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.
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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 Middle East.
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 labour unions.
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’ diffidence.
“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 standards.”
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 organic vegetables.
“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 countries.
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 back home.
“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.