, half of which is refunded at the end of their volunteering term.”

Fair Planet, she says, is not a one-time shot. ‘You don’t give them food; you give them the means to produce food and increase their income.”

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