For many of our clients, agricultural extension is a lifeline for the farm families they serve. “Extension,” as it is known in agriculture circles, is the delivery of agronomic best practices that can help farmers increase productivity, adapt to climate change and increase profitability. In December, we released an issue brief that highlighted, among other things, barriers to effective extension and how Root Capital works to help clients overcome these barriers using a shared value approach.
While attending a workshop hosted by Root Capital's Advisory Services team in Nicaragua, I recently saw — and heard — first-hand just how important highly trained extension specialists are to overcoming these barriers.
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With low commodity prices and continued climatic extremes, 2015 is not a year that many Central American farmers, especially in coffee, will remember fondly. And so at a recent two-day agronomic training organized by Root Capital in Jinotega, Nicaragua, an agricultural extension specialist named Sonia Vasquez brought a message of empowerment to the 31 farmers in the room:
“We dwell on drought, on coffee leaf rust, on climate change, when we ought to think about how to create optimal conditions on our farms, because our farms are something that we can control.”
Her message was simple: while external challenges may seem insurmountable, none of them is an excuse to sit down and give up; there are still many things within your control.
Sonia is an agricultural extension specialist for COMSA, a Honduran coffee cooperative of roughly 800 members. She helped lead the two-day agronomic training on organic coffee production and farm restoration. From finding creative ways to use nutrient-rich byproducts of coffee processing to creating healthy conditions for micro-organisms, Sonia went on to outline the strategies that she teaches farmers (and uses on her own farm) to improve production quality.
The second day of the training echoed similar themes as we visited the farms of two producers working to take back control of their farms from the devastating coffee leaf rust disease that significantly reduced yields in the area over the past several years.
Once again, Sonia said something that stuck with me:
“Knowledge has to be shared, it is for all.”
– Sonia Vasquez
While her phrase is a simple one, it can be profound. Formal educational systems in many of the communities where Root Capital works are hierarchical. The teacher — and only the teacher — has knowledge and learning is a process of rote memorization. In contrast, the values that Sonia and COMSA espouse are based on the democratization of knowledge — knowledge is for all regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status, or background.
During the training, Sonia highlighted how every farmer with whom she works uses a different type of organic fertilizer in different amounts than the next to achieve optimum production. Aided by Sonia and agricultural extension specialists, farmers learn key principles of organic production, diagnose soil and environmental conditions on their own farms, and then experiment to optimize what inputs worked best for them. While Sonia talked about organic principles at a high level, she also cautioned that there is no point in copying a recipe and applying it blindly. Learning must be an active, adaptive process.
I saw participants, especially farmers, leave the training interested, excited, and empowered around the themes of optimizing organic production. The training showed me the important role that Root Capital’s agronomic advisory services in particular play in facilitating improved on-farm performance and highly-valuable peer-to-peer learning.
Root Capital will likely never supply direct, on-farm extension services. Instead, we will continue finding ways to support our clients in building the human capital required to successfully deliver this type of service to their members. And in doing so, we will help these businesses become successful, credit-worthy clients, creating greater positive impact in their communities and reducing risk to our own portfolio.
If we are to overcome the challenge of sustainably increasing food production to feed the world’s growing population, investors and technical assistance providers, scientists and farmers, must work together to create shared value.