Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Soil Conservation in Rural Cibao

Mision Illac (ILAC) is a non-profit organization that operates in the rural communities of the Central Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic. Its mission is to provide agricultural education and training to local community members in order to improve their overall financial well-being, health, and quality of life, and discourage migration to the city. Specifically, ILAC promotes nutrition and environmental conservation through its focus on the production of organic vegetables using sustainable agricultural practices.

F2F volunteer Charles Mitchell with ILAC members
Partners’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program has been working with ILAC since the start of this year, during which it has sent several volunteers to provide assistance and contribute to the organization’s mission. Recently, F2F volunteer, Charles Mitchell traveled to the Dominican Republic to provide training and workshops on best practices for soil conservation. An organic farm inspector and former member of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Charles was able to train the technical staff and members of ILAC in improved methods to reduce soil erosion on slopes, increase fertility, and improve soil cover. During the beginning of his assignment, Charles was able to assess the soil conditions of the farms, as well as the current management practices being used. 

Following these visits and meetings, he tailored his workshops to suit the needs of the farmers and provided them with recommendations on ways that they can strengthen their soil management and conservation systems. In particular, he proposed further training in the production of organic inputs to control pests and increase soil nutrition, such as through composting. It is expected that with the implementation of these recommendations, the associated farmers of ILAC will be able to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events on their soils, adopt more sustainable practices, and ultimately increase their overall production. 

In this upcoming year, Partners F2F program will continue to work with ILAC through similar volunteer assignments to help them meet their goals. In particular, Partners F2F will send volunteers to conduct training sessions and workshops in organic coffee production, beekeeping and honey production, as well as on climate-smart agricultural practices to follow up on the work of Charles. 

F2F volunteer Charles Mitchell (top) and ILAC member

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Increasing the Resilience of Dominican Cacao to Changes in Climate

The Dominican Republic has a long and rich history in the production of cacao. However, farmers have struggled to increase the resilience of their cacao yields to changes in the climate. Rebecca Roebber, Marketing Director and COO of indi chocolate, recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to share her expertise in cacao production and quality assurance. In particular, Rebecca worked alongside IDIAF (Instituto Dominicano De Investigacion Agropecuarias Y Forestales) staff members to help them improve their production practices to become more sustainable in face of climate change and increase the quality and value of their cacao. Following an initial assessment of their current production practices, Rebecca provided training sessions on methods to increase the quality of organic cacao through improvements in pruning and post harvest practices. She also emphasized the importance of soil nutrition to ensure the quality and sustainability of their cacao yields. Rebecca also noted a significant need for a fermentation and drying center to facilitate farmers’ post harvest activities and subsequently contribute to higher quality yields.

In addition to assisting farmers with increasing the quality of their yields, Rebecca also shared best practices in marketing and chocolate making to help them add value to their cacao and increase their income opportunities. During these workshops, she demonstrated the various steps involved in chocolate-making, including roasting, winnowing (removing the outer shell of the beans), refining, tempering, and packaging. Additionally, Rebecca recommended venturing into the local tourist industry to create alternative opportunities. She suggested that they could organize demonstrations for tourists to showcase the complete process of making chocolate, from cacao production to the final product.

Rebecca Roebber has extensive experience in cacao production and quality control. Through her work at indi chocolate she has also led the marketing strategy for their chocolate and cacao product line. Rebecca has previously volunteered with our Farmer-to-Farmer flex program in Ecuador, training smallholder farmers in rural communities in best practices for cacao processing.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Venturing into a New Healthy Snack: Sweet Potato and Dragon Fruit Chips

Rincon Grande's Dragon Fruit Chips
Alimentos Rincon Grande, S.A., located in the small municipality of San Andrés Iztapa, Chimaltenango, is a family-owned and operated enterprise that produces organic fruits and vegetables to sell in domestic markets. In an effort to increase their profits and diversify their products, they have recently begun producing added-value goods, such as chips, from their sweet potato and dragon fruit crops. As part of these efforts, Partners of the Americas sent two F2F volunteers over the summer to provide support in fortifying their marketing strategy and improving the packaging of their sweet potato and dragon fruit chips.

Dr. Melvin Pascall discussing packaging materials with staff
On September 25th Ohio State University professor, Melvin Pascall, travelled to Guatemala to help Rincon Grande improve the packaging and labelling of their chip products in order to extend their shelf life and increase their marketability. During his time in Guatemala, Dr. Pascall visited a few of Rincon Grande’s processing plants and the fields where they grow their sweet potatoes and dragon fruit crops. These visits were meant to inform him of current operations and allow him to evaluate their current packaging and labelling methods.

Through these observations and his discussions with Rincon Grande staff, he developed several recommendations that the enterprise could begin to adopt in order to meet their goals. To be able to extend the shelf life of their chips, Dr. Pascall led a presentation to staff members on the various elements that affect the quality and safety of food products, including physical, chemical, and microbial changes, all of which can be better controlled through adequate packaging. In addition to his recommendations on appropriate packaging materials and methods, he also trained staff on basic labelling standards to meet US requirements. Dr. Pascall has extensive experience in food science and technology, and has conducted several trainings in packaging and labelling both nationally and internationally.

