Aggie Global is empowering Fijian farmers.

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Empower Farmers

This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.

PREMA: In this episode, I speak to the Paisley twins who run a global and currently based in Fiji.

LISA: I'm Lisa Paisley.

ZOE: I'm Zoe Paisley. We are identical twins, which make things a lot of fun.

LISA: Aggie Global aims to connect smallholder farmers to different markets in developing countries to improve that income and also educate them to improve productivity.

PREMA: Lisa and Zoe clearly love what they do. They are entrepreneurs who are also champions of the people they are helping. If the future of the world is in the hands of people like these, we can all rest a little easier. Lisa and Zoe's business is a developmental agriculture consultancy.

LISA: In developing countries, there is this term called subsistence farmers and subsistence farmers is where they grow their food for their family and the community. But they don't necessarily sell it.

ZOE: Yeah. And so a lot of these subsistence farmers are classified as poor because they don't actually have any income. And so it's about, developmental agriculture is about improving the agricultural production system so they can actually start selling their food and earning an income and they can kind of support their family to go to school or buy medical supplies or whatever it happens to be the other side to develop agriculture in a lot of countries, if you boost the agricultural industry, you boost the economy as well.

PREMA: They are striving to deliver two outcomes. One outcome specifically for the Fijian farmers themselves and one for the community from the farmers' perspective.

LISA: It's important to them because it empowers them to really take control of the land and make what they want from it. But they can grow certain crops in a way to get continuous yields and therefore continue income to support themselves and their family and then also growing that produce so that the village and the community have a better diet.

ZOE: The higher level, the kind of impact side is to address food security. So make sure everyone kind of has access to nutritional food throughout the year and they can pick what they want to eat, but also poverty, because they will say for a lot of subsistence, farmers don't have a source of income. And so by giving them access to markets, they can sell the food to generate income.

PREMA: Before we talk about how to girls or semi-rural suburb of Sydney found themselves running an agricultural business in Fiji, it would be worth understanding the environment they grew up in.

LISA: We've always grown up on acreage. We've lived in the northwest of Sydney our whole lives. And we've always had cats and dogs and chickens and horses and all sorts of animals. We've always had that exposure to being outside in growing your own produce and taking care of things.

ZOE: Even when we were younger, we used to go out like a sheep station and we got exposure to like brumbies and like shearing sheep and random stuff. So we've been exposed to agriculture, way of life and even like our place right now, we have a veggie garden at the back where we have like tomatoes growing and all the herbs and things. The local high school offered agriculture, which is quite rare. I would think. And so from that, we got more exposure and we kind of learned about science within agriculture. When we're looking at universities, we really want to look at something that had an impact. And agriculture is such a fundamental thing.

PREMA: Lisa and Zoe are aligned in terms of their values and mission. And this has led them down the same path in life every step of the way.

LISA: We went to Lao in 2016 and that was part of a university subject. When we're driving through the rural areas, you would just see community after community growing rice such as rice paddy right next to the road. And that was the main produce that was growing there would allocate different plots of land to vegetable farming. So you would get occasional cucumbers, tomatoes, pineapples and things like this. It was really eye-opening because we got to do a village stay.

ZOE: But it was just such a different way of life. We'd have dinner and sticky rice and so you're eating with your hands, which is fine, but it has dinner with sticky rice and even for breakfast, the sticky rice and the occasion and we would have like cucumber. It's not what you would have in Sydney, not what we grew up with. But it's always quite interesting to say that, and I think we've always been open and seen how everyone else lives.

PREMA: They landed an internship after university which involved a trip to Fiji.

ZOE: We did like eight months to 12 months in Fiji specifically. And yeah, we kind of just fell in love with the people and the potential that our knowledge could give them.

LISA: It's similar to Lao as in the conditions and the food available in those kinds of things. But then the culture itself is very family-oriented. So you walk down the street and you would just go door knocking and even welcomes you in. They give you a cup of tea and they welcome you like your family. And so it makes work over there very easy.

PREMA: Fiji is a popular holiday destination where holidaymakers can spend time on the lovely beaches and results. But that's not all there is to this island country.

ZOE: So there's a lot of rural communities within Fiji that either don't have access to water and don't have access to resources. There's a place 20 minutes out of Nandi where you fly into Fiji and they didn't have water until last year. And then they got water because they advocated the government for like three years. And it's not that they are unhappy living that life. But like I was saying before, they do have access to smartphones. And they know there is kind of better ways of living in different ways, different ways of living. And they do kind of want those different ways of living.

PREMA: Aggie Global works with the Ministry of Agriculture in Fiji to increase the ability to reach more farmers.

