In 1993, a small organic farm project led by Dr. Sarath Ranaweera initiated in the central hills of Sri Lanka on what were once abandoned and marginalized tea lands. More than a decade later, this project led to what is now claimed as the world’s first Fair Trade Certified processor and exporter of organic spices, BioFoods. Known today as SOFA, or the Small Organic Farmers Association (a primarily tea producer which supplies to BioFoods), this organization is dedicated in having more than 90% of its total production volume supplied from small farmers, and the remaining 10% from medium sized farmers in the region. In doing so, they are committed to improving the production of small and organic lands, following the Fair Trade model, preventing exploitation in the supply chain, and enhancing socio-economic standards in this island country off the eastern coast of India.
The success of SOFA and BioFoods can be attributed to its founder, Dr. Sarath Ranaweera, who voiced the situation tea growers found themselves in the 1990’s, realizing their conditions were not fit for productivity, efficiency or survival. The evolution of their small tea lands towards organic agriculture was not only an alternative method to protect them, but also a measure to enrich their mid-country soil. While obtaining their certification proved a lengthy and challenging process, facing controversial local laws and regulations and a lack of financial resources, perseverance and genuine motivations to alleviate the small scale farmer allowed for the SOFA we know today. SOFA is a fine example of how empowerment of small scale farmers, achieved by uniting under a democratic structure, matched with an income assuring mechanism, is a positive direction towards sustainability.
SOFA is made up of 36 farmer groups and approximately 2,108 farmer families, working on 5,888 acres of organic cultivation. Members gather roughly 800 tons of green leaf a year which, when processed, yields about 175 tons of tea, 75 percent of which is green tea, and 25 percent of which is black tea. SOFA also grows spices and vegetable crops to sell as well as nourish their families. Herbs and spices grown on SOFA farms include cardamom, turmeric, cloves, black and white pepper, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and ginger. SOFA is located in Sri Lanka near the town of Gampola.