F2F volunteer Jillian Blanski visiting Rincon Grande's fields
Following up on Dr. Pascall’s efforts was another F2F volunteer, Jillian Blanski, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current sales representative at Mondelez International. During her trip, Jillian continued building upon Rincon Grande’s goal of developing added-value products using their sweet potato and dragon fruit crops. Through her assignment, she focused on strengthening the enterprise’s marketing strategy and identifying new potential business partnerships and ventures that they could pursue. Jillian worked very closely with Oscar Arce, owner of Rincon Grande, to assess the current presentation of their chips, including the logos and packaging colors, as well as the various flavors they’ve developed.

In addition, she visited local organic markets to assess the potential opportunity for Rincon Grande’s sweet potato and dragon fruit chips. In order to continue on their progress, Jillian recommended that Rincon Grande diversify their sweet potato chip products to also include strips that can be added to soups and salads. She also recommended they try to process their yucca crops into chips as another potential value-added product.

Through the combined work of both Jillian and Dr. Pascall, Rincon Grande is expected to take significant steps towards reaching their goals and expanding their business. Partners’ F2F program will continue to collaborate with Rincon Grande in this next year to help them continue making progress.

Rincon Grande's Sweet Potato Chips

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Visit by F2F Volunteer and Apiculture Expert, Dr. Ethel Villalobos

On Friday, October 27, Partners of the Americas had the distinct pleasure of hosting Dr. Ethel Villalobos for a presentation on her recent Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer assignment in the Dominican Republic.

Dr. Villalobos is the Director of the Honeybee Project at the University of Hawaii – Manoa. During her decades-long career of working with honeybees, she has led groundbreaking research on varroa treatments, mite-bee interactions, colony health assessment, as well as hygienic behavior. Moreover, she has also been developing a series of outreach programs for underserved Costa Rican farmers in need of pollination services. In fact, it was her passion for empowering impoverished farmers with practical beekeeping skills, which inspire her to sign up as a volunteer with Partners of the Americas’ F2F program.

In May 2017, Dr. Villalobos and her UH graduate student, Scott Nikaido, traveled to several rural communities in the northeast of the Dominican Republic. The objective of this F2F team assignment was to provide hands-on training to banana producers on the development and implementation of apiculture projects for honey production. As part of this assignment, Dr. Villalobos and Mr. Nikaido worked alongside staff and farmers associated with Banelino, a national association of banana producers. During their visit, the team led multiple workshops focused on production techniques and technologies for honey bees and queen rearing. The volunteers also assisted Banelino by identifying the best set of endemic flowers for beekeeping and ways that local farmers could improve their apiculture management practices in order optimize honey production.

In addition to speaking about her recent F2F assignment, Dr. Villalobos also granted Partners of the Americas HQ staff the opportunity to learn more about the Dominican Republic’s emerging beekeeping sector. According to Dr. Villalobos, there is a serious of challenges afflicting the country’s honeybees. These issues include:
  • Hunger - Starvation 
  • Poor Location Of Apiaries 
  • Poor Equipment Condition 
  • Little Understanding Of Bee Management 
  • Limited Knowledge Of Honey Plants
Despite these obstacles, the Dominican beekeeping community has also made significant strides to improve the well-being of honeybee colonies and the management of income-generating honey production. This success is evident in the number of successful hive operations and the quality of the honey that is being produced across several rural communities in the northeast of the country, such as this one:

Monday, October 30, 2017

My Beekeeping Assignment in San Jose de Cusmapa, Nicaragua

By F2F Volunteer Kris Fricke 

This was my first visit to Central America after having done many projects in Africa. As I stepped out of the plane into the warm humid air filled with the vibrant smell of foliage I was struck by how much it reminded me of Africa, though of course it's also quite different and I was comparing and contrasting in my mind throughout the trip. The plumes of smoke from volcanos visible right from the airport and throughout the capitol were really a marvel to me!

My project was with Fabretto in the town of Somoto in the mountains in the north and in the tiny town of San Jose de Cusmapa near there. The area was beautiful and scenic with little villages of classic tiled adobe houses nestled among the mountains.  Somoto was a small town of cobbled streets that were very pleasant to stroll about upon, with seemingly most of the town's population sitting on their doorsteps in the evening.

Fabretto is working with youth in many surrounding communities to train and support them in getting started in beekeeping (among many other things), and we visited many different outlying communities and inspected their hives with them to see how they are doing and what advice would benefit them. I found their beekeeping to be well on the right track and hopefully with the advise I gave them they will be even more so. I was expecting the bees to be very “Africanized” and aggressive but they weren't quite as bad as I had feared.

