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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Enhancing Meat Processing through University-led Microbial Analyses: Reflections from the Dominican Republic

By: Dr. Aliyar Fouladkhah, F2F/USAID Volunteer, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Tennessee State University

The two hour drive from Santo Domingo to Santiago gave a snapshot of the vibrant agricultural industries in the Dominican Republic. The road to Santiago is lined by farming fields with many road-side vendors selling fruits and vegetables. In addition to being the second largest city in DR and the fourth largest city in the Caribbean, Santiago is also home to several distinguished universities, including ISA University (Universidad ISA)—the host institution for this Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) assignment.

Upon arrival at ISA University, I had to opportunity to meet with department head of the food science program. The program currently is home to 8 lecturers/research advisers and approximately 275 students, around 10% of the population of the ISA University students. The timing of this F2F assignment was commendable since it was scheduled during the last two weeks prior to start of the semester. During this time, most faculty and research technicians were present on campus, allowing for many of them to attend the F2F training sessions. During my assignment, I also had the chance to visit the university’s 1) meat processing plant, 2) poultry primary processing facility, 3) fruit and vegetable processing area, and 4) the dairy processing plant. These visits afforded me the opportunity to engage and lead several trainings with faculty/technician working in each respective facility. After a few days on campus, I was requested by faculty to organize additional workshops on meat-borne pathogens and meat decontamination interventions as well as best practices and food safety management systems for meat processing.

During these workshops, a series of inoculation studies were discussed for the attendees, particularly for choosing surrogate, attenuated, or indicator non-pathogenic inoculum and for conduct of microbiological validation studies in the university. After the training sessions, there were additional discussions on the importance of validating existing antimicrobial interventions in the DR’s meat industry. There were also discussion of an existing thesis research project where the institution was trying to reduce the nitrate levels of fermented sausages by replacing some portion of the curing salts with natural and local ingredients such celery seed powder.

There were also discussion about a student-led project that was trying to compare the efficacy of chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite. The research advisor expressed concern that so far they were not able to achieve the exact same concertation of the both chemicals, thus unable to compare the efficacy of the two. Rather than trying to achieve the exact same concertation for both chemicals, I recommended using each antimicrobial intervention at the highest level authorized by the regulatory agency and manufacturer, which would give an overview of maximum decontamination efficacy that, could be achieved for each antimicrobial. We concluded that further studies could be designed to test the antimicrobial effectiveness at lower concertation e.g. 75%, 50%, or 25% of the maximum concentration proposed by the manufacturer(s).

After these workshops and observation of their current practices, I developed the following recommendations to strengthen ISA University’s inoculation capabilities:

(1) Many of the practices in the regional meat industries are solely adopted from the United States, those are validated based on the regulatory requirements and processing conditions in the U.S. To assure such interventions are efficacious in DR, they would require microbiological validation studies using locally-available isolated organisms. Higher temperature, different altitude, and different processing practices could affect the efficacy of the antimicrobials that could be assessed and adjusted based on the knowledge gained during the workshops. In this way, practices such as adjusting the exposure time, method of application, and concentration of lactic acid for decontamination of meat carcasses from Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli were discussed and recommended for the ISA University stakeholders.

(2) For the ongoing above-referenced research project, for reducing nitrate of fermented sausages, microbiological safety evaluation of the re-formulated product is a critical stage before adoption of the practice by the private industry, particularly multiplication and survival of spore-forming organisms such as Clostridium botulinum and Clostridium perfringens. Since handing such pathogens and preparation of spore-suspension for the needed inoculation study is currently unavailable in the university, it was recommended to conduct a microbiological study using Aerobic Plate Count as an indicator of microbial proliferation during the shelf-life and disseminating the results with caution as an exploratory experiment that requires further validation studies for control of the above-mentioned spore-forming organisms. Regulatory information on the reductions could also be useful for the stakeholders, knowing that 33%, and 50% reduction of nitrate could qualify a producer for claims of reduced-nitrate, and low-nitrate, respectively, that could assist a producers in better marketing the product in the island. 

