Claude Ariste is encouraging the individual fruit and vegetable producers in Burkina Faso's fresh produce sector to form cooperatives and increase their revenue through collaborative training, production, and marketing. This framework has the added benefits of enhancing nutrition for farmers and communities and contributing to the reforestation of Sahelian zones.
From the local to the national level, Claude Ariste is changing the patterns of interaction in Burkina Faso's fresh produce sector by showing the farmers how to organize around the idea of community economic benefit. He is demonstrating why it is in farmers' best interest to be linked in cooperatives at the local, regional, and national levels. The process Claude has set up helps farmers to grow better quality produce that can justify fair prices. He also encourages them to mutually decide on a fair price for their goods at the market, instead of undercutting each other to make a sale, and to create a system of collective bargaining and negotiation for a fair price that helps everyone. This process creates a mindset change from one of subsistence and informal business to one of market-oriented and better organized trade that builds a sustainable system of support, training, and revenue for rural people.
To create this change, Claude is working closely with small- and large-scale, male and female Burkinabé producers. While there are a large number of farmers' associations throughout Burkina Faso, Claude's is the sole organization of such broad scope, which successfully maximizes not only the production process (from field to market), but also the training and marketing aspects of the fresh produce sector.
Through extensive contacts with the fresh produce farmers in Burkina Faso, Claude noticed the great difficulties which they faced. He felt that they were at risk of eventually becoming indentured plantation workers amidst climatic conditions which make the cultivation of a large variety of fruits and vegetables possible. However, beyond the cotton export industry, which the government has developed, the growers and producers are not organized. The fresh produce sector is typically illiterate, isolated, and unprepared to supply and service either the Burkina Faso market or that of some neighboring countries, where conditions are less favorable to fruit and vegetable production. There is currently no financial infrastructure in Burkina Faso to fulfill necessary support roles for such individual farmers. Set up in the postcolonial period, parastatal support structures serving the agricultural sector were created for the purpose of offering less stringent credit requirements, thereby making credit accessible to producers in rural areas. Today, however, many of these support structures either have collapsed or have become profit-oriented ventures. There is also a scarcity of technical and management services for farmers in the fresh produce sector, so most have limited expertise in production and efficient gathering and distribution of produce.
Produce farmers in Burkina Faso also face the problem of bananas from neighboring countries being "dumped" there, thereby reducing potential income opportunities for local banana producers. Claude sees a potential for the market to become a monopoly controlled by governments in the subregion (Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire). He is also very concerned with preventing the formation of a "mafia-like" federation, one that would lock out smaller independent producers, as has occurred in a number of other West African countries.
In the future, the coming West Africa Economic and Monetary Union has the potential to be either greatly positive or greatly adverse for Claude's target group of farmers. This Union will allow for efficient production and economies of scale, but may place isolated producers at a disadvantage in obtaining market access.
Claude understands the economics of the fresh produce sector and has organized his strategy accordingly. His mix of social vision and technical expertise led him to found the National Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Federation of Burkina Faso (UFMB) in 1995. It is through this Federation that Claude plans to facilitate change within the fresh produce sector. With Claude as the president, the organization has grown from six original cooperatives and 250 members to include twenty cooperatives and 1,650 members. Their principal crops are bananas, mangoes, citrus fruits, and vegetables. In deciding on the most appropriate location for its operational base, the Federation chose to have its headquarters in Bobo Dioulasso, the country's second largest city and an important economic and agricultural center. The choice was a deliberate gesture of decentralization, as it is not in the capital city and is located close to agricultural production. Although the defining quality of the Federation is the cooperative, everything stems from the individual producer's role in the structural chain of local cooperatives and provincial associations. Each farmer voluntarily participates in and contributes to the Federation's activities: whatever the size of their orchards, all members have equal voting rights, equal access to information about markets, and any other advantages that will allow the producers to be more self-reliant and to expand.
The Federation's membership dues are used for credit fees, education, technical support, management training, and administrative costs. Member-producers receive the benefits of educational workshops focusing on literacy (reading and writing in their native tongue), management, organizational skills, marketing, and practical production methods, all with the aim of maintaining high levels of production, enabling an increase in revenues, and bringing about improvements in the farmers' living and working conditions. Moreover, each cooperative creates a reserve fund, by planting the equivalent of two acres of banana trees: the fund facilitates access to credit and the purchase of heavy equipment to be used cooperatively for produce pick-up and delivery. These funds also cover the sole salaried Federation staff member, the manager.
