Sitting in front of 10 farmers, with an itchy grass-rash spreading up your arms, and a whole lot of mango stuck between your teeth, is not the best time to find out the ginnery’s field network (those who train the smallholder farmers) have made a fairly big mistake.
Last week my colleague and I visited one of the brand new chili nurseries we’re helping farmers to plant. There are 35 nurseries in all, enough for 400 acres of red birdseye chili which the ginnery will buy back from farmers in a few months time.
I entertained the women by helping to build the nurseries - carrying five foot long pieces of thin grass, shaking off the tiny bugs that fell out all over my shoulders, spreading it thinly over the bamboo & palm structures that will shade the seedlings, trying not to itch as the grass irritated my skin.
Afterwards as a reward I was given a saucepan full of twenty or so small yellow mangoes to work my way through as we rested under the tree they had fallen from. Just as all the stringy fibres had got stuck in my teeth, the farmers asked…
“You say you’ll buy the dried chillies for 5,000 shillings a kilo, but is this like cotton, where we hear one price and then you come back offering something lower?”
I winced. I don’t know who in our field network had started the 5000 shillings rumour, but this was really bad news. The trouble is, we don’t know yet what we can sell the chilies for, and given we need to buy & sell at a profit we can’t guarantee a purchase price. They’re organic, so we know we’ll get a premium, but the price certainly might be lower than 5,000.
Through a mouthful of mango strands, I tried to spread message that the 5,000 was a mistake, that the price will be good & better than they can find elsewhere, but we won’t know until a few months time. Not an easy message to bring, but far better to be honest now while farmers are deciding what to plant, than later when expectations have been raised. This time I think we were lucky, and the rumour had not spread far, but as a business, we need to learn to avoid making promises we can’t keep.