(3) One major barrier for conducting inoculation studies is limited availability of functional autoclaves that could pose a bio-hazard risk in case of growing and purifying microbial inoculum. To assure validity of the work conducted in the food safety and food microbiology programs, it is also vital to develop a plan for conducting and documenting the calibration of pipettes and balances to assure accuracy of the measurements during handling of solid and liquid materials.

In summary, I am pleased by the progress and capacity building endeavors achieved during the two week assignment, and commend the enthusiasm, willingness to absorb new curricula, and professionalism of the faculty and staff in ISA University and Partners of the Americas’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) staff in Santo Domingo. I am particularly thankful of the technical translation, photos, and great conversations with Mr. Jose Almodovar and Mr. Rafael Marte (the two F2F field officers), and the orientation with Ms. Rosa Iris Almonte (F2F Country Director for the Dominican Republic). It is unequivocal for me that future of food security and public health in DR is even brighter with inspiring and career-oriented people like Rosa, Jose, and Rafael.

Thanks to the progress made by the previous volunteers, enthusiasm of the faculty, and progress made during current assignment, I believe the ISA University now has enhanced capability to conduct microbiological analyses directly to assist stakeholders meeting regional and international standards as well as to conduct culture-dependent inoculation studies. Certain improvements in existing practices and operations could also assure enhanced success of ISA faculty to continue their critical mission, in assisting stakeholders, training future food microbiologists, and assuring safety of the country by reducing public health burden associated with consumption of raw agricultural commodities.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Life-Changing Power of a Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Assignment: Experiences from Nicaragua

By F2F Volunteer Bettina Barillas

Before arriving, I didn’t know what to expect—I had received a lengthy preparation packet and briefly spoken to the Field Officer, but these documents could not have prepared me for the warmth with which I was received. After 24 hours of travel, I arrived absolutely exhausted, but nervous and excited for my two weeks in country. I was filled with anxiety about whether my Spanish was good enough, whether I would be of service, and how my relationship would be with my host organization. I quickly learned, however, that all of my worrying was pointless—I had arrived to an organization that not only cared greatly about my experience, but also was excited to have me and share their own country with me.

The team at my host organization not only briefed me on their project, but they shared their own personal stories and motivations that drove them to work towards a better Nicaragua. They shared their traditions. They shared their food. They shared their hearts. And, I shared mine in a meager exchange of our worlds and life experiences. Because of their open hearts, I was able to better help them set a foundation to accomplish their project goals. Together, we worked towards our shared aim of strengthening their intervention to better serve their beneficiaries.

While I came into the project knowing what I would contribute, I could not have guessed that I would have gained so much myself. Thanks to this assignment, I have a clearer idea of the kind of work I would like to do in the future—supporting small social enterprises and their branding and communications goals. This trip gave me the opportunity to actually use some of the materials I had developed after four years working in the field. And, as a result, I learned what worked and what was useful.

After my return home, I have already looked for ways to share these learning moments with other organizations undertaking similar projects and, in addition to sharing the materials I developed during my volunteer consultancy trip, hope to share with them some of the best practices I observed during my time with Partners of the Americas and Farmer to Farmer, Nicaragua.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Expanding the Sale of Farmer Products through Strategic Branding & E-Commerce

By Andrés Varona, Agriculture & Food Security Program Officer at Partners of the Americas 

For two weeks in September 2017, Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer Bettina Barrillas traveled to Managua to assist our host, Fabretto Foundation. During her assignment, Ms. Barrillas worked alongside Fabretto’s e-commerce team in order to develop a creative, strategic and innovative branding plan for its agricultural value added products (e.g. Honey, Chia, Coffee, Fruits). As part of these efforts, she provided hands-on knowledge transfers about design strategies and accessible software that can be used to develop and improve packaging/labeling for existing products. The volunteer also supported the host in generating marketing campaigns tailored to the local and domestic market for natural food products.

This F2F assistance came at a strategic time for Fabretto, especially since they are currently seeking to leverage their connections in the United States to sell their farmers’ agricultural products which include coffee, beans, cacao, honey, artisanal baskets, and recycled jewelry. Informally, Fabretto’s guests and have purchased the farmers’ products during site visits and fundraising events. Fabretto Farms, the name of this new business project, seeks to formalize this process to provide its farmers with a more stable income source. Currently, Fabretto Farms is a social enterprise with Fabretto Foundation staff providing the bulk of logistics and operations for the sale and marketing of the products with farmers responsible for the cultivating and packaging of the products. The Foundation staff has regular customers (e.g. NGO’s, faith-based organizations) in the United States but is also working to secure other contracts.

