In January 2011, Justine Lindemann left the US to spend six months with Winrock International as an intern for the Mali Farmer-to-Farmer program. Having previously lived in Senegal and worked as Africa Program Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Justine had relevant experience -and a lot of enthusiasm- to bring to her assignment in Mali.
She shares her initial thoughts on her rewarding experience in the blog entry below:
“After working in the think tank world in Washington, DC for a few years, I was itching to get out of the office and do something much more ‘hands-on’ in the agriculture sector. Something that could be called fieldwork in the truest sense of the word. A series of internet searches turned up a plethora of pay-to-volunteer programs, or volunteer abroad vacation packages, which wasn’t at all what I was looking for. When I stumbled across Winrock International’s webpage, I knew I had found a unique organization doing really innovative work. Because I have neither an advanced degree in agriculture nor have I spent the last 40 years honing my farming skills, I didn’t know if there would be a place for me within the organization. Nevertheless, I emailed the headquarters office to inquire about their projects in Francophone Africa, and six months later was sitting on a plane headed to Bamako, Mali.
Winrock’s programs in Mali concentrate on small-scale farmers and farmers associations, working from a value chain approach to increase production and productivity. The socio-political and institutional setting in Mali is favorable to investment; and the under exploited economic potential of the land, animal and plant resources here led Winrock and USAID (together with the implementing partner ACDI/VOCA) to target Mali as one of three West African countries in which to implement the Farmer-to-Farmer program.
Farmer-to-Farmer (and the shoot-off program in Mali, MAVEN) brings American technical experts to Mali to work directly with farmers and producers for short-term technical assistance. The projects are extremely focused, and the nature of the program lends itself to an effective targeting of the needs of the producers here in Mali.
Since arriving in Mali in January, I have worked with people across the spectrum of agriculture. Small ruminant (goat and sheep) producers and veterinarians who are themselves experts in the field; generally illiterate women starting their own market gardening cooperative; milk stockists who buy milk from local collection centers to resell it in Bamako; urban farmers who produce everything from beets and strawberries to bananas, cashews, and mangoes; and fish farmers looking to increase their income by raising fish in ponds dug in their land.
The challenges are significant, but not insurmountable. A field assessment is thus essential before the volunteer is recruited from the United States. Without a specific and detailed plan of the problem to be addressed, the two or three weeks that the volunteer consecrates to the project would be spent doing a diagnostic of the problem rather than trying to find ways to solve it. The first month and a half of my six-month internship was spent travelling all over Mali meeting with and talking to people about what they do and the obstacles they are facing. We spoke with rice farmers who struggle with worm infestations; fish farmers whose ponds leak water during the dry season; veterinarians who experience very high death rates amongst new-born goats and sheep; and urban producers who are gradually losing the land they farm on to construction companies and apartment complexes.
The volunteers that have traveled here come from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from 26 years old to over 70: a gender specialist, a businessman, a goat farmer/marriage and family therapist, former Peace Corps Volunteers, and the list goes on. Over the four months that I have been here, I have seen first-hand the need for the sort of dedicated technical assistance and capacity building that these volunteers can offer. The thirst for knowledge and the desire to move forward in Mali is insatiable, and the availability of trainings or expertise is inadequate. Infusing a community with fresh ideas for how to move forward in their production or business is not a panacea, but it ensures progress, and encourages innovation for the future.”
A couple of favorite photos included below:
women’s cooperative members take notes during Farmer-to-Farmer training
Winrock staff and members of a women’s cooperative in Mali