PUNO, Peru (ILO News). Fifty-two-year-old quinoa producer, Benjamina Gonzalo Nina, struggled for years to make a living. She was among thousands of poor smallholder farmers in the Ayacucho and Puno regions of Peru who were unable to benefit from rising global demand for the “super grain”.
Peru is the world’s biggest producer of quinoa followed by Bolivia, and together they account for 80 per cent of global trade. Yet while exports of quinoa – a gluten-free Andean grain rich in protein, amino acids and vitamins – have increased exponentially in recent years, this had not led to a better quality of life or higher income for Peruvian farmers like Nina.
It wasn’t until Nina took part in a two-year project promoted by the SDG Fund – a multi-donor and multi-agency mechanism created by the United Nations to advance the Sustainable Development Goals – that her circumstances began to improve. Established in 2015, the $3.8 million Joint Andean Grains Programme targeted 2,350 farmers in Ayacucho and Puno, rural areas with a high level of poverty and extreme poverty, and where 78 per cent of Peru’s quinoa is produced.
“We have been taught to select and distinguish the types of seeds, which type of grain is the most in demand in the market, for example. Previously we sowed without knowing the types of seed, but now we know the properties of each one and its benefits,” the mother of four from Puno said. “Previously, we produced little, but thanks to the cooperative business model we are also more connected to the quinoa market.”
The programme is an initiative of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and UNESCO, in partnership with the government of Peru, the private sector, cooperatives and universities. It fostered agricultural cooperative partnerships and green jobs, enabled producers to negotiate better market prices and helped create systems for production of organic quinoa.
As a result of the programme, farmers saw an increase of 22 per cent in their income from sales of organic quinoa, compared to 2014-2015, and during a 2015-2016 campaign, 23 tons of organic quinoa were purchased, with certifications for the American, European and Brazilian markets.
“It’s a good initiative to ensure direct sale from producer to final consumer, for export or the national market, as it provides what we always wanted: a greater return on our product and sources of direct income for producers, ensuring that not only large companies see major earnings,” said quinoa farmer, Candy Condori Mamani.
The project also contributed to improved food quality and nutrition in Peru by promoting the grain – discovered in the Andean mountains over 3,000 years ago – as part of the region’s food heritage. Quinoa is notable for its genetic diversity, resilience and adaptability to harsh environmental conditions. Research also indicates that it may be a viable crop option in the face of threats such as heat, salinity, drought and climate change.
Miriam Elvira Guerrero Cabrera is an ILO My.Coop trainer, who taught 31 farmers from Ayacucho taking part in the project about the advantages of joining and creating cooperatives.
“The accounting aspect was a very interesting topic for them. In terms of production, the issue of supplies, that is, how to acquire them, how to select suppliers, which they do not take into account when signing a contract, was very useful. And finally, in the commercialization module they were able to know the tools they need to negotiate, as well as the quality issue and the certification of quinoa,” Cabrera noted.
“We are currently working on the issue of exports, as we are certified by the National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (NIAI) for the production of organic quinoa since last year,” said Guillermo Cutimbo Aza, president of Cooperative Capro Semillas in Puno. “Definitely, the training we have received has been very important and an impulse to get ahead.” Products from the cooperative Campo Verde, for example, have been used by Peruvian chef, Gastón Acurio, to create his restaurant’s signature quinoa dish, while organic quinoa and kiwicha energy bars for children were developed as a result of the project's capacity training activities.
The Andean Grains Programme has also contributed to the economic empowerment of women. They make up about 31 per cent of agricultural producers in Peru, as well as being the main caregivers in their families. The “mamachas” – as female farmers are commonly known – were able to accumulate capital of up to 16,000 soles (about US $4,800) in Credit and Savings Unions (UNICAS) and used it to buy natural fertilizers to protect their crops, new supplies, and animals for their farms.
“We didn’t have much knowledge about access to finance before. However, thanks to the programme and the training, we learned about UNICAS, which allowed us to save and manage our money,” Nina explained.
In Puno, more than 50 per cent of the producers who benefited from the project were women, while they accounted for 42 per cent in Ayacucho, with many of them becoming leaders of both UNICAS and cooperatives, according to Marie Jeanjean, the ILO Programme Assistant in Lima.
“This joint programme is an excellent example of how we can operate as One UN benefitting from the particular knowledge and experience of the three UN agencies. In practice, it meant that highly disadvantaged groups, such as rural women in isolated areas of Puno, could be reached by a large variety of UN services,” said John Bliek, the ILO Specialist in charge of the project. “Though this programme might have been short, we hope that it is a spark that generates many spinoffs in the future in these areas of Peru and beyond.”