As part of this Farmer-to-Farmer assistance, Ms. Barrillas 1) reviewed existing strategic plans and provided suggestions for improvement, 2) revised and selected website format best suited for e-commerce with IT officer, as well as 2) assess, sorted, and ranked for quality over 15,000 photos. She also wrote nine templates of product listing descriptions and developed a basic graphic design training that all Fabretto staff could use and put into practice. At the end of her assignment, Ms. Barillas provided a series of practical recommendations that Fabretto can use to improve branding and communication efforts.

These include:
- Strategies for enhancing the e-commerce website (e.g. guidelines for using photos, broken links, keywords, benchmarking websites).
- Way to define product listings by focusing on only a handful of value chains such as coffee and honey production as well as the making of baskets and jewelry.

“The team at my host organization not only briefed me on their project, but they shared their own personal stories and motivations that drove them to work towards a better Nicaragua. They shared their traditions. They shared their food. They shared their hearts. And, I shared mine in a meager exchange of our worlds and life experiences. Because of their open hearts, I was able to better help them set a foundation to accomplish their project goals. Together, we worked towards our shared aim of strengthening their intervention to better serve their beneficiaries.”

- Bettina Barillas, F2F Volunteer in Nicaragua

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Review of the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) FLEX Program in Colombia

By Andrés Varona, Agriculture & Food Security Program Officer at Partners of the Americas 

F2F Volunteer  Femke Olham led a series of technical workshops with Raizal communities in Providencia Island. These trainings were centered on ways to safely capture rainwater and channel it to local orchards.

In the last six years, Partners of the Americas (Partners) has been supporting agriculture, food security, and natural resource management in Colombia through the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program.  Since 2011, Partners has assisted over 1,500 people and formally trained 1,131 individuals (681 men and 450 women) in a variety of technical assistance areas such as entrepreneurship, small business development and administration, international marketing, tropical post-harvest processing, livestock management, citrus nursery management, climate change, and soil and water conservation in Colombia.

F2F Nicholas DiLorenzo (right) visits banana fields with Universidad de La Salle agronomy students in Yopal

In this current cycle (2013 - 2018) of the F2F program, Partners has sent a 12 U.S agriculturalists and enterprise development specialists to Colombia. Our key partners in Colombia include small agribusinesses, environmental non-profit organizations, government agencies, and universities. In conjunction with our local partners and host organizations, many of these field assignments have taken place in numerous rural communities across the country’s diverse micro-climates. These F2F volunteers assignments have included a wide variety of technical fields within agriculture and food security, including water conservation, integrated pest management, value-added processing for citrus, as well as digital marketing and branding. Here are some examples of past Farmer-to-Farmer assignments in Colombia:
  •      A LEED-certified architectural designer worked with CORPONARIÑO on the design for a “green” sub-regional headquarters in Túquerres.
  •       An herb and fruit specialist provided training to the staff of Parque Ecológico Mundo Amazónico in dehydration techniques for tropical climates for the purpose of making teas.
  •       An agroforestry specialist trained local farmers in Urrao in basic agroforestry, vermiculture, and allelopathy.
  •       A team of volunteers worked in Old Providence and San Andres Islands on a food and water security project.
  •      A cosmetic chemist tested manufacturing processes and re-developed formulas for all-natural organic cosmetics to meet international standards.
  •      An international marketing specialist assisted a company in developing an international marketing strategy and improving their brand and labeling to increase product appeal to U.S. consumers.
  •      A soil fertility expert conducted trainings on fruit tree production and soil management to over 376 educators, students, producers, and agricultural technicians in Buga, Colombia.
  •      An animal science expert assisted LaSalle University in developing a standardized livestock handling and management plan that was incorporated into academic curriculum.
In the coming months, Partners of the Americas’s Farmer-to-Farmer program will continue to support agricultural value chains in Colombia.  As part of these efforts, we will send a series of F2F volunteer to provide assistance to Zen Naturals, a small Cali-based natural skincare company. This assistance will include organic chemists to research and develop new quinoa-based natural products as well as business and marketing experts to support the roll out of Zen Natural’s Zue Beauty product line in the North America market. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Transforming Goat Milk into Valued-Added Soaps & Lotions

