EDITOR’S NOTE: Robin Brumfield, Rutgers specialist in farm management and professor in the Department of Agricultural and Food Resource Economics, writes about her experience in Nicaragua as part of a two-week training program for local residents.
In April, I found myself telling indigenous women of the Pinos Fabrettinos Cooperative in San Jose de Cusmapa, Nicaragua, that the colors in their pine needle baskets reminded me of Easter baskets. The women asked, “What is an Easter basket?” Since free Wi-Fi was available from the park next door, I showed them some Easter baskets online. They said they’d have the woman in their cooperative who could weave baskets the quickest make an Easter basket. They asked many questions about size and colors, which I eagerly supplied.
I was here in Nicaragua to conduct training to boost the operations of three agricultural groups in the poorest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Specifically, I was there to help them develop marketing strategies to sell their products abroad and in the fledgling domestic eco-tourism market. The groups, all sponsored by the Catholic Fabretto Foundation, included indigenous women who formed a cooperative to make and sell baskets made from pine needles, tutors who work with local beekeepers and students who operate a hydroponic vegetable greenhouse.
I spent two weeks in the quaint little Raul’s Hotel in Somoto, about four hours north of the capital of Managua, teaching these three groups how to develop their business plans, with special emphasis on marketing as part of the “Women and Youth Women in Agriculture Project.” This project, like a similar project I did in Guyana, South America, falls under the umbrella of the Partners of the Americas Farmer-to-Farmer program, which is supported by the U.S. Congress and USAID as part of a broad U.S. foreign assistance program. The Farmer-to-Farmer program brings together agricultural professionals and practitioners from the U.S. and the Caribbean to serve as volunteers, working with farmers and agribusiness owners in Latin America and the Caribbean to identify local needs and design projects to address them.
Week One – The Women of the Pinos Fabrettinos Cooperative
For the first week, I worked with the women of the Pinos Fabrettinos cooperative of 38 women who decided to take charge of their lives by producing pine needle baskets which they sell to earn a livelihood. I was briefed by Xenia Castillo of Fabretto Foundation about some specific outcomes for the training, which included the women taking more responsibility for marketing their products, developing a marketing plan and establishing a regular schedule for attending trade fairs and clear roles of who will attend to market their products.
Every day, Noel Diaz, program officer for Farmer-to-Farmer Nicaragua, and I stopped at the only supermarket in Somoto to buy snacks for the training sessions and traveled about 90 minutes to the tiny village of San Jose de Cusmapa. I’ve found that in working with smallholder women farmers, developing a mission statement is very empowering. Previous Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers had worked on building confidence in the women of the cooperative, so I felt a good next step would be helping them develop a mission statement, an important document to use when developing a marketing plan.
As I expected, the women of the cooperative felt much empowered after developing their mission statement, which included the words “artisanal products” and “improving the quality of life of our families.”
We spent the week in training, meeting all of our goals. The women surprised me with an Easter basket as a thank you gift on my last day with them. I tried to get them to keep it as a model but they insisted that I take the basket. They wrote their mission statement at the top of the write board used daily in our training sessions then, complete with whiteboard and the baskets they had created that week, we went outside to take pictures in front of the cooperative.
I felt like these women have come such a long way in their entrepreneurship. They are certainly feeling very empowered running their own coop and taking real ownership now after it was first started by the Fabretto Foundation.
Week Two – Beekeeping and Greenhouse Production
During the second week, I met with seven Extension educators at the Fabretto Foundation grade school in Somoto. They were primarily interested in beekeeping, but also in other agricultural activities such as greenhouse tomato production and coffee production. On the first day, there was a mix up with transportation from my hotel but no one showed up, so we started our training a bit late. Juli, a teenage volunteer from Germany who worked at a Fabretto school two hours away in Estile, was waiting at the school to translate.
I covered an overview of a business plan and worked on a SWOT analysis for beekeeping. One the second day with the educators, I hoped to show them some e-learning videos I had recently finished for a European Union-funded funded project called EMWOFA, “Empowering Women Farmers through Agricultural Business Management Training.” However, the internet did not work well enough at the Fabretto school to show them. Instead, I gave the educators the website address from which they could later access the teacher’s manual, a workbook for producers and e-learning videos that were designed to guide small scale greenhouse producers in developing a business plan for their farms. I also helped them develop a mission statement and a marketing plan for the beekeeping cooperative. I was impressed with the dedication of the educators and their eagerness to learn. I feel confident that they will succeed.
For the remainder of my second week, I worked with high school students who had teamed up with the Extension educators to start a tomato-producing greenhouse. The reason for setting up the greenhouse is to provide income for the students and their families. The greenhouse was new, with production just begun in January. The students were quite proud of it and felt that they had been well trained on the technical aspects of producing tomatoes. They knew that they had to satisfy the customers, but for now, Fabretto is their only customer and purchases all the tomatoes they produce. I covered the basics of a business plan then had the students do a SWOT analysis and develop a mission statement, a marketing plan as well as establish three SMART goals. After the students left for the day, I reviewed the business plan that the tutor had developed before my arrival and we worked together to make a stronger plan for the greenhouse.
My last day in Somoto, I toured the greenhouse with one student and a tutor. I noticed there was quite a bit of powdery mildew and one leaf that had leaf minors, plus some nutritional problems with the tomato plants. The footbath container was not in use and pesticide bottles were on the ground near the entrance instead of being stored in a locked location.
The students had explained to me in class that insects and diseases would be no problem because the greenhouse is screened to keep them out. I think they need to look into insect and disease control as well as plant nutrition, and said as much. Also, the greenhouse is not right next to the school because it needs to be next to irrigation water, so it takes quite a bit of effort for the students to go back and forth to the greenhouse. Nevertheless, the plants looked healthy and the structure and supports looked good.
My satisfaction index is high
I have more than 40 years of experience in greenhouse production and management in the U.S. earlier in my career, I developed a computer program that allows greenhouse managers to allocate costs to specific crops, called “Greenhouse Cost Accounting,” which has become the standard for the greenhouse industry. This project in Nicaragua felt like a natural fit as my experience has allowed me to work with a variety of individuals on how to scale their operations, and I felt very gratified that I could help the women, the educators and students make effective managerial decisions to sustain their operations.
What stood out for me on this trip was the groups’ willingness to learn so they can make better lives for themselves and their families, as well as the warmth of the people. Their interest in learning all they could to make their cooperatives profitable was well worth my trip and I was grateful to the Farmer-to-Farmer program for allowing me to share my expertise.
I felt safe in Nicaragua. People did not have much material goods but seemed happy and willing to share what they had with each other. They were appreciative of the training that we offered. I think Farmer-to-Farmer programs and projects have helped the Nicaraguan people develop these small-scale enterprises over the years.
I was very impressed with the insights of my local hosts, Noel Diaz and Xenia Castillo. I feel that if they continue to receive support for their efforts, they will guide these groups and others into cooperatives that provide for many families in Nicaragua and will build a better future for the members, their families and their communities.