Exploring the potential of networks for empowerment of Caribbean agricultural producer groups through learning and collaboration
Claudette de Freitas, Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI)
Agriculture, fisheries and the global environment
Agriculture and fisheries have been identified as major contributors to employment, poverty alleviation, food security and ultimately development in the Caribbean.
Producer groups, such as farmers and fisher folks, are among the major stakeholders in the agriculture sector who face a number of development challenges which have resulted in declining income in the current global trade environment. They must pay more attention to improved management, use of information, communication, advocacy and negotiations.
Networks and networking
Nelson and Farrington (1994, p. 8), acknowledge that networks and networking may provide for “a systematic organisation of units, interconnected for the purpose of achieving some goal ...”. Quoting Colison et al, Fonseca (2004, p. 5) notes that networking “has the potential to create an informal, but structured environment in which knowledge exchange can take place.” Therefore the producer networks, the Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN) and the Caribbean Network of National Fisher Folk Organisations, (CANUFO), properly organised, can provide a forum for collaborative learning or development learning.
Learning and development
Open and distance learning (ODL) is a method of education which provides opportunities for customised programmes, with flexibility of time, geographic location, content and approach for learners. The advent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has provided a methodology which has wide appeal to a range of literacies, and may be used to expand the scope and scale of human learning. Developing countries still have some barriers to the use of ICTs such as high cost of connectivity; limited ICT skills among educators, and cost and availability of hardware and software. (UNESCO, 1997).
According to Naidu, ‘learning that is most effective …is situated within the context and the culture of the learning community”. (Naidu, 2006:1). UNESCO also notes that “practical skills, tacit knowledge and social competencies are all necessary to improve the capacity of the community to adapt to their environment” (UNESCO, 2002:1). The results demonstrated by the COL’s Lifelong Learning (L3) For Farmers Project in India are instructive in how ODL can support non-formal education for rural communities, through use of appropriate technology. (COL: 2004, 2006)
Communication is necessary for information exchange, development of new ideas or innovation. At this time there is limited communication between and among producers, including farmers and fisher folks, at the local, national or regional level in the Caribbean.
Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN)
The Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN) was initiated by a group of farmers and NGOs participating in a regional workshop organised by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), during 2002. The group acknowledged that a network had the potential to assist the better management of many of the challenges facing farmers. Since its initiation, CaFAN has been managed by an Interim Committee, coordinated by the Caribbean Agricultural Information Service (CAIS), in collaboration with national farmers groups from St Vincent & the Grenadines, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, until April 2006. The Eastern Caribbean Development Trading Company (ECTAD) one of the group’s founding members, will now be responsible for coordinating CaFAN’s development. CTA will continue to support and fund their activities to date.
CaFAN’s mission is to enhance the well being and competitiveness of Caribbean farmers through the sustainable development of the agricultural and rural development sector and thus contribute to the re-positioning of Caribbean economies, through improved collaboration and networking between and among farmers.
A CTA/CARDI regional survey of farmers’ and NGO groups undertaken in 12 countries identified key issues, including skills gaps such as project cycle management, group dynamics and leadership management; financial and content management. The survey also identified at least 135 groups representing some 100,000 farmers. (CARDI: 2004). Several meetings of regional groups led to the outline of a strategic framework and approaches for network development, including, among others, development of joint partnerships and an emphasis on education and communication as a means to develop the organisation. (CARDI: 2005: 2).
A new CaFAN project is being designed to support improved leadership capacity, enhanced development of the network and greater use of ICTs and capacity building for the network members.
One of the main goals of the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), is to promote the co-management of fisheries resources for more sustainable utilisation. Hence, CRFM has been cordinating efforts to empowerment fisher folk groups to better perform their role as resource users to work in partnership with government in the collaborative management of fisheries resources.
In this regard, the CRFM conducted an organisational needs assessment of the fisher folk organisations in nine of the eighteen Member States, in 2004. (CRFM 2005 (b)). The results of this study showed, among other things, the relative weakness of the primary or community-based fisher folk organisations, in particular, poor financial and organisational management skills; limited communication skills; weak networking, and limited access to electronic information (CRFM 2006).
Based on the findings of the study, it was determined that the existing national umbrella fisher folk organizations must be strengthened. This was to be done by promoting the establishment of national umbrella fisher folk associations in Member States where primary fisher folk groups already exist, and the establishment of the Caribbean Network of National Fisher Folk Organizations, when a critical mass of national umbrella organizations would have been achieved.