Team Presentations at the CEPROCAL Center in Nebaj

The first concrete evidence of soap-like substance is dated around 2800 BC., the first soap makers were Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans. While volunteer Robert Spencer does not have that many years of experience he does have sixteen years of experience in making cold-process goat milk soap, shampoo, and lotion.  And has done multiple trainings in Myanmar, Haiti, and Guatemala. 

The overall goal of this project was to provide economic opportunities for women in small-scale production of value-added agriculture products (oils, animal byproducts, herbs, vegetables, and fruits), along with goat milk in making skin care products including soap, shampoo, and lotion in rural areas of Guatemala. This project host was CEPROCAL who collaborated with Save the Children Foundation, and the first week of training was conducted in Nebaj (El Quiche Department) at the local CEPROCAL office.  Students for this class were Save the Children field officers and technicians who would later be responsible for going out into their respective communities and train clientele.

During these four days of training agriculture products used included: goat milk, vegetable oils, lard avocado, tomato, coffee grounds, aloe vera, and flower petals. One of the objectives of this project was to utilize as many readily available agriculture products as possible while using the cold-process for making soaps. The only heat involved was a small propane stove to melt the lard and solid oils (cocoa oil), and the chemical process between the sodium hydroxide, oils, and liquids.

Photos in this blog will verify the strategy worked. Spencer said it was inspiring to watch the trainees learn and implement the process, then take it further to packaging, labeling, and presenting in team competitions

The second week of training was conducted in Cunen (El Quiche Department). Our goals and objectives, and training agenda were very similar to the first week. Trainees in Cunen were also associated with Save the Children along with a few of the local population. The ingredients used were the same with additional botanical products specifically beneficial to skin and hair.  Trainees in Cunen also readily adapted to the training and did outstanding jobs of the packaging, labeling, and presenting in competitive teams.

Quantitative outcomes for combined trainings were as follows:
o   31 men & women trained at these two locations, all were adult, 18 were females, 13 males
o    80% increase in knowledge regarding production of soap, shampoo, and lotion
o   65 % plan to implement production & marketing of soap, shampoo, and lotion
o   100% will train others on all aspects associated with production and marketing of soap, shampoo, and lotion

Soap Mold (Left) and Packaging (Right)

This was the first time for Spencer to experience using unrefined animal lard and it worked out just fine. The training also utilized lard so the people could compare, and it too worked out just fine. Every time Spencer does this in rudimentary conditions he is always impressed with how well everything works out, and really enjoys working with people in various countries.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Strengthening agroforestry systems in smallholder Dominican farms

Altair Rodriguez’s demonstration farm in La Vega Province, Dominican Republic

In August 2017, Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteer Tom Gaman traveled to the Dominican Republic to support the agroforestry efforts of Altair Rodriguez’s demonstration farm.

Located in La Vega Province, Finca Tierra Negra is a 66 hectare farm that is made up by partially-shaded cacao trees grown primarily under a broken canopy of nitrogen-fixing native (e.g.Erythrina) and non-native trees (e.g. African Tulip). Much of farm sits on land that was previously used to produce conventional plantain (Musa paradisiaca) and cassava (Manihot esculenta). 

The land is also susceptible to excess concentrations of pesticides and inorganic fertilizer runoff emanating from nearby farms. There are also a series of non-organic crops in the farm that have been neglected for years, and are hampering the ability of the Rodriguez family from obtaining organic production. Altair and her family are currently trying to integrate more organic agro-forestry systems at Finca Tierra Negra. With these systems in place, they hope to restore and improve soil quality, increase production, and generate a higher and more diversified income base for the family and the surrounding community that benefits from the demonstration plots.

