It often surprises me how little it takes to make you realize the enormity of what you are about to take on. Three days ago it was an email.
Since November after an exciting, yet giddy, phone call I’ve known I will be working overseas with Engineers Without Borders for the summer. You would think in that amount of time things would slowly start to become real. Like the fact I will be traveling six time zones to work on a project I’ve only read about, or the fact this will be my first time outside the borders of Canada. There was so much uncertainty. Conversations about my summer were often short and left people confused:
“What are you doing this summer?”
“Going to Africa to work for EWB”
“Oh sweet, where?”
“Well… that sounds… interesting?”
I didn’t have concrete answers to any of these questions, and because of it my summer plans often felt like a wistful dream. Then three days ago, faster than g-mail could open an email called “Your JF Placement”, all that changed.
Agriculture extension agents who are employed by private businesses work on two levels: they sell products, and provide information. AEAs are similar to door-to-door sales men; they collect orders and money from farmers and then relay those orders back to the companies. On top of that, agriculture agents provide information on what pesticides to use for certain pests, what fertilizer to use for certain crops, how to safely store and apply those chemicals. Even basic veterinary knowledge, and access to farming equipment is provided. The goal of agriculture agents is to create a stronger link between rural farmers and private agriculture businesses. If rural farmers have improved access to the products these businesses sell, and the knowledge to make the most of these products, they can improve crop yields and in turn their livelihoods.
So how does PROFIT fit into this picture? PROFIT is a project run by an American implementing NGO called CLUSA, and is funded by USAID. PROFIT has been training agents for the past 4-5 years in partnership with several private agriculture businesses in Zambia. They are trained by PROFIT on products that the companies have available: different types of maize seed, vegetable seed, chemicals, fertilizers, and equipment.
However, there are problems with this system. Many of the trained agents require more support to do their job effectively. Many of the companies that employ these agents have hundreds of products, and memorizing what pesticide is used for what pest can be a challenge. Also, because the agents are paid on commission, if a farmer is told by an AEA which type of fertilizer will work best, but does not purchase it through the AEA (instead goes to town to buy it himself) the AEA will not receive commission for the sale.
There are two tools currently being developed by Anthony Candelario (EWB Africa Programs Staff) to try and address these issues: product charts that agents can use instead of memorizing extensive product lists, and a coupon system to promote purchases through agents. My job will be to work with AEAs and pilot these tools. I will be writing reports on the failures, successes, and outcomes of the pilot project from the field, and at the end of the summer I will be presenting to PROFIT management. If all goes well they plan to scale up across Zambia.
With some major questions answered I’ve got less than 96 hours to pack my backpack and make it downtown Toronto for pre-departure training. S**t just got real.
Let you all know when I learn more,