NAIROBI, Kenya — It wasn’t Ellen Frazenburg’s first time doing volunteer work overseas, but she admits she had her worries during the first few days of the short-term volunteer assignment to Ethiopia she completed earlier this year.
Despite having a degree in agricultural background and experience abroad, the Van Horne, Iowa, native said it took some time to adjust to her particular assignment — teaching strategies to improve post-harvest grain storage — and to gain the trust of the Ethiopian farmers with whom she was working.
“I think they were concerned about how a little white girl was going to handle being in a remote area for nearly three weeks,” she said.
Nonetheless, after only a short time, Frazenburg said her counterparts “realized they had no cause to worry,” and the 90 farmers she trained over her assignment were friendly and eager learners.
“I had a great time working with them and hope we’ll meet again,” she said.
In many ways, Frazenburg’s experience volunteering through the Farmer to Farmer program (F2F) in East Africa mirrors the experience of the program’s new administrator, Catholic Relief Services (CRS). In September 2013, CRS began administrating the tax-funded initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which began in 1980 and aims to connect Americans with agricultural expertise to farmers in the developing world. Although CRS has been doing agricultural-development programming in the region for more than 60 years, they’ve needed to make some adjustments since they were awarded the bid for the $8-million program.
“Because we’re new to implementing this program, it took us a little bit of time to get our system in place,” said Bruce White, CRS’ director of the program. “We really had to start from zero, in terms of volunteer assignments.”
Despite these challenges, CRS has big expectations for the Farmer to Farmer program, which connects U.S. volunteers with assignments in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. After being awarded the bid, the U.S. bishops’ international relief agency promised to complete 500 short-term volunteer assignments over the course of the five-year initiative, which began in October 2013. CRS is making good progress toward this goal and has completed 28 assignments so far.
“We have our work cut out for us, but we are confident we can achieve that goal,” said White.
CRS’ extensive volunteer network made the organization a natural fit for the new role of administering the F2F program. White says F2F is a “fantastic mechanism to apply the expertise of the U.S. Catholic community to our effort overseas on a short-term, volunteer basis,” helping to strengthen CRS’ work in the area.
CRS also has five official partners who assist with volunteer recruiting and publicity: Catholic Rural Life, the University of Illinois College of Agriculture, National Association for Agricultural Educators, American Agri-Women and the Food Resources Bank.
Another factor that has helped CRS transition into its new role is the fact that it has tried to maintain continuity from how F2F was administrated in East Africa before it took charge.
To this end, CRS named Kenyan Nyambura Theuri the program’s deputy director. Theuri has eight years of experience working with the F2F program. She worked with the international development nonprofit CFNA previously and said that the transition to CRS administration has been “almost seamless.” She also said CRS’ Catholic mission “makes it different and unique from other organizations. … CRS brings something different, because its approach is people-centered and goes an extra mile to ensure that we are accountable for results.”
Providing Skills, Not Materials
Theuri said that East Africa has an abundance of natural resources that make agriculture the backbone of the region’s economies. However, while there isn’t a shortage of material resources, many farmers in the region live in poverty.
“The problems that contribute to this poor state of affairs are lack of skills to boost agriculture productivity,” Theuri explained.
She added that, instead of providing material assistance, F2F volunteers provide something much more valuable: technical assistance and training.
“The program’s approach is to identify gaps in key sectors and match volunteers with relevant skills to come and work with members of the local community to help them develop the capacity to address these problems,” Theuri said.
This approach, she said, which amounts to teaching a man to fish instead of simply feeding him fish, has a much longer-lasting impact and will help East Africans become self-sufficient by using their natural resources appropriately.
F2F emphasizes an approach called “training trainers.” Instead of a volunteer teaching a large group, volunteers generally focus on training a small, select group of local leaders, who in turn conduct training sessions for the wider population.
“This ensures that the training doesn’t stop once the volunteers are gone,” explained Theuri.
The areas F2F addresses are wide-ranging and include several agricultural subfields. For instance, past F2F volunteers have focused on everything from improving the biological resiliency of seed potatoes to developing more efficient methods of feeding dairy cows.
Business Savvy a Big Need
But those involved in the program say one of the biggest areas of need is business savvy.
“If you have business skills — whether you’re a small-business owner or you have money-management experience — those are skills that need to get transferred over to the African community,” said Lynda Swenson.
Swenson, a San Diego native with more than 30 years of experience in banking and financial management, has done more than 30 F2F assignments in East and South Africa. She was the first volunteer CRS sent during its tenure as F2F administrator, completing an assignment in Uganda earlier this year before traveling to Tanzania this summer.