Claude started the Federation initiative with banana growers, because it was a newly introduced cultivation in Burkina Faso. The creation of this cost-effective, transparent, and self-reliant organization gave its members the opportunity to attack the problems associated with the production process and, together, to work towards solutions. Such organization is also critical to the success of the anti-dumping protective legislation for which Claude is helping the farmers to lobby, and it facilitates provision of technical support and information to help farmers produce better quality bananas and get them to market. After having organized banana growers throughout Burkina Faso, the Federation has attracted the membership of larger numbers of producers' associations and cooperatives growing other fruit types.
Looking to succeed where parastatal agencies have failed, the Federation plans to encourage diversification of production by introducing new varieties of high-performance species, including trees that can be strategically selected, grown for profit, and planted to combat desertification in the region. The Federation has run informational campaigns to promote increased fruit and vegetable consumption to improve the population's nutrition and to "democratize the consumption of fruits and vegetables": with increased agricultural output, the introduction of new product species, better transport systems, and a variety of informational campaigns, the Federation hopes to make a wide variety of produce continuously available within Burkina Faso, at reasonable costs for the consumers.
The Federation also plans to export surplus yields of citrus fruits and mangos, within West Africa, particularly, and to Europe. It will support the trade from three fruit-selling centers to be created in the cities of Bobo Dioulasso, Orodara, and Dedougou, all situated in the production zones. The Federation will thus connect the small-scale produce growers and undertake the planning necessary to fill the transport trucks to capacity. It will centralize the sale of the fruits and vegetables, thereby making the produce readily available to regional merchants and retailers.
Claude plans to develop proactive linkages with other West African organizations and producers' federations to maximize the Federation's impact. This is particularly important in the context of the changing policy and market environment emerging in the sub-region with the coming West African Economic and Monetary Union in 1998. The Union will present an opportunity for these linkages to enhance the potential for food producers to lobby policymakers about respecting the rights of consumers and smaller producers. A friendly policy environment will enable the federations to benefit increasingly from the management framework Claude has created.
Born in 1952, Claude Ariste is himself a farmer. He explains that from his early childhood, his father was a major influence in his penchant for agriculture. During school vacation periods, Claude would go to the family orchard with his father and tend to the garden in addition to performing all sorts of rural chores.
Throughout his secondary school years, Claude was a boy scout, and, at eighteen years of age, he created a neighborhood youth organization devoted to educational and sport activities. After earning his high school degree, Claude was initially headed for the field of medicine, but he came to the conviction that "it would be agriculture or nothing." He went on to study agricultural engineering at the Kouban Institute in the former USSR. Because of his love for trees, he chose to specialize in arboriculture and fruit cultivation.
Upon his return to Burkina Faso in 1978 Claude began working for a parastatal fruit firm, tracking the introduction of new varieties of fruit trees into the country and providing technical support to farmers. When asked by senior government officials to head the firm, Claude declined the position, as he felt that the work was not in the best interest of the majority of the Burkinabé. During this period, he was also a union leader and, as a result, encountered some difficulties with the management at his place of work. In 1992 he requested to be laid off, "tired of doing nothing more than taking care of work demands, despite the fact that I [was] still driven by the desire to improve the standard of living of the greatest number of people." He set out on his own and, after a series of delays, secured a credit base. In 1994 he began working with a group of farmers, each of whom received a half-acre of land.
That year's torrential rains and the resultant flooding caused the loss of crops–but the farmers still had to repay their bank bills. They were not discouraged, and Claude, together with fifteen farmers, rescheduled their initiative and decided to make use of a larger plot of land. In mid-1995, after much reflection on the success of their activities, both individually and collectively, Claude proposed that they create a farmers' cooperative. He persuaded his collaborators to set up all credit files, logistics, and purchases collectively, in the group's name. It was a success. As a result, he was able to convince other farmers to join the group. By the end of 1995 they had created the National Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Federation of Burkina Faso, unifying the produce farmers of various provinces throughout the country.