7 minutes


It’s ten in the morning and the warehousing class is about to start. In the classroom, the tables form a rectangle that divides twelve students into two teams for different complementary exercises. Some will learn how to weigh and bag sunflower seeds while others will learn how to label glass jars. In this simulated production line, everyone is concentrating hard. A few metres away, beyond the kitchen doors, the pumpkin that was just delivered is being peeled and cut up to make jam. In another classroom, cardboard letters arranged on the walls ask “What’s happening?” In the world, in the city, in each of the trainees’ neighbourhoods, which is a world in itself. At the Semear academy, the future is happening. A future of horizons for young people and adults the labour market has not yet valued.


Semear is a sustainable program for social inclusion of children, young people and adults with intellectual and developmental difficulties (main target), through training and development of skills, employability and socio-professional insertion and agricultural production and transformation.

Joana Santiago has made reversing this situation her mission in life: “70% of citizens with intellectual disabilities are unemployed, but only 6% have an actual incapacity to work. The country, State and the people are wasting their talent. We realised that we had to act”, explains the director of this land of opportunities which, for four years, has been dedicated to developing the skills and promoting the social and professional insertion of this segment of the population, through agricultural production and transformation.

To go back to the roots of the programme, we had to go back to 2005, when Joana founded BIPP – Banco de Informação de Pais para Pais (Information Bank from Parents to Parents), to inform both fathers and mothers alike about the resources available in Portugal for people with special needs. “It’s thanks to my son that I’m where I am today”, she confides. Francisco, who is now 18, has multiple disabilities without a clear-cut diagnosis. Joana gave up on another of her dreams – she was a professional nurse – but fighting for a change was a greater and more pressing mission: “We have to empower these people, insert them into the job market and help them become independent and happy.”

Three different sweet potatoes
Great taste, no waste
In eight years of existence, Semear prevented four tonnes of food from going to waste.


It all starts with the earth. “We use the earth as a raw material to teach trainees and to develop the products that fill the shelves of Semear’s grocery store: in addition to the jams, preserves, chutneys, seasonings and pâtés”, says Joana Santiago. Organic and home-made production helps addressing another concern – fighting waste. “We make quality products, using what nobody else wants. For example, we use the so-called ‘ugly apple’ to make our rosemary jelly.

Our red pepper pasta is made using surplus red peppers”, explains Joana Santiago, adding that “from the perspective of a circular economy, it’s very important to instil a culture of social awareness and respect for these values at the academy.” Focusing on growing fruit and vegetables was also a natural choice: “We believe that agrifood, because it is practical and repetitive, is the best bet for this stratum, and because production is organic, which means that trainees don’t have to handle chemicals”, the risk of accidents can be reduced.

photography of Joana Sampaio
Joana Santiago
Being the mother of a child with special needs made her realise the difficulties these people have into accessing the labour market.

When they come to the Semear academy, students enrol in one of three courses: Farm Operator, Agrifood Sector Operator and Warehouse Operator. All of these courses give the students equivalence to compulsory education attendance and have a duration of one to three years. The trainees’ successful performance during the course, assessed every four months, will determine the completion of the training.

Sometimes, during their education, students discover other areas of interest: “when that happens, we direct them to another course”, says Joana. The practical component, in a real-world work setting, is a crucial part of their integration. “Employability staff accompany both the young adult and the company in the process, equipping them with tools to help them make the necessary adjustments and modifications to working hours and to the task so that the person can contribute to the company. Why? Because we don’t want them to employ our students as a favour, but because they need them.”

Organic and homemade production helps address another concern: fighting waste.

Traineeships can be carried out in areas that aren’t related to agriculture, such as publishing, given that the skills they acquire in the courses can be applied to many other sectors. “They worked at a publishing house a little while ago. Given the warehousing aspect, they understand how the sequence works. A young adult that is good at filing can work in a library”, Joana exemplifies. In other words, the earth shows them the way, but not necessarily the path to follow. At this stage, what matters is that they find themselves. Part of the work Carmen Vale de Gato does, a psychomotor rehabilitation therapist and behavioural trainer, includes helping them better understand their potential, personal and interpersonal skills and to develop them, to establish a profile.

Semear’s flavours are 100% natural. On its catalogue, we can find olive oil, aromatised vinegar, salt flower and varied jams and seasonings.

“We want them to ask: Am I better at tasks that require dexterity and precision or at tasks that require strength and more generalised tasks? Am I better at memorising things or at solving math problems”, clarifies Carmen. “I coach people in their day-to-day activities, where I teach them how to lead an independent life, clean a house, wash and hang laundry, cook a simple meal, use electrical appliances… I also work on the Body and Action, which focuses on psychomotor skills, where I teach them how to recognise signs of fatigue and how to manage them or to work on overcoming resistance to a task, for example. And, finally, Social Responsibility and Citizenship, where I help them understand that, in addition to their rights, they have civic duties too. They do volunteer work – we cleaned a beach recently, to help them understand the problem plastic poses…”

“70% of citizens with intellectual disabilities are unemployed, but only 6% have an actual incapacity to work. It’s a waste of talent.”


Twenty three young people and adults have already found jobs. Of these, five are working at Semear; some in the kitchen and others in production. For Maria David, one of the Warehousing Operators course instructors “it is very gratifying to see that they are successful after they graduate. Just the other day, I saw a former student at a Pingo Doce store, in Sintra, and I was thrilled.” Motivation is key on the road to success: “Their curiosity and interest helps us to overcome the difficulties they may have in performing a given task”. These achievements help those who are new to the academy. In the land of opportunities, they reap tomorrow every day. Here, they will always find a place to seed another dream.

Semear fruit jam

Semear sunflower seeds