Saturday, March 17, 2012
When drive-by sales are all you've got
Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.
So goes the adage. Spend any time with producers in Honduras, however, and you soon see that if the lesson doesn’t also include helping the guy get his fish to market, he’s still got a big problem.
Honduras is an agricultural economy. Like farmers everywhere, the average Honduran trying to scratch a living from the earth is beset by all the usual trials and tribulations of farm life: Not enough rain; too much of it; a hot year; a cold year; insects; tired soil.
But listening to the 20 or so producers at the two-day workshop we went to this week in Siguatepeque, it became pretty clear that Hondurans also face tremendous problems getting their goods to market. Not only are they unable to afford the costs of moving their goods, there often isn’t a distribution network anyway, let alone a co-ordinated plan for finding markets.
In my past days as a traveller on a two-week vacation, I would have looked out the bus window at all the roadside stands of bananas we saw on the long drive to Siguatepeque and found them charming. I probably would have found it quaint that women and children stand by the highway here waving bags of onions, tortillas, oranges or whatever they’ve got at passing vehicles.
But in fact, that’s the only option most small producers have to market their products. Farm-gate sales for many Honduran growers come down to long, hot days at the side of the highway hoping that some of the vehicles whizzing by at 100 kilometres an hour need a fruit-and-veggie break.
The fish analogy came to mind when we passed the beautiful Lake Yojoa, about an hour outside of San Pedro Sula. All along the highway, local fishermen had their day’s catch hanging on racks at the roadside. They obviously knew how to fish, but what they could have used was some help selling what they caught.
At the workshop – organized by fellow Cuso International volunteers working in Honduras – the plight of the honey producers was particularly enlightening.
Trying to make a living from honey is a challenging undertaking at the best of times. As one of the producers noted ruefully, honey lasts a long time and nobody needs much of it. But the producers in Honduras face the added problem of being unable to afford containers for their honey or transportation to get it to market.
One of the first sights I saw when we came to Copan a couple months ago was a man going door-to-door with wine bottles full of honey. I took to be an endearing local custom. Nope, just a desperate measure.
Fortunately, the workshop was also heartening affirmation that Hondurans are like that Tubthumper song I like so much: They get knocked down, but they get up again. Far from being discouraged at their lot in life, the producers spent long hours talking about how to improve their sectors.
The cocoa producers set a date for launching a processing centre where they could all bring dry their beans to dry. The rambutan growers set targets for increasing their yield and expanding into wines and jams. The coffee growers discussed ways to connect directly to markets in the United States and Canada. The honey producers vowed to source out more containers, and more uses for honey.
Teach a man to raise bees and he’ll have honey for a lifetime. But give him a market and he’ll be a whole lot happier.