The village of San Jose de Cusmapa was a particularly delightful place to visit. Kind of draped over the top of a mountain (I'm told it's the highest altitude settlement in Nicaragua), once can behold magnificent vistas from the edge of town, though one is often looking down on the tops of clouds.  People get around town either on foot or by horseback, with horses by far outnumbering the few cars I saw in town.I also gretly enjoyed the Nicaraguan food during the trip, of particular note I recall the rolled tacos and various forms of tamales.

Altogether I had a very enjoyable trip, I  was glad to see such enthusiasm and momentum in developing the beekeeping sector and feel it has great potential.  I definitely look forward to returning to the area in future years.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Advancing the Business Development and Sales of Fabretto Youth Centers in Nicaragua

By Andrés F. Varona, Farmer-to-Farmer Program Officer 

In September 2017, Johnson Ndi traveled to Nicaragua, to support our Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) host, Fabretto Foundation, with multiple seminars on business development and sales. As part of this F2F assignment, Mr. Ndi visited and led trainings at several of Fabretto’ youth centers in Managua as well as in northern town of San Jose de Cusmapa. At these centers, he delivered a series of youth-focused workshops meant to train Fabretto staff, tutors, and students on various aspects of merchandising and e-marking for small agricultural enterprises. He also led some hands on trainings on effective sales techniques and strategies, negotiation skills, and the use of digital tools to increase the market presence and customer base.

The key goal of this assignment was to strengthen ability of participants to launch successful sales operations tailored to agricultural crops and value-added products in the Nicaraguan market. In addition to training Fabretto youth, over his two week visit, Mr. Ndi also had the chance to work with Fabretto in order to strengthen their organizational systems and programs related to business development and sales. As part of his efforts, he supported Fabretto’s commercial manager in putting together a realistic and actionable business and marketing plan. This document will serve as a blueprint that the organization can use when promoting their various agricultural products at trade fairs and exhibitions within and outside Nicaragua.

Mr. Ndi concluded the assignment by developing a series of recommendations that Fabretto Foundation can use to make their business development and sales-related activities more impactful and far-reaching. These practical suggestions include:

- Enhancing coordination among Fabretto’s various units (e.g. Coffee crop and beekeeping, and the three strategic program areas: Early Education, Primary Education, and Technical Vocational Education) so their activities complement one another.
- Leveraging exhibitions as fundraising platforms for the Fabretto youth center in San Jose de Cusmapa. Profits from exhibitions can be used to organize more activities for students and promote hard work, as well as expanding and improving the facilities of the center.
- Using the Fabretto website to cross-sell and cross-promote all the other resources that the foundation currently offers. The website should highlight the most recent issue of Fabretto’s monthly e-newsletter, annual report, survey results, press releases, articles, statistics, benchmarks, information about upcoming events and other data that is critical to the organization’s audience. The more information provided, and the more current it is, the more likely it will be that visitors will be encouraged to return.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Agricultural Extension with F2F Host Mission ILAC

By F2F Volunteer Robert Crook

In September 2017, I traveled to the Dominican Republic to work on a USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Climate Change Adaptation program. For this F2F assignment, I was asked to work with Mission ILAC, a faith-based organization located in Santiago de Los Caballeros, the DR’s second largest city. For over 60 years, Mission ILAC has a long and well-respected history of implementing medical programs that provide vital medical care and surgeries for underserved rural populations. In the last decade, the organization has been actively working on improving the economic livelihoods of local farmers around Santiago. Much of this technical assistance is focused on ways to empower agricultural producers and prevent rural populations from migrating to the crowded urban areas of the country. During my time in Santiago, I was fortunate enough to work alongside Mission ILAC staff in order to develop a more strategic and climate-smart vision for their agricultural extension programs.

In addition, also had the chance to learn more about one of Mision ILAC’s most recent agricultural extension project. This new project involves the construction and management of household gardens or “Huertas caseras”. While these small gardens are typically used to grow vegetables for household consumption, the organization is working in partnership with local farmers into order to adapt these gardens as platforms for income-generation. Currently, many local farmers associated with Mission ILAC are seeing the potential of expanding their household vegetable production for the domestic market.

My F2F assignment in Santiago de los Caballeros not only provided with the ability to share my knowledge and skillset, it also gave me the chance to learn more about the Dominican Republic and its people. After all, the Dominican Republic is a country unlike others in the Caribbean. It is part of the island of Hispaniola that was first settled by the native Taino people. In many ways, the legacy of the Taino people stills influence the culture the language of the country. The DR boasts a very diverse topography. While the coastal areas have a very warm and humid climate, the provinces around the Cordillera Central experience much cooler temperatures. It is in these mountain ranges where coffee is grown in agroforestry systems under the shade of banana and plantain plants and fruit trees and Pinus occidentalis. They really are beautiful, fields of layered greenery topped by the soft crowns of these Hispaniolan Pines. While the diseases of roya and broca have severely diminished the acreage of coffee plantings over the past 20 years, there are still very beautiful and healthy fields of coffee being grown to supply some really tasty and unique coffee varieties.