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Sustainable income in agribusiness for persons with disabilities

Mushrooms are a daily part of Thai cooking and have a high and stable market price (© Johanne Hanko)
Mushrooms are a daily part of Thai cooking and have a high and stable market price
© Johanne Hanko

About three per cent of Thailand's population have a disability. Many are poor, disadvantaged and discriminated against and the majority live in rural areas. In 1998, the Thai Government approved and signed a declaration on rights for people with disabilities and with this mandate to support people with disabilities, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initiated a pioneering project in collaboration with the government in 1999 to promote income-generating activities for people with disabilities living in rural Thailand. The project provided training for mushroom production, processing methods, marketing and business management, all of which resulted in the successful establishment of village-level mushroom enterprises. "I learned to do things independently," says one trainee, with another declaring: "I CAN DO."

Disability-inclusive agribusiness

Mushrooms were chosen because, as part of daily Thai cooking, they offer good market opportunities and have a relatively high and stable market price. Mushrooms also grow quickly (within a few months) and may be sold fresh, dried or processed into sweets and cookies, amongst other processed products. Cultivating mushrooms requires little start up investment and start-up costs are quickly repaid. Importantly, mushrooms are grown in shaded areas or mushroom houses, thus reducing the physical exertion associated with cultivating crops in full sun. "Although some techniques had to be specially developed for people with certain disabilities - such as using feet instead of hands - mushroom cultivation proved to be workable for everyone," explains FAO's Johanne Hanko, the project's technical specialist. "Mushroom cultivation proved suitable for people with different needs, interests and capabilities."

Preparing a mushroom house for oyster mushroom cultivation (© Johanne Hanko)
Preparing a mushroom house for oyster mushroom cultivation
© Johanne Hanko

In collaboration with the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare, vocational training lasting three months was provided to people with disabilities in the north-eastern province of Ubon Ratchathani. The training was in three parts: initially, to support people to develop greater confidence and to overcome mental and physical barriers to achieving their goals. "They learned to understand that sometimes a different approach may be required and they need to be resourceful," says Hanko. Training was then provided in mushroom cultivation, processing, marketing and waste management, and finally in enterprise development for setting up and managing an enterprise, including basic bookkeeping. In total, 151 trainees successfully completed the training and established their own mushroom farms. To encourage others with disabilities, a technical guide on mushroom cultivation was published and in 2001 the project was handed over to the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare.

14 years later

After receiving training, the quality of life for all trainees has improved, and the perception of their family and community members has changed. "Trainees-turned-entrepreneurs have shown that they are capable of learning and doing," Hanko explains. "The trainees have self-confidence, are self-reliant and live independent lives taking care of themselves and their family. Several became trainers of their peers and are now leaders of community organisations and actively involved with agriculture groups. Many have married, had children, and have developed income-generating activities that allow them to sustain themselves and their family with pride and dignity. As successful entrepreneurs, persons with disabilities are recognised as full economic participants in society and are fully included within their family and community."

Through training, people with disabilities have learned self-confidence and self-reliance (© Johanne Hanko)
Through training, people with disabilities have learned self-confidence and self-reliance
© Johanne Hanko

By responding to local needs and market demands, FAO has also implemented agribusiness activities for people with disabilities in a number of other countries, including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. Training in activities such as beekeeping, silk worm farming and raising goats have been provided in Ethiopia, while in Sierra Leone two of the main activities were production of flour from cassava and blacksmithing to make agricultural tools. "Careful selection of trainees to verify their willingness to learn and to work along with an efficient and locally-adapted training programme have been key to the success of these programmes," Hanko adds. "The provision of start-up kits has also been important to facilitate the initial stages of entrepreneurial activities."

To raise further awareness about disabilities, the next decade (2013-2022) has been declared by the UN as the 'Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities'. To provide lessons on how people with disabilities in agribusiness face challenges, overcome barriers and find sustainable solutions to develop sustainable livelihoods, FAO is collaborating with the Asia Pacific Center on Disability and The Nippon Foundation to highlight 12 agribusiness projects in Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. As in Thailand, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, the study provides evidence that persons with disabilities are actively working in the operation and successful management of agribusinesses.

"By using different methods and ways of accomplishing various tasks, persons with disabilities can successfully establish and work productively in agribusiness enterprises. But more needs to be done to provide them with the opportunity to expand their skills, markets and job opportunities so they can participate in a greater range of income-generating activities," Hanko concludes. "Agribusiness is one of the world's major income-generating sources and offers employment opportunities with a wide range of activities suitable for people with different capabilities, skills, interests and aptitudes."

Date published: September 2013


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