With these challenges in mind, the purpose of Tom Gaman’s assignment was to help the farm complement the farm’s existing base of cocoa trees, permaculture systems, and nursery with more robust agroforestry systems. As part of these efforts, Tom carried out an extensive forest inventory of the demonstration farm, which included using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to inform the long-term agroforestry implementation and monitoring plan for the property. Based on his field observations, Tom and Altair discussed ways to put in place a diverse set of financially-viable climate-smart crops, such as breadfruit and locally-appropriate spices (e.g. turmeric). Prior to ending his assignment, Tom also generated a series of practical recommendations that Altair and her family can use to incorporate new agroforestry systems into their farm. 

These recommendations included:
  1.  The use the GIS tools and agroforest inventory plots established during the assignment to inform on-site management decisions (e.g. planting locations & species combinations) 
  2. Based on GIS maps and inventory, continue to develop a business plan and financial spreadsheet that includes projections for the next 5 years.
  3. Maintain cacao cultivation and production with nitrogen-fixing trees.
  4.  Prior to harvest, survey or monitor the most productive cacao trees. This will facilitate monitoring and assessment of changes in productivity and to eliminate/replace unproductive trees.
  5. Experiment with different products such as pepper, turmeric, breadfruit and spices, using windbreaks and symbiotic out plantings.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Strengthening the Digital Branding and Online Marketing of Artisanal Kits in Guatemala

By Andrés Varona, Program Officer - Agriculture & Food Security

Through the manufacturing of educational kits, DIDART is a small Guatemalan enterprise that teaches children about the cultural heritage of the country. In order to spur community development, DIDARD purchases the materials that go into their kits directly from rural artisans from across Guatemala. Since 2015, Partner of the Americas’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program has been sending volunteers in order to assist the company with various organizational, financial, and sales aspects of their enterprise. In the latest F2F assignment, Kate Senn traveled to Guatemala City in order to support DIDART with a series of digital branding and online marketing efforts.

In preparation for her F2F assignment, Kate reviewed DIDART’s websites and social media platforms as well as identified areas that could help her draft a “Social Media Strategy Handbook” for the small company. Upon her arrival in Guatemala on August 13th, Kate had the opportunity to travel to various rural communities in order to see firsthand the locally-sourced materials and indigenous traditions that go into each of DIDART’s educational kits. In the village of Guanagazapa, for example, the volunteer was able to learn about the morros, a “hard-as-coconut-like fruit that can be hollowed and used for the musical instrument known as a chin-chin, souvenir bowls, or for making jewelry.”

DIDART Staff members with F2F Volunteer Kate Senn (Center) with F2F Field Officer Andrea Fion (Right

Once back at the DIDART office in Guatemala City, Kate began working alongside Anna Lucia, the company’s graphic designer. During her first week at the office, Kate led trainings on Pinterest marketing strategies, editorial calendars as well as social media branding. In the second week, the volunteer and Anna Lucia revised the interface of the DIDART’s new mobile app that DIDART in order to ensure that it was consistent with the company’s brand identity. At the end of the assignment, Kate generated a comprehensive ““Social Media Strategy Handbook” with a series of recommendations that DIDART can use to grow their web and social media presence. Some of these recommendations included:

1. Targeting key stakeholders (e.g. school teachers) with more personalized online /social media messaging such as “Are you a teacher in Guatemala? We want to hear from YOU!” Encourage them to be DIDART ambassadors”, receiving additional fluffy discounts or free stuff to support and promote the educational kits to their teacher friends.

2. Setting a monthly agenda for Social Media campaigns so posts do not need to be done last minute. Foresee posts about holidays, special celebrations, school year calendar, etc. Change the cover page photo with the season. This technique will allow DIDART staff to identify gaps in the schedule and plan out future content.

3. Leveraging the power of Pinterest in order to 1) create photos sequence of the educational kits (e.g. before, during, and after the manufacturing phases are complete), and 2) promote a link long Pinterest Pin, with a link to where to buy the specific kit (etsy, shopify, DIDART’s website).

