Ismael Ferreira de Oliveira

Ashoka Fellow
Valente, Bahia, Brazil
Fellow Since 1990


This profile was prepared when Ismael Ferreira de Oliveira was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Brazil continues to be the world's largest sisal producer, but the industry has been in steady decline for decades. Ismael plans to revitalize the industry through the 600,000 small producers in the Northeast who grow sisal as their main cash crop, but who lack autonomy and prosperity.These farmers have already come a long way since 1984, when Ismael began a four-year journey through bureaucratic labyrinths to finally succeed in winning organized small producers the right to export their sisal directly. Ismael also successfully scouted funds for the expensive central thrasher that the nascent growers cooperative needed to process sisal for export. Since building the thrasher, the growers' average earnings from sisal have increased 14 percent, and their collective production has grown from 70 to 300 tons per month. That still is small scale in export terms, but the cooperative now has buyers abroad and an office and a broker in Salvador, the capital of Bahia.
Those are first steps towards autonomy for growers who historically have sold to brokers for large exporters interested in paying as little as possible. Aside from selling directly to overseas buyers, the small growers plan to fabricate more finished products such as rope and carpet backing. Ismael is actively looking for new markets, resources, allies, and support. In that search, he has turned up situations ripe for direct grower-buyer links. One of these new direct purchasers is a Peruvian importer who previously was buying Brazilian sisal from Portugal.
Ismael also hopes to build an informal alliance of small growers to jointly push for policy changes, including some to help the Brazilian sisal industry become more globally competitive. Towards this goal, he increasingly meets with small-producers' organizations of other crops and other regions to share with them the sisal cooperative's mistakes and victories. Ismael hopes to encourage similar efforts across Brazil to give small producers greater control over their livelihoods.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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