The Medium Term Action Plan for the institutional strengthening of regional fisher folk organisations was developed, and the CRFM Secretariat is seeking technical assistance from the CTA to implement some aspects of the Plan. This includes enhanced networking skills and increased organisational management capacity among the primary fisher folk organisations, along with sensitising relevant stakeholders about the benefits of organised fisher folk organisations.
Challenges faced by Producer networks
Both the Fisher Folk and Farmers’ networks face similar challenges, in particular the weak or non-existent national associations or umbrella groups, from which to build the network, along with institutional capacity for communication, coordination, leadership and management. Other challenges include the following:
Notwithstanding these challenges, both networks, plan to use ICTs to build
their networks, to strengthen their own institutional capacity, and to promote;
education, training and development of sustainable producer networks, as be
an important part of the strategy identified for both groups.
A recent development project organised by OxFAM to provide agricultural production expertise for an economic venture with several local farmers’ groups in St Lucia, (Greene 2006 p.8), demonstrated how contextual training may be linked directly to economically viable projects, amongst producers.
An initial needs assessment identified the specific problems, issues and constraints that could adversely impact on the project, using participatory methodologies and involving a range of stakeholders – farmers, public and private sector. The results identified a need for ‘improved management, record-keeping, fostering better interest and participation by group members, strengthening lobbying and advocacy skills. Technical skills in agricultural technologies such as soil testing, production, marketing and green house management skills were also required. (Greene 2006, p. 8).
The farmers’ groups involved formed themselves into a national farmers group, which became the focal point for training and providing financial support to the project. A technical team of experts in key subjects such as extension; marketing and trade; record-keeping and agricultural management, was also made available to provide technical support to the farmers group.
According to Greene, the project was successful in achieving its economic objectives and it also resulted in a series of other benefits which led to greater empowerment of farmers, for example:
This undertaking a targeted assessment, analysis and identification of the skills and attitudes to be learnt to complete, coupled with assessment and provision of relevant technical expertise, has the potential for use as a model for education and training, through motivating the respective producer community, with the expectation of a tangible benefit.
Thus both the farmers and fisher folk networks may adopt this model where priority projects of direct economic benefit to their respective members can be identified and used, as the focal point for building a range of skills within the organisation. Ideally, the associated technical team should include subject matter experts as well as instructional designers and communication specialists to develop the teaching/earning materials. (Calvert 2006). The model also demonstrates some of the other objectives of producer networks relating to increased collaboration and better relations with local stakeholders, not explicitly sought at that time. Training may include a mix of face-to-face delivery and also employment of ODL methods.
Potential areas for wider network collaboration
Close collaboration between CaFAN and CANUFO, has potential for mutual benefits to the producer groups. Both networks are in the process of developing their networks and they already share funding and technical support from CTA and CARDI. The current strategic framework of both networks makes provision for increasing skills in group dynamics, organisation and financial management, hence both networks could benefit from sharing of experiences, lessons, techniques and resources such as training materials. A regional network to include CRFM, CARDI, CANUFO and CTA can provide technical support to the networks in a more coordinated manner.
The Caribbean producer groups should also consider collaboration and networking with Farmers’ organisations in the wider developing world such as the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group, easily accessible through their partnership with the CTA.
Collaboration with regional and international institutions in the field of
non-formal learning or education for rural people, such as the University of
the West Indies (Distance Education Programmes), COL’s L3Farmers Project,
as well as UNESCO and the FAO programme - Education for Rural People (ERP),
will also be of great benefit.
Caribbean producers require new attitudes and skills to respond to challenges in the global environment. Local, national and the respective regional producer networks of CaFAN and CANUFO, can provide a good forum for community learning, social interaction, collaboration and resource sharing.
Although the producer networks have the potential to empower vulnerable rural communities to collectively meet some of their challenges, each network must build the required management and communication and training capacity within the local and national producer groups as a matter of priority.
Provision must also be made to develop appropriate training facilities to meet the basic needs of the trainers and students. Collaboration with local, regional and international experts in education, training and ODL would provide access to much needed expertise in education to the efforts of the networks.
Notwithstanding these efforts, an effective programme for education at the community or local level requires policy support and coordination at a national level. Innovative use of pilot projects within both the CANUFO and CaFAN can provide experiences and lessons on which to build a more comprehensive programme.
The achievement of the regions’ development objectives do not depend solely on education and learning. However, “ready access to usable knowledge can enable people in developing countries, from farmers to academics, to take rapid advantage of[ opportunities]”. (COL 2006)
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