Swenson emphasizes that she is “not a farmer,” but her expertise has been invaluable to East Africans in the agricultural sector.
“A lot of the basics of life [that Americans take for granted] aren’t present in rural areas in East Africa,” she said. This includes things like hot water and electricity and good roads, but also access to financial resources and basic management skills.
Swenson said the key is helping East African farmers run their operations like businesses. “When they apply these very practical and basic principles of business to their operations, this will improve their quality of life, the lives of everyone around them and the lives of future generations to come.”
Saying she’s “no Bill Gates,” so she can’t offer sizable financial assistance, Swenson underscored what she could offer: years of experience working with small-business owners, farmers cooperatives and savings and credit cooperative organizations. At 66 years old, she said her age, combined with her experience, gives her instant credibility with the groups she trains, who are more than receptive to the insight she has to offer.
“They were excited, enthused and ready to go and train their own groups,” she said. “And that’s the best part: knowing your work is going to be sustainable and make a difference.”
Sixth Tour of Kenya
Randal Dickey is another longtime F2F volunteer who brings business expertise. The Colorado native has completed 78 assignments since 1997 and recently served in Kenya for the sixth time.
Dickey said that although he has advanced accounting credentials, the things he teaches to groups in East Africa are often at a very basic level.
“It’s not quite 'Microeconomics 101'; more like 'Microeconomics 50,'” he said. “Things like basic home economics that will help them over the course of the year with their business and personal finances. They need to know that agriculture isn’t just goats and cows and chickens, it’s their business, and they should treat it as such.”
Dickey emphasized that imparting practical business skills is about far more than just increasing revenues. For many East African farmers, it could be the difference between surviving and going under.
“There’s no room for error for them,” he said. “If they make a mistake or something doesn’t pan out, they starve.” Sharing basics of American commerce helps to minimize the risk many East African farmers face, “making them comfortable taking the next step.”
Experienced F2F volunteers stressed that the trip to East Africa isn’t a vacation.
“You’re not going like a tourist,” said Swenson. “You will be in non-tourist areas, because you’re going to be going where the farmers are.” Swenson said that those who volunteer should be prepared to work, though she did mention that non-governmental organizations that host volunteers are good about allowing people to stay for a few days beyond their assignments to see local cultural and natural sites.
Nonetheless, volunteers say CRS goes above and beyond to make sure that F2F participants have a pleasant experience. CRS covers travel costs to Africa, provides lodging on the ground, and pays for local transport and food.
CRS also places a big emphasis on volunteer safety. Volunteers receive a security orientation while still in the United States and are given an in-depth security briefing upon arrival. Still, CRS staff emphasized that these matters are mostly precautionary.
“We only place volunteers in safe and secure locations,” said Theuri, the program's deputy director.
Volunteers also said that they felt confident in CRS’ awareness of conditions on the ground.
“In the end though, your safety depends on you and how well you educated yourself and follow the safety guidelines given to you,” said Franzenburg, the volunteer from Iowa.
Swenson echoed this advice, stressing that volunteers just have to “be careful” and take “necessary precautions.”
An Amazing Opportunity
All in all, the volunteers say the Farmer to Farmer program provides an amazing opportunity to serve others.
“If you are blessed with certain knowledge and experience, I think it is absolutely incumbent upon you to share that in any way you can,” said Dickey, expressing sentiments shared by Swenson and Franzenburg. “If you have the opportunity to give back to people, regardless of where they are in the world, you should take that opportunity. So this is my form of giving back.”
And program director Bruce White said that, for many volunteers, Catholic or otherwise, serving a three-week assignment abroad is part of putting their faith into action.
“This is very much tied into our understanding of Catholic social teaching,” he said. “If you want to express your solidarity with the poor in a tangible way, this program allows you to do that."
Those with agricultural or business skill sets who are interested in serving in the F2F program are asked to visit CRS’ website at farmertofarmer.crs.org, where they’ll find further information about the program and an online application. Once their application is filled out, they’ll be entered into a pool of applicants, and CRS will try to match their particular skills with a volunteer need in East Africa.
One first-time F2F volunteer who might be back is Frazenburg, who said she had a great experience.
“I learned a lot — I think more than I had to teach — and I can’t wait to apply what I learned to other such experiences,” she said. “If CRS needs another volunteer for post-harvest management, I’d be happy to submit my application.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from St. Paul, Minnesota,
and is the communications coordinator for Catholic Rural Life.