It is easy to feel that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought life to a standstill. But life does carry on. Every day, the news is full of stories that illustrate the innovative solutions that individuals and organizations are adopting to adapt to this challenging environment—and when needed, to fulfill their missions.
Here at Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA), every international development project we implement requires us to develop creative remedies to address the current global crisis. In fact, tackling such challenges is an inherent part of international development through which organizations like ours adjust to natural and economic shocks. And while nothing could have completely prepared us for the hardships brought on by this pandemic, we also realize that the programs we implement to help the world’s farmers ensure global food security are even more critical today, and that we must continue to execute those initiatives in spite of these obstacles.
Our work with the John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is an indispensable part of those efforts. Through the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, U.S. volunteers with decades of experience in farming and agribusiness—such as finance, business, food processing, academia and government service—spend two to four weeks in a number of countries working side-by-side with local counterparts to spur economic growth through agriculture and agribusiness. Volunteers also serve as “citizen diplomats,” opening channels of dialogue, and helping to cultivate mutual understanding about U.S. and host country’s values and culture.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed constraints on the operations of this unique program. Severe restrictions on international travel and lockdowns in many countries have led to a pause with assignments of dozens of U.S. volunteers. But, thanks to creative and agile thinking, the primary and most critical assets exchanged during these engagements—information and expertise—can in fact continue to flow thanks to communications technology.
As an example, with the onset of the pandemic, our team started looking for alternatives to provide assistance to the agricultural sector of the country of Moldova in Central Europe. One of those beneficiaries, the Moldovan Organic Value Chain Alliance (MOVCA), quickly seized on this opportunity.
The Alliance members—who include growers, shippers, processors, farmer associations, importers, exporters, retailers and consumers—had been looking forward to an upcoming in-person U.S. volunteer engagement covering a topic critical to their interests: “How to Integrate Cover Crops in Organic and Conventional Agriculture.” And then the COVID-19 pandemic led to a need to improvise our initial plans.
While the outbreak halted the travel arrangements that supported the engagement, the F2F principals remained undeterred and began to meet online to discuss how to get that information to the Alliance members.
By the end of March, the Farmer-to-Famer team in Moldova and MOVCA agreed to develop an online curriculum addressing the most urgent “Cover Crops” related topic needs. Within a few days a distance-learning communication was developed including five thematic webinars.
Of course, there are additional moving parts related to the transition to a webinar format, such as conducting U.S.-based training on how to conduct the online sessions, preparing a Moldova-based interpreter with sufficient knowledge of the topics on hand, and performing the work necessary to connect participants all across Moldova when the first webinar takes place sometime in the first half of May.
As the global fight against the pandemic continues, CNFA is working with other local counterparts in Moldova and five other countries where the Farmer-to-Farmer Program is active, to provide volunteers with online support that will prepare them to leverage online tools to interact and share their knowledge and expertise with beneficiaries virtually.
Of course, webinars can never replace the person-to-person, in-the-flesh encounters that are at the heart of the Farmer-to-Farmer Program. At the same time, while they are not intended as a permanent solution, the webinars nonetheless will serve as an essential means for maintaining what has become an important conduit for sharing important agricultural expertise from the U.S. at a significant inflection point in our planet’s history.
It is critical to go the extra mile to keep those channels open. Even in these trying times, members of the international development and agricultural communities must continue to work to ensure global food security. And perhaps most importantly, we must remember that all of us are in this together.
Bruce Williams is the president and owner, Lakeside Farm, Inc based in North Carolina/Virginia and a volunteer for CNFA (Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture)-managed USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program. Mr. Williams is currently supporting MOVCA online education.
Sylvain Roy is the President and CEO of CNFA.