SOFA – the Small Organic Farmers’ Association – is an organisation of small-scale farmers who grow organic certified tea, coffee, spices and vegetable crops for the market and for home consumption. The original members are located near the town of Gampola, a 40-minute drive from Kandy. Their smallholdings are mostly on land which was formerly a state-run tea plantation, producing full bodied strong tea, known as mid-grown tea, at altitudes of 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Their production of Fairtrade tea and spices is purchased and marketed by Bio Foods (PVT) Ltd.
SOFA was set up in 1997 by Dr Sarath Ranaweera, a scientist who previously worked at the Sri Lanka Tea Research Institute. His passion for organic agriculture and the socio-economic development of small-scale farming communities led him to set up Bio Foods in 1993 to process and export organic teas and spices supplied by local small-scale farmers’ organisations. Through his work at the Tea Research Institute, Dr Ranaweera knew that small-scale farms in Sri Lanka’s mid-grown tea areas had been abandoned or neglected because of lack of demand and the poor prices paid to farmers. Dr Ranaweera worked with a group of these farmers to set up a partnership in which Bio Foods would support their conversion to organic production, expand production and improve quality, with Bio Foods guaranteeing to purchase all their green leaf production. In 1997, a group of 183 farmers were organized into a coherent association and divided into branch societies, known as blocks, according to geographical location.
Bernard Ranaweera, President of SOFA
Bernard Ranaweera is the brother of Dr Ranaweera and lives in Matale with his wife Renuka and sons Lahiru, 17, and Madhuka, 12, who both attend the local St Thomas’s College. After leaving school with an A-Level education, Bernard ran his own farm growing spices and vegetables before spending 15 years in the hotel trade as a restaurant executive. He was then invited to join Bio Foods as a Project Manager to develop the small organic farmer project, making use of the valuable experience of trade unions and welfare societies he picked up in the hotel trade. This project inspired him to return to farming, this time growing tea on leased land and joining the local branch society. When SOFA became a registered organization in 2002, independent from Bio Foods, Bernard was elected as patron of his branch society and later as President of SOFA. He has recently purchased land to grow spices and to develop a model spice farm to train new members and expand the spice growing sector of SOFA.
As well as administrative duties such as attending AGMs and Board meetings, the President has a strong leadership role in planning and driving the development of the organisation towards its objectives of improving the economic position of the almost 2,000 families who benefit from SOFA. This includes leading the selection, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes funded by the Fairtrade premium such as agricultural development, capacity building, and social welfare. As President, Bernard has to liaise with a growing number of international partners and has recently represented SOFA at Fairtrade events in France.
SOFA structure and production
SOFA’s production of tea (green leaf) was Fairtrade certified in 1998. This was followed in 2006 by a range of spices (vanilla, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, white pepper, ginger, and turmeric) and later by rice, processed coconut, mint and lemongrass.
Many neighbouring farmers saw the benefits of the project and applied to join. By 2008 membership had grown to 1,699, divided among 37 branch societies (22 tea farmer societies, 15 spices). Spices are grown in the Matale district of Central province and the Galle district of Southern province. Tea production now extends to Uva province, where distinctively flavoured high-grown tea is grown on the slopes of the central highlands at altitudes of 3,000 to 6,000 feet. Most tea farmers now also grow spices as an additional product, mainly pepper, lemon grass, vanilla, ginger, and cinnamon.
The average smallholding is 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres). Half is given over to tea and yields around 1,000kg/ha of green leaf a year. Tea provides up to 100% of the farmers’ income from their farm, depending on what other cash crops they grow. Originally most farmers needed to supplement their income by working as casual labourers in tea plantations, factories, or construction sites but the increased income from tea and spices has reduced the need for this. In 2007 SOFA produced a total of 640 tonnes of green leaf, which was processed by Bio Foods into around 130 tonnes of green tea and traditional black tea, all sold to the Fairtrade market. The same year, SOFA members produced 2,500 tonnes of spices of which 99% was sold by Bio Foods to Fairtrade buyers.
