Facilitating Local Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration through Farmer-to-Farmer in Timor-Leste
The concept and implementation of the Farmer-to-Farmer program fosters locally led development by providing technical assistance to agricultural practitioners based on their expressed needs. However, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has grown our understanding of the power of knowledge sharing by working with specific Farmer-to-Farmer hosts that not only implement the technical assistance received, but share that knowledge in a way that spreads so widely that it advances systemic change throughout the country.
We have learned that to further successful localization through our Farmer-to-Farmer host organizations, it is critical to select host organizations that are positioned to perpetuate knowledge sharing through collaboration and partnerships. It is ideal if the organization can facilitate knowledge sharing and learning both upward in the system through policy and down to the community level through practical application, as in the host example below. Going forward, CRS will look to organizations collaborating in similar ways to be models for host selection in order to promote knowledge sharing broadly throughout the agricultural industry in countries where we implement Farmer-to-Farmer.
Collaborative learning and knowledge sharing are key components to systemic change and sustainability, and Timor-Leste Farmer-to-Farmer host organization, Centro Desenvolvimento Comunitario (CDC), is a perfect example of what is possible with collaboration and open knowledge sharing between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), local private sector companies, government and local youth populations.
CDC has been a host organization for USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer program four times to date. The American volunteers have helped CDC to develop a horticultural training manual for growing tomatoes, learn to cultivate their own tomato seeds, create organic compost rather than burning agricultural waste, implement hoop houses with drip irrigation and improve their proposal writing skills, resulting in seven new funding awards.
CDC, a Timorese NGO, is an operational farm and agricultural training center for Timorese youth. Each year, CDC houses two groups of 50-60 students from around the country who live at the training center for six months and learn both in and out of the classroom about agriculture and horticulture. The students are housed for free at CDC and are also assigned to a practicum as part of their training to experience hands-on learning in different agricultural settings through partnerships with private farmers, government research farms and other agricultural organizations.
According to 2021 national data, Timor-Leste’s population has reached just over 1.3 million, with an average age of 19.6 years, making it one of the youngest populations in the Asia and Pacific region. CDC has embraced Timor-Leste’s young population by focusing on youth-inclusive agriculture, with at least 50 percent being women. With Timor-Leste being a young and isolated island nation, CDC recognizes the need to not only provide knowledge and skills, but also to facilitate ongoing learning and economic opportunities for their students through partnerships. CDC focuses on making agriculture an attractive and viable economic option for the youth in Timor-Leste by encouraging professional agricultural growth through the facilitation of opportunities for their students to go abroad for additional learning and practical experience, enabling them to save money while learning, so they have the resources and the knowledge to start their own agricultural enterprises upon return to Timor-Leste.
After graduating from CDC’s program, students often go on to join a Timorese government support arrangement with Australia for seasonal agricultural workers, start their own agricultural businesses, work for local NGOs or go on for further training at local universities or an agricultural partner program in Israel. Some students have returned to their home communities and have worked together to start youth agricultural groups to help each other learn new skills and find market linkages for their products. To date, 12 youth farming groups in different areas of Timor-Leste have been started by former students, and more than 70 students have gone to Australia for the yearlong seasonal agricultural work and learning program.
Another key element of CDC’s youth-focused program is their recognition that their students need not only classroom instruction, but practical experience, which they support through collaborative practicums hosted by other Timorese private sector agriculture organizations, local private farms, government research farms as well as on CDC’s operational on-site farm. Several of the practicum hosts are other local Farmer-to-Farmer host organizations that are collaborating with CDC to share knowledge by hosting students for their practicums. These practicums further practical application of the skills the students have learned in the classroom, but also perpetuate knowledge sharing between the practicum host and the students, providing opportunities for students to make agricultural business connections for future potential collaboration, employment and market linkages.
CDC not only assists local youth to learn and gain agricultural skills, but as a government-registered agricultural teaching facility, they share all curriculum with the Ministry of Agriculture for adoption and use by the Ministry’s agricultural extension workers. All of the new agricultural skills acquired through the CRS-implemented Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer assignments have not only become part of the CDC training curriculum, but have also been adopted for the national training of government agricultural extension workers.
Additionally, the importance of local collaboration and knowledge sharing was emphasized when COVID-19 spread across the world, and Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers could no longer travel. CRS relied on local technical expert volunteers to liaise with U.S.-based Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers remotely in order to carry out the technical assistance assignments requested by local host organizations. CDC had the experience of having one of its practicum partners become the volunteer counterpart host in its assignment about drip irrigation.
By providing CDC with the requested technical assistance, Farmer-to-Farmer was able to strengthen CDC’s knowledge, skills and curriculum, which ultimately benefited and will continue to benefit a continually growing number of Timorese people. Farmer-to-Farmer’s impact could have been much less substantial with a different host organization, but our host experience and resulting local impact working with CDC have illustrated the critical importance of host selection. Selecting hosts who are already championing collaborations and knowledge sharing is where our local impact will be the greatest.