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A model for success: the food production liaison

A model for success: the food production liaison

The idea behind the training

The fourth module, limited to the Departments of Comayagua, Copán and Choluteca, trained peasant women as Food Production Liaisons. This module aimed to improve nutritional levels in the project area, while redressing the lack of attention given to women's economic responsibilities and to the gender division of labour in the countryside. The component was oriented toward supporting women's traditional roles in subsistence agricultural production.

The productive activities of the forerunner FAO/UNDP project in the early 1980s had not been entirely successful, in part because families had to sacrifice their welfare to obtain a profit, when what they really needed were modest investments to improve family consumption. For example, pigs were treated with medicines while families could not afford medical care for their children, and chickens were given imported feed that cost more than the families' corn. The FAO project now proposed to improve subsistence production rather than supporting production for profit. Cultivating indigenous varieties of grains, vegetables and fruits, and breeding indigenous small livestock is common among peasant families who cannot afford expensive inputs required by high-yield crop varieties imported from outside the region or provide animals with special diets and expensive medicines. But these home-grown varieties are minimally productive because normally no steps are taken to control plant or animal diseases or to improve production. The training proposed to improve women's knowledge of and control over production for consumption and to enhance family survival strategies.

The project proposed to improve productivity and knowledge to meet subsistence needs, rather than to generate profit.

Increased subsistence production is of paramount importance in the project area. Though impacts on family consumption have not been measured, it appears that the increase in family consumption of poultry products, vegetables and fruits since implementation of this phase has been highly significant. The improved diet also represents a real economic benefit.

This module adapted many of the elements of the Women's Group Organizer module, but changed those that had not worked. For example, greater care was taken in selecting participants for the courses than had been the case in the previous three modules. After staff from both the National Agrarian Institute and the Ministry of Natural Resources had identified potential trainees and beneficiary groups, they asked each women's group to make the final decision on who would represent them and receive the Food Production Liaison training.

Once a woman was chosen by her group (in one case, a man was selected), the local extension agent met with the potential trainee and her spouse or father to discuss the commitment involved in training, the responsibility she would have in her community after training, and how much time the activities would require. The spouse or father had to agree to the woman's commitment before she could participate in training. This integrated family approach -- learned the hard way through the experience of the Women's Group Organizers -- bore fruit in the long run. All Food Production Liaisons have received strong support from their spouses who even help with home or agricultural activities when the women are working on group activities.

One regional office of the Ministry of Natural Resources developed a procedure that has been adapted for universal use. The regional office began to build women's groups in areas with little organizational strength, and then trained a Food Production Liaison for each group within one year of commencement of organizational activities. In many cases during this phase, the project team also followed up on grassroots groups that the Women's Group Organizers had formed one to two years earlier.

Apart from the involvement of husbands or fathers, the selection criteria for the Food Production Liaisons are less rigid than was the case of the Women's Group Organizers. The women are required to have completed third grade (or at least to have sufficient reading and writing skills to take notes), and to be willing and able to travel to training sessions and dedicate time to their groups. Because the women trained as Food Production Liaisons have little or no previous training in peasant organization and have rarely been out of their communities, their level of training, experience and organizational development is lower than that of the Women's Group Organizers. This has not necessarily been a negative factor. The minimal selection criteria have allowed for greater participation and have promoted the development of new leaders from the grassroots level.

The responsibilities of the Food Production Liaison are also fewer. Her commitment extends only to the women's groups in her home village, and she does not have to travel except to attend training sessions once a month over a period of six months

The objective of the training is to provide each Liaison with useful information on subsistence farming, and to motivate her to transfer that knowledge to her group through a "teach by example" method. The Liaison cultivates a demonstration vegetable and fruit garden, either on a collective basis or at her own home, using materials provided by the project and by her family. The "teach by example" method was developed to change attitudes and habits among the members of each group, motivating group members to start their own gardens.

Training content for the first Food Production Liaisons consisted of four, five-day courses on the following themes:

The use of minimum criteria to select peasant women trainees has allowed for greater participation and the development of new grassroots leaders.

The first two courses drew upon women's traditional roles as a means of encouraging participation. The importance of combining the traditional with the innovative cannot be overemphasized, especially for women with little self-confidence or experience in community organization.