4. Create quick speedy videos for each of the kits being produce and share them on YouTube and Facebook. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Host Highlight: Fundación para la Autonomía y el Desarrollo de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua (FADCANIC)

One of the newest hosts that Partners’ Farmer-to-Farmer program has been working with is FADCANIC (Fundación para la Autonomía y el Desarrollo de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua). FADCANIC is a civil society organization based in the two autonomous regions of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast (e.g. RAAS and RAAN). Partners of the Americas began working with FADCANIC in mid-2016. Since then, the relationship has already proven fruitful.

FADCANIC was founded in 1990 after a government statute recognized the autonomy of the Atlantic coastal regions of Nicaragua. FADCANIC’s mission is to support the autonomy of these areas by improving the livelihoods of its inhabitants. FADCANIC achieve these through two different educational centers: 1) the Center for Agroforestry (Centro Agroforestal or “CAF”) and 2) the Center for Environmental and Agroforestry Education (Centro Educación Técnica Ambiental y Agroforestal or “CEAA”. Through these centers, FADCANIC offers free three-year technical program that focuses on environmental management, horticulture, animal science, carpentry, and forestry, as well as some basics such as history, music, and art. The hope is students who graduate from these programs will be able to return to their rural communities’ better prepared to find ways to improve their income and also with an environmentally conscious focus in their work.

In May 2016, Partners of the Americas sent the first F2F volunteer to FADCANIC in order to determine the best way for them to collaborate with the Farmer-to-Farmer program. During this initial visit, Dr. Andrew Margenot, a professor from UC Davis, noted that FADCANIC’s centers and agricultural facilities demonstrated a high diversity of crops, largely agroforestry species, that were being well-managed by a team of FADCANIC agronomists. He noted several areas where volunteers could work. First, in the forest reserve, Dr. Margenot noted severe erosion in the surrounding grazed pasture that had been illegally converted from reserve forest. Dr. Margenot also noted that many of the producers in the area were still practicing slash-and-burn to renew pasture growth and to clear the forest for new pasture. FADCANIC has several demonstration farms that serve as an “outdoor classroom” for the students, as only about 20% of the activities are in the classroom setting and the remainder is in the field demonstrations and hands-on practice. Dr. Margenot noted a variety of potential future assignments such as citrus production, ecotourism to financially sustaining a forest reserve, as well as the implementation of biogas systems that run on farm waste.

FADCANIC agronomist and F2F field officer Noel Diaz discussing pineapple cultivation

Later that month, F2F volunteer Barbara Brown arrived to Wawashang. After a brief tour of the Center and the Kahka Creek preserve, the innovation center, and the agroforestry center, she left recommendations to develop a strategic plan for FADCANIC to seek additional funding. As far as food processing, Ms. Brown recommended that FADCANIC consider expanding the number of dried products they offer that could be marketed jointly, such as pineapple, coconut and banana chips sold in small bags as a snack. Efforts to implement a consistent method to determine acceptable dryness of each product also needs to be developed. An HACCP plan for products and best practices for food safety also need to be developed.

Most recently, in April 2017, two Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) volunteers traveled to Wawashang in order to support FADCANIC with the construction of several biodigesters. This assignment included the participation of Vance Haugen (a University of Wisconsin Extension professor specializing in biogas production) as well as James Rhode (Director of the 4-H Adventure Project in Crawford County, Wisconsin). Mr. Haugen and Mr. Rohde’s assignment was centered on the implementation of bio-digesters systems for FADCANIC’s Wawashang School. Due to the school’s remote location, the administrators are actively trying to strengthen the institution’s self-sufficiency by generating all the food, energy (e.g. biogas), and agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizers) it needs to function properly.

F2F Volunteer Vance Haugen leading a interactive
lecture on bio-digester design at the Wawashang School

After a year of collaborating with our program, FADCANIC now has a better idea of the type of work that it can do with Farmer-to-Farmer. In the coming months, Partners already plans to send several more F2F volunteers to support FADCANIC both in their headquarters in Managua as well as in the field offices along the Atlantic Coast.  Future assignments will focus on fruit dehydration and artisanal coconut oil production. Additionally, more specific assignments were identified such as agricultural economists to assist in the development of market analyses and agricultural engineers to work with food processing staff to develop low-cost technologies to equipment generate value-added products (e.g. jam, jellies, and preserves).