ZOE: I think there's 9000 farmers within that province and those like police, six extension officers, so their capacity is quite limited to be able to reach the farmers. And so we were like, well, if we can kind of come in and share our knowledge and potentially build technological solutions that can connect us and our knowledge to the farmers, both in phone application, we can massively increase. So the Ministry of Agriculture, it's capacity and volume is kind of get facilitator consultants connecting farmers to the people thein need to talk to or the markets, the resources.

PREMA: The first step in these services is a consultation with a local farmer.

LISA: So you'll find a farmer. And then over there all my farm is located here, just past the big tree on the left and drive another hundred meters and you like. There are a hundred big trees like where do I go? And then you show up, introduce yourselves to about what you want to do, and then just getting to know what they do, what that life is like. And then as we're doing that, we walk around the farm and then we pick up on a couple of different problems they might have.

ZOE: We had a farmer and he invited us over and at the farm he had paw par trees, I think about 2 years old. And it had just started fruiting. They were just falling over and he was like, I don't know what's wrong here. It's about identifying, if the rotting was coming from the fruit or the fungi coming from the soil or the fungi coming from the roots. Figuring out what the cause of an issue is. And so for that farmer, we figured out we took a lot of pictures and we went home when we researched it and we identified the disease that would be causing it. And we went back to him and said, this is a disease. This is how you control it. And that's what you need to do.

PREMA: Farmers pay a consultancy fee for Aggie global services. It's only a nominal fee. So Lisa and Zoe supplement their income by charging hotels to run workshops for farmers. These workshops serve a bigger purpose.

ZOE: Fun fact or not so fun fact. In Fiji, they import 40 million dollars worth of food every year just to support tourism, which is pretty crazy. And yet they have X amount of farmers and they have access to land and they can be growing their own food. So what we want to do is kind of combat that. We approach hotels and see what's the percentage of local land grown food they have to buy and then off that if they're interested to buy more, we can connect them into a group of farmers.

PREMA: The twins estimate that most hotels source 45 percent of their produce locally.

ZOE: Hotels want to be buying locally grown food. It's cheaper for them and it's better publicity, I guess. But it's quite difficult with seasonality and the farmers don't know how to plan the farms correctly to actually avoid the seasonality and make it consistent.

LISA: The hotels will be like, oh, I would like some locally grown peppermint or basil or tomatoes, and then they just can't find it anywhere. But farmers either don't know how to grow it or aren't growing enough of it to the high enough standard that the hotels want to buy from. So it's about changing the farmers to really grow the produce in the way that the hotels will actually buy.

PREMA: The first step in building trust with the locals is shoring up allies, which Lisa and Zoe have done by demonstrating a commitment to life in Fiji.

LISA: You just have to be in Fiji. If you're jumping in now and promising all these things and then you leave before you can follow up on those promises, then they don't want to engage with you. But if you're living there, if you see them every day, every week, then they're like, oh, you are again a real person. You are doing some interesting things. I can see the benefit of working with you.

ZOE: I think also the fact that we're twins is a massive ice breaker by age has helped so many times. I'd like to think we're fairly good at that now in breaking the ice and stuff like that. So get comfortable with people a bit more and talk about what we need to talk about.

PREMA: Aside from community and trust, there are logistical challenges to running this business, as is the case for most startups.

LISA: At the moment, it's all self-funded from Zoe and mine's savings. So that's been stressful. We have been getting a little bit of income for the business through consultancy and then just going for grants and awards and things like that.

ZOE: In Fiji, everything is done in person. Not necessarily old fashioned, but that's kind of how it is still. They don't have technology that automates all their processes. A lot of knocking down doors and being like this is what I need to do. And then like, I mean, I've got to go to this other office first and get that paperwork. So the other thing would obviously be capacity, because at the moment there's two of us.

LISA: We have two other team members in America, but they're dealing with our technological solution.

PREMA: Lisa and Zoe have started the agricultural development business at a very relevant time when many farmers across the globe are facing challenges to their livelihood.

ZOE: In the changing environment we're experiencing even in Fiji, everyone blames climate change, but they are experiencing this firsthand, like island nations are very susceptible to climate change at the moment. And we're talking to someone we know saying, I have a mate on this other island and the water and the shoreline used to be like 50 meters, where now it's at his doorstep. And just the water rising. Bizarre when you actually see that firsthand and how it is actually impacting people's lives. For farmers, it's just that the rainfall has been so disrupted. So it's becoming less predictable. So it's getting harder to grow crops.

PREMA: Institutions are beginning to recognize that their work has great potential. This gives them broader access to funding.