After the first two years of training, the project directors recognized that the "graduates" of the Food Production Liaison module needed to enhance their skills, especially in group organization. The project team adapted two training topics from the Women's Group Organizer module:

In the end, the Food Production Liaisons have come to receive almost the same training as the Women's Group Organizers. The Food Production Liaisons, however, engage in supervised and disciplined field practice after their formal training is completed.

Organic Fertilizer: New Name for an Old Method

The appropriate technology and low-cost agricultural methods that the FAO has promoted in peasant women's training for subsistence agriculture are easily understood by Honduran peasants. Natural techniques for pest control soil conservation and soil preparation have been used since the time of the Mayas. However, this knowledge is not consistently transferred over generations, and many people have lost the knowledge of techniques that their grandparents once used. Such is the case with organic fertilizer.

Most refuse from peasant families is biodegradable and often under-utilized. With a little organization and ingenuity, Food Production Liaisons have been able to promote the use of organic fertilizer heaps. Participants are taught to layer any and all types of plant refuse in a corner of their yard and to cover it with cut grass. The rapid decomposition of organic matter in tropical zones allows the use of this natural fertilizer within 2-4 months.

Another useful but less accessible organic fertilizer is dried cow manure. Making a "tea" from manure can help stretch a limited quantity, and the liquid can be applied directly to the plant base rather mixing it into the soil.

One ingenious Liaison built a raised chicken coop with a mud brick floor below. Droppings from her 20 chickens fall onto rice husks scattered under the coop, creating a rich fertilizer mix in four months' time.

Research and action - training methodology

The methodology of training for Food Production Liaisons involves lecture, small group discussion, supervised practical work in the community, and demonstration. As part of their training, the women also travel to other areas of the country to learn appropriate agricultural techniques. But the most important training technique -- one that strengthens women's analytical and organizational skills -- is that of research before and action after. This technique has contributed to the success of the Food Production Liaison module.

At the end of each course, each participant receives a work guide to help her conduct a study in her home group or community. The knowledge acquired -- through survey, analysis, or observation -- is applied in the subsequent course in the development of a work plan that the women will then implement.

In the course on Family and Nutrition, the trainees perform two types of studies. First, they research the nutritional status of young children who are sons and daughters of the members of their women's groups. They use a calibrated bracelet to measure the size of each child's forearm and then count the number of normal, at-risk and malnourished children. Second, they ask the women in their group about the family diet, recording all the information they acquire. (See Annex for guides.)

In the subsequent course on Diet and Nutrition, the results of the nutrition studies are discussed. Learning about the critical situation in their communities motivates the women to act. They are asked to plan and present a demonstration for their women's groups on one of the units of the Diet and Nutrition course, and to report on the activity in the following course.

Also, after the Diet and Nutrition course, participants are asked to record the characteristics of their community and its women members in order to determine what resources are available to support family garden activities. This baseline survey seeks to discover what public and private organizations operate in the zone that could offer aid or assistance; what projects local women are currently participating in; and. at an individual level, the size of each family plot, access to water, types of food currently being produced, number and type of animals kept at home and common diseases that affect them. Upon return to class for the next course on Integrated Family Gardens, each participant uses her baseline study to discuss problems with the other participants and to propose a plan of action for developing family and collective gardens.

As part of this plan, the women are expected to promote the use of organic fertilizer in their communities. They are taught simple techniques for preparing the fertilizer and are given a guideline to establish the quantity and type of organic fertilizer to be produced, and the number of group members it will benefit.

In the Small Livestock Husbandry course, the women use the same baseline study to plan and execute a project that will prevent or control the most common diseases among small livestock and increase the number of small livestock in the community.

The practical work for the course on Organization and Leadership includes making a list of all local organizations, their resources and their responsibilities. For the Project Analysis and Planning course, the trainees elaborate a plan, complete with feasibility study, for a service or productive project that improves the quality of life for women's group members and their families.

This "research and action" training technique sharpens analytical skills and offers an opportunity for reflection so that the women can then propose their own ideas and act on them in their groups.

Motivate to produce - tools, training and credit for women

From the beginning, the analyses of the Food Production Liaison trainees have indicated a need for financial support to initiate the envisaged activities. In response, the project team proposed two unique credit funds to motivate and mobilize women's groups.

The participants propose a plan of action for developing family and collective gardens.

