As part of my obligations as Agribusiness Coordinator and
with the help of funding from people like you, I took on the task of organizing
three regional agbiz seminars that all took place in the last few months. Throughout the process I learned a lot,
worked hard, and feel I pulled them off to the best of my abilities.
|Biggest seminar we had in Bocas del Toro|
|Analyzing weekly expenditures|
After picking my host-communities for each seminar in the
provinces of Veraguas, Bocas del Toro, and Panama Oeste, the first obstacle I
faced was scheduling. Between Panamanian
holidays, Peace Corps events, and the travels of my fellow volunteers, it was
literally impossible to pick dates that worked for all parties involved. All scheduled dates were changed between one
to three times and still there were conflicts, some that we were only informed
of when a seminar was less than a week away.
|Smallest seminar in Veraguas|
Checking my phone hill once a day to coordinate with other
volunteers who also don’t have signal was challenging. We attempted to confirm the number of
attendees and facilitators, host-families for lodging, cooks and ingredients,
transportation, etc. But most of these
things ended up changing last minute anyway.
My main frustration with these seminars was their generally
low attendance. At each seminar about 10
or more “confirmed” participants backed out either by not showing up or by
telling their volunteer that they couldn’t make it. In the U.S. this does not happen. If an event has been on our calendar for
weeks or months and we commit to going, we go (unless something really urgent
comes up). But that is not the case
here. Leaving home to take a quick trip
goes against local culture. Even though
we tried to make it easy (all expenses-paid, accompanied by a known volunteer),
we were still asking people to do something outside of their comfort zone. While many admitted the idea sounded
worthwhile and that they were interested in learning about what we had to
offer, when the day actually came, many just couldn’t go through with it. Disappointing, but in truth not all that
surprising, and certainly understandable.
|Very high facilitator to participant ration. I think this helped the participants!|
For those participants who did show up, they seemed to get a
lot out of it and have a good time. The
people willing to leave their houses seem to be the ones most eager to learn
and to share their experiences.
|Earning free calculators by answering quiz questions|
|Passing the coin down the line through clothes gets people laughing every time. Gotta love ice-breakers.|
We covered topics like farm planning, keeping inventories,
working in groups, using a calendar, using a calculator (really hard for
some!), keeping track of cash flow, setting personal budgets, creating a
marketing plan, calculating cost of production (another tough one, especially
without good records), adding value to products, customer service, market
analysis, and an intro to legal topics like contracts, loans, and becoming
incorporated. Whew! The two days were jam-packed and people loved
the skits and games we relied on to liven things up. We emphasized that we knew we were throwing a
lot of information at them at once and that this is not easy stuff (learning to
track inventory when you’ve never seen a spreadsheet before is not easy!). We know it’s impossible for them to implement
everything we went over immediately, but rather we hope they will do so little
by little and ask their volunteers for help along the way. At the end, many commented that they were
glad they came, learned things they didn’t know before, and were happy they’d
had the opportunity to meet new people from other communities.
|Learning the consequences of signing contracts without reading them. Those participants owed us some sodas and some jumping jacks!|
I could not have pulled off these seminars without the help
of some amazing colleagues. My hosting
volunteers were all incredible. They
jumped through hoops to get their communities ready to host these events, opened
up their homes to us facilitators, and spoiled us with some of the best cooking
I’ve had in years (THANKS: Neil, Viole, Brennan, Sara, Paul). One such host had come down with the
flesh-eating parasite leshmaniasis, but even he introduced me to his community
before leaving to get treatment, and he let us live in his house without him
during the seminar. Brennan, you are
such a trooper!
|Brennan's home, minus Brennan |
And a huge thank you to all of my co-facilitators (Soraya,
Lauren N., Leanne, Mary, Abby, Zoe, Elena, and Lauren H.) who helped bring
people to the seminars, present the material, and keep me sane. I worked with both volunteers from my
training class and from the newer group and all agreed that working with
farmers to develop these basic business skills is extremely rewarding (despite
the frustrations). Two of my facilitator
helpers will be taking over as the next Agribusiness Co-Coordinators for the
coming year. As hard as it is for me to
admit I’m leaving soon and wrapping up my work, I am happy knowing I’m leaving
this role to such intelligent, dedicated individuals. Good luck Abby and Elena!
|Abby and Zoe presenting in Bocas|
|Elena using volunteers to show how contracts tie people together |
Before completely retiring from the Agribusiness Coordinator
gig, I have one more site visit planned for the end of May in Bocas. Megan, the volunteer there had tried to send
some participants to our Bocas seminar, but they’d all canceled on her last
minute. She really thinks her community
would benefit from this material, so we are trying again I have had decent luck with site visits in
the past (in the Darien and the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle), so hopefully people in
Megan’s community will be able to sacrifice a few hours to attend an event
right in their village. The downside to
this approach is that I will have less time with them so we will have to cut
out a lot of info and that they don’t get to hear about experiences of farmers
from other places. Nevertheless, we’ll
have the chance to target our presentation for their specific interests and
hey, it gives me an excuse to visit Bocas one last time :)
And just like that, events that have been on my calendar and
items that have been on my to-do list for so long are rapidly getting checked
off. Who knew time could go by this
|Somehow I still don't have the hang of the awkward certificate hand-off formality|
Summing up /
In January 2012 I received an assignment description from
the Peace Corps for the Sustainable Agriculture Systems Program in Panama. Doing some house-cleaning, I recently
stumbled upon this document and was struck by how accurate it was in regard to
how my service has gone. No one can say
I didn’t know what I was getting into!