ZOE: And so we actually won youth leadership in the Commonwealth. And with that, we got some money as well, which is really great. So that's kind of helped us push it forward as well. But we recently got into a celebrated program with Blue Chilli. And with that, we're getting some funding. And also they have a massive network of investors and things. So when we're at that stage, we can go out and pitch and get funding as well.

PREMA: Lisa and Zoe are fully aware that they have a lot more to learn from those who have come before them as well as the farmers themselves. The farming industry is one where men make most of the decisions and it's the same in Fiji. This makes running a business as female entrepreneurs more difficult. They have to put in twice as much effort to be taken seriously.

LISA: So it's really weird because supposedly 80 percent of the food worldwide slash grown in developing countries is going by women. So there is a huge dominance of women in the industry. But women aren't necessarily the ones making decisions. So we if we find a farmer who is female, then we obviously talk to her and coaches different things.

ZOE: Yeah. One of the challenges is women in agriculture. Women in tech. Woman in business. Like there's so many things that we're doing that you wouldn't see a lot of women doing. At least there isn't a lot of exposure, I guess, to it in Fiji as well. It is still relatively patriarchal, but I think they see us come in and they see our passion and our drive and how we are dedicated to make this happen. Oh, that's serious. Can I get the ball rolling? And it helps overcome certain assumptions or expectations.

PREMA: The twins are grateful to be doing what they love, helping the Fijian farming community increase their yield so that they can make more money. They approach this with an open mind. It's not about telling Fijians there's a better way of doing things, but about doing it differently. Their hard work is paying off in ways they least expect.

LISA: So the first workshop we ever did, we had one person walk up and hey, cool, I guess we just do this anyway. So we did it. And at the end of it, here's a guy as clinical. And then three months later, we visited the farmer and he had implemented everything. He understood it all. And quantifying that impact, he increases yields by five times.

ZOE: So the national average income for Fijian farmers is two hundred Fijian dollars a week, which is about 150 Australian dollars. But this person after the workshop and after actually implementing what we said here, he earns 1000 Fijian dollars instead of the two hundred. Which is massive, like we are doing things rights. We can do this kind of thing.

PREMA: Their work has changed their relationship with food, too.

ZOE: Yeah, I think we still kind of buy what we'd like to buy, but it does make you think about how kind of privileged we are in Australia to have access to food throughout the year and a range of food like you can go out for lunch and have avocado and toast and stuff like that, or berries or mushrooms and cheese.

LISA: And just like, yeah, there are so many different foods over there that you can't get every week. In Fiji we'll buy a pumpkin and we'll do like pumpkin risotto or soup or whatever happens to me. And you just adapt to the different food you have.

PREMA: Lisa and Zoe want to make Aggie Global, truly global. They're starting with laying strong foundations in Fiji and ensuring their business contributes to the local economy.

ZOE: So we do want to be expanding into like India, PNG potentially. There's a lot of places we could be going, but only one that is successful. And for us, a way of that being shown that it is successful is hiring local people. So at some stage, we do want to be hiring locals and they can kind of take over and be the go-to people for Aggie Global, which we think.

PREMA: Their experience with the agricultural business in Fiji have led Lisa and Zoe to develop more empathy. They feel others should do the same.

LISA: If you're going on a cruise, actually leave the boat and go out and see different things because there's port anywhere in Fiji and it's just a tourist hub and it's really expensive and immaculate. And that's not Fiji, at least from what we see. So if you actually drive out of town 15 minutes and talk to a local and see what they're actually doing. I think that makes a huge difference for yourself. And the locals do appreciate it. In developed countries, so Australia, you do have a massive divide about who is buying the food in the city vs. who is growing the food. And I think social media is making big headway in that about what is actually happening in the rural communities, even if it's just to look at it every now and again, you don't have to be across it 24/7. But just like every six months, just be there. Also, what's happening in agriculture today, something like that. Just so you have that connection with where your food comes from.

PREMA: The Paisley twins see much opportunity for those equipped with the knowhow to make a significant difference in developing economies.

LISA: My first thought was just doing it, give it a shot. That was one of our biggest motivated to do it because we had the opportunity to do it and do it full time. So we're like, yep, let's go start up this business. And when you're starting it up, use your network. You don't know everything. So go to the people who might have the answers if you want to be going to a new country that you haven't been to before.

ZOE: Make sure you understand it and have lived there. To an extent, because maybe you may be surprised by some of their cultural differences. And also by living there, you get to build up your local network. And I think that the local network is something that has really helped us a lot in it. And I've been able to get where we are.

PREMA: Lisa and Zoe are two of many young people who aren't here to negotiate, but are here to impact change. They see gaps in the understand what they can do to find a solution. They are focused on their purpose. Do we know what our purpose is?

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