Inputs and seeds fund

In order to support women's interest in family gardening and strengthen women's groups, in 1989 the project proposed an Inputs and Seeds Fund to provide seeds, rudimentary tools for gardening and minimal chemical inputs to combat otherwise uncontrollable pest damage. The project also distributed several pesticide hand-sprayers, each to be shared by 34 groups. In order to keep credit burdens to a minimum in a pilot programme whose success was not assured, these one-time, in-kind loans were 50 percent subsidized. In other words, individuals were only obliged to repay 50 percent of the value of the materials they received. However, the groups also committed themselves to repaying the other 50 percent at no interest. Each group's payments went into a local fund under the name of the group, with three signatories, to develop a resource for future community projects. The Inputs and Seeds Fund initially totaled 20,000 Lempiras (about US$ 4,000).

To complement the credit for family garden production, one of the follow-up courses for Food Production Liaisons covered integrated pest management -- a method for recognizing pest outbreaks and plant diseases in garden crops, and treating them with natural pesticides produced from local materials. Each Food Production Liaison received technical support for vegetable gardens, distributed materials, offered advice on land preparation and sowing methods, and worked with her group and the local extension agent to develop a payback scheme for the Inputs and Seeds Fund loans.

Poultry credit fund

When a drought led to vegetable and fruit garden failure in southern Honduras, the project team proposed credit and follow-up technical training for family poultry production. In 1990 a pilot credit programme was established for five Food Production Liaisons and their groups. Demonstrations included vaccination and prevention of common poultry diseases, breeding and selection, lessons on how to grow worms to be used as chicken feed and construction of chicken coops. A total one-time credit of 20,000 Lempiras was extended at no interest for the poultry projects proposed by the five groups. Each group's credit was based on individual credit needs as elaborated m a plan presented by the Liaison and the extension agent who worked with her. Some 59 individuals received about 340 Lempiras each to cover the costs of chicken coop construction and purchase of chicks, roosters and hens. These individual loans are guaranteed by the groups. The repayment timetable was set by each groupe,6 and regular repayments are being deposited in a community fund, similar to the arrangement under the Inputs and Seeds Fund.

6 The flexibility of credit repayment allows group independence and establishes fiscal responsibility, rather than having the project play the role of moneylender or bank. One group in Comayagua decided to pay back 15 lempiras per person monthly, and has already repaid the loan. Another group in Copán that received credit in 1990 has set up payments once a year in December during the coffee and tobacco harvest -- when family income is highest.

The combined training and credit for poultry production is now being extended to all past and future Food Production Liaisons. Greater productive capacity with less risk and quicker profit has brought the Poultry Credit Fund into great demand. It has been recognized as one of the most viable activities for strengthening and stabilizing grassroots groups.

Rotating fund for peasant women

The impacts of the FAO project cannot be dissociated from a third credit source, the Rotating Fund for Peasant Women, begun in 1983 through UNDP. The Fund had been frozen in 1987, but was reactivated in February 1990 under the control of the National Agricultural Development Bank. The Rotating Fund now offers loans at a subsidized five percent annual interest rate for projects proposed by women's groups, with priority given to projects with women who have benefitted from the FAO training. The Fund has already experienced a relatively higher payback rate than that which resulted from loans extended before 1987.

As was seen in the early Housing/Environment Liaison and Women's Group Organizer modules, the lack of access to funds for production and social projects either limited or stopped organizational activity. Project credit offered through the Food Production Liaisons was critical to the work with groups. Although the Rotating Fund was not an activity of the FAO project, the project did promote its reactivation, coordinate meetings of the new credit committee and train representatives of peasant women's organizations on how to propose projects for loan applications.

Phase II of the project, now underway, was developed by a team of FAO and Dutch Women in Development experts with contributions from the project team. It seeks to consolidate both the grassroots groups and the methodology used to train the Food Production Liaisons for effective work in their villages. Organizational and project planning components have been incorporated in the training programme of all Food Production Liaisons, and has been extended to the earliest trainees, in order to develop their capacity for autonomous critical thinking. Also planned is a grassroots application of "gender sensitization", to help women's groups perceive and discuss issues that specifically affect them. In addition, practical educational materials are being developed to help the Food Production Liaisons transfer their skills in appropriate agricultural production techniques.

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