ROME, Feb 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When race riots
sparked by the shooting of two African migrant workers forced
Suleiman Diara to abandon life as a fruit picker in southern
Italy he decided to turn his hand to making yoghurt.
With 30 euro ($32) borrowed from an Italian charity worker,
he and a friend bought 15 litres of milk and tried their luck.
Six years on, the two friends and five other migrants are
running a small organic farming business that U.N. experts say
is an example of sustainable agricultural development, which if
replicated could help feed the growing global population.
"We named it Barikama, which means 'resilience' as we went
through many difficulties to open this company but we never gave
up," he said referring to a term used in Bambara, a language
spoken in his native Mali.
Born in a rural area of southwestern Mali, Diara arrived in
Italy on a migrant boat from Libya in 2008 hoping to make enough
money to buy his family a cow and a plough.
"We had no equipment to work the land and struggled to
produce enough food for the whole year," he said.
Italy has since become Europe's main entry point for
refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the
A record 181,000 crossed the Mediterranean last year, most
on flimsy boats run by people smugglers.
"I was told it would be easy to find a job in Italy," said
the 32-year old. But the reality turned out to be different.
Like thousands of others, Diara ended up working in
vegetable fields and fruit orchards in conditions that have been
described as exploitative and slave-like by rights groups and
In January 2010, he was picking oranges for 20 euros a day
near the town of Rosarno, in the southern Calabria region, when
a gang of white youths fired air rifles at a group of African
migrants returning from work, injuring two of them.
The shooting set off riots that led authorities to evacuate
more than 1,000 migrants from the town, including Diara and his
future business partners, who had been living in abandoned
factories with no running water or electricity.
The group ended up homeless in Rome, where they decided to
have a go at producing organic yogurt.
In Mali, making yoghurt simply required putting milk in a
barrel and waiting, Diara said, adding that this seemed very
appealing after two years of back-breaking farm labour.
The young entrepreneurs adapted the Malian method to the
colder climate, warming up the milk to trigger fermentation, and
started selling jars at farmers' markets.
Initially they struggled to overcome Italian customers'
"It's not easy to do business in Italy if you come from
Africa and have a dark skin," said 31-year-old Barikama partner
Cheikh Diop who comes from Senegal.
"Many didn't trust us, believing we had poor hygienic
But the product gradually grew in popularity thanks to its
distinctive taste and its makers' friendly attitude, Diop said.
"Now we have elderly clients who say the taste of our yogurt
reminds them of their youth," he said.
Operating from a farm overlooking a lake outside Rome,
Barikama now sells about 200 litres a week. The business not
only provides a living for its partners, it has also helped
break down social barriers.
"By touring local markets I've learned the language and met
many nice Italians," said 26-year-old Malian Sidiki Kone.
"Before, I thought there were no good people in this country,"
he added, referring to his time in Rosarno.
Set up as a social cooperative, an enterprise that is
granted tax cuts in return for providing social services, the
company also offers work opportunities for Italians with
Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.
"It's difficult for them to integrate into society, as they
have a hard time communicating," Diara said.
"We thought their struggle is similar to ours in a way, as
we too find it hard to communicate and fit in."
Up to 90 percent of people with autism in Europe are
unemployed, according to estimates.
Diara and his friends deliver yogurt door to door by
bicycle, recycle empty jars, collecting them from customers
after use, and have recently expanded into growing and selling
"We are all sons of farmers who grew up surrounded by nature
so we like to support the environment," said Diara.
Barikama has become a local success story and in 2014 its
partners were invited to speak at an event on sustainable
farming hosted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) in Rome.
"It's a model that can be replicated elsewhere," said FAO
officer Rosalaura Romeo, referring to Barikama's green business
approach to farming.
Small farmers produce most of the food eaten in developing
With climate change threatening food security, the FAO says
helping these farmers to boost yield while protecting the
environment will be key to achieving an ambitious plan agreed by
world leaders to end poverty and hunger by 2030.
Diara and Diop hope the experience acquired in Italy will
help them in their long-term plan of starting a farming business
"My father farms peanuts, maize and millet, while here I've
learned to grow aubergines and other vegetables that I can try
to plant there too," said Diop.
Their immediate goal, however, is to employ more migrants
and disadvantaged people in Italy.
"We want to extend the vegetable garden, increase yogurt
production and give more people a chance," said Diara.
($1 = 0.9386 euros)
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Emma
Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)