Here are some excerpts that I find sum up my service particularly well …
It is hard work organizing people, planning, enduring
physical labor in the sun, rain, and mud, but the rewards are great.
Consider yourself lucky; Panama is a country with great
cultural, biological, and linguistic diversity all in an area the same size as
the state of South Carolina.
You will work closely with agencies and community leaders to
provide training and to promote greater use of sustainable practices that allow
families to make better-informed decisions about their production systems and
community projects. Helping farmers
realize what options exist to complement their traditional practices allows
farmers to form solutions to their own problems.
In order to accomplish its goals, Peace Corps/Panama will
ask you as a Sustainable Agriculture Systems Volunteer to perform some of the
Work with local farmers in activities such as
clearing land with a machete, planting with a coa (planting stick), weeding,
and harvesting in order to build working relationships and your understanding
of traditional farming methods.
Promote the establishment of rice and/or fish
tanks to ensure that families have food and protein all year round and
demonstrate the advantages and benefits of these techniques.
Implement and promote the establishment or
improvement of home and school gardens to improve nutrition
Help farmers analyze their market options
evaluating quality and quantity of production required and the transportation
cost of the different market options.
Train farmers in quality control methods and
Identify, train, and encourage successful
farmers, who will become promoters of the project techniques, within their
communities in the future.
Act as a liaison, facilitator, and promoter to
help communities receive assistance, implement planning systems, and establish
working relationships with appropriate agencies.
Sustainable Agriculture Systems projects are very demanding
physically, and Volunteers will need to tolerate vigorous physical exertion in
a hot-and-humid climate.
It is often said that being a Volunteer is a 24/7 job; but
it is the toughest job you’ll ever love!
Assignment in the SAS program is physically challenging due
to these extreme living and working conditions.
In the campo
Panama’s countryside, life moves at a much slower pace than in urban
areas. A rural Panamanian’s conception
of time and work will likely differ from yours.
For example, meetings often begin late and plans can be arbitrarily put
aside without reservation or prior notice.
A key part of the Volunteer’s successful adaption to Panama is having
the capacity to understand that things will not always go as planned. Patience is essential. Remember that community members; time-frame
is different than yours. PCVs work in
the community for two years and sometimes expect activities to go quickly,
while community members are there for a lifetime and have other priorities.
It is important to try to place yourself in
the shoes of your community partners in order to better understand their
actions and motivations. Panamanian
farmers do work very hard. In order to
gain their respect and trust you will have to do the same while also
demonstrating cross-cultural understanding.
You must be sure that you are willing to commit yourself to
twenty-seven months of service in a foreign country, living in conformity with
a culture that is completely different from your own. Many Volunteers have difficulty adjusting to
the slow pace of life, work, and lifestyle change. You may have to explain the purpose and
mission of Peace Corps and your role as a development worker many times, and to
many different people. You may feel a
lack of understanding and technical support from your counterparts at times. You may also be annoyed by frequent delays in
most daily activities from cooking, to public transportation, to organizing a
meeting. You will also be frustrated by
lack of privacy, and the local perception that you are a rich foreigner. These obstacles to accomplishing goals can be
very formidable. Results will be hard to
see at times. But the underlying key to satisfying work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is
the ability to establish successful interpersonal relations at all levels
. This will require patience, sensitivity, and
a positive professional attitude.
And despite these challenges, most Volunteers agree that the
rewards are very well worth the challenges.
While tangible results may be hard to see at first, with time, the
impact you have had will show in many ways.
Small changes of attitude or working techniques in local partners will
become apparent as you spend more time in your community. You will find this to be a great source of
satisfaction. When large projects are
slow in developing, smaller activities that succeed can provide you with a
great sense of accomplishment and can even help facilitate larger goals. Relationships
formed with members of your community will become one of the most rewarding
aspects of your work, and the impact you have on your neighbors and colleagues
will be lasting
. You will most
likely be the only American working in your community, and you need to prepare
yourself for the inevitable scrutiny a foreigner receives. However, because of the extra attention, the
work you do and the relationships you make will long remain in the memory of
By working in conjunction with community members and agency
partners, you will be making a significant contribution to development in
Panama. Your ability to approach problems from a new perspective, use a variety
of resources for information and ideas, take risks, and analyze and learn from
your mistakes are all indispensable skills for dealing with the day-to-day
challenges in your community.
these strategies with your co-workers will enable them to focus their
development and tackle the long-term problems they face.
Being a part of the
community is most important to your credibility and success.
Taking a long walk in the rain to see
someone’s bean farm, attending the birthday party of a child whose parents you
don’t know, and sitting through an 8 hour meeting that may not even pertain to
your work will make all the difference to your community members. We are here to gain the community’s respect
and serve its needs pertaining to sustainable development.
it is you, the PCV, who determines your experience no matter what country or
project. Patience, an open mind, a sense
of humor, and a passion for rural community development work are keys to a successful
adventure in Peace Corps.