The smallholdings run by SOFA members are traditionally known as forest gardens and are abundant in semi-tropical flora and teeming with wild life. Tea bushes dominate but, unlike the tea monoculture on conventional plantations, they are intercropped with a host of different plants, grown for a variety of uses. Coffee, cloves, pepper vines, vanilla, ginger, turmeric, lemon grass, and citronella are grown mainly as cash crops; medicinal herbs include the neem tree, known as 'the village pharmacy' because of its many healing properties, whose extracts are made into a non-toxic insecticide; other plants attract or repel particular insects; trees and shrubs such as eretrina and vativera provide shade from the sun and protection from rain, or are planted as low hedges to prevent soil erosion. Chillies, beans, tomatoes, and aubergines are among the vegetables grown for home consumption and for sale at local markets. SOFA farmers are committed to maintaining their individual organic compost heaps which are fundamental to the entire organic system and SOFA is introducing common compost for farmers who don’t have their own composting facilities.
Each tea bush is plucked every 7-10 days, extending up to 14 days during the dry season in February and March. Traditionally only the new shoots, ‘two leaves and a bud’, are plucked. The plucked green leaf is carried to a collection point then transported by lorry to the factory where it is processed into made tea. This must be done as soon as possible on the day the tea is picked because the quality of the tea quickly deteriorates when it is exposed to heat and humidity.
Fairtrade price and premium
After the green leaf is delivered to the Bio Foods factory it goes through the process of withering, rolling, oxidation, and drying to produce orthodox black tea and green tea. Because the Fairtrade minimum price for tea applies to processed tea, Bio Foods pays SOFA members the negotiated price of Rs 50-Rs60 per kilo, according to quality, which is around double the price paid by local traders. For spices, SOFA members receive the Fairtrade minimum price. SOFA receives the additional Fairtrade premium for every kilo of tea and spices, which is reserved for economic, social or environmental development projects agreed by the members.
The Fairtrade premium has been invested in a wide range of projects selected to strengthen the capacity of the organisation, improve incomes, and bring social benefits to members’ families and the wider community. They include:
- Organic farming: distribution of cattle and goats for commercial milk production and dung for organic compost
- Training: tea and spice cultivation; organic farming; leadership training
- Tea and spice cultivation: distribution of new plants, organic fertiliser, and tools (spray tanks, garden forks, knives etc)
- Strengthening of SOFA: purchase of motor bikes for agricultural extension officers; purchase of land for new office building; purchase of computers, furniture and office equipment
- Strengthening of branch societies: purchase of computers; repair community centres and provide equipment
- Infrastructure projects: construction and maintenance of collection centres where tea and spices can be kept clean and dry before delivery to the factory by SOFA lorry
- Infrastructure projects: construction and maintenance of farm lanes to make transport easier and benefit the whole community; clean water projects in eight villages.
- Small loans fund: enable members to start up small businesses such as packing loose peanuts or tea to market locally; pay for roof repairs, home improvements/extensions, or purchase of farming equipment
- Women’s programmes: income generation schemes such as making reed baskets as packaging for up-market tea exports
- Social projects: purchase of roofing sheets, tables and chairs. These are loaned out to members to erect temporary structures for wedding parties, festivals, funerals etc. which previously had to be hired from private contractors. When not on loan, members store and use the tables and chairs in their homes; sports equipment for sports clubs and youth clubs
- Education: free computer training for farmers’ children by a private tutor in the SOFA office; small scholarship grants for students
Bernard Ranaweera is leading SOFA in their drive to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals of ending poverty and providing decent education and healthcare in their members’ communities. With support from Fairtrade, Bio Foods, and organic partners, SOFA is helping provide decent, stable incomes for a growing number of families and enabling them to contribute to the economies and welfare of rural communities where less than 10% of local people have permanent, full-time jobs. SOFA is investing in building capacity and expertise so that it can diversify into new products and bring opportunities to more farmers and their families. By buying Fairtrade tea and spices, consumers are helping SOFA to increase its impact on these communities.