By Naser Qadous, ANERA Agriculture Projects Manager
When I talk to people about my very recent experience on a learning route in Morocco, they ask me “what’s a learning route?” In the Middle East, I’d say it’s a road less traveled but definitely one worth taking.
In reality, it’s a knowledge-sharing method based on practical experience and discussion. The learning route method was created by the Chilean company PROCASUR. In cooperation with KariNet, the program was established to increase knowledge sharing and best practices in agriculture and rural development in the Middle East and North Africa.
My journey on the learning route started last year when I participated in planning workshop in Beirut, along with 20 agriculture experts from 10 MENA countries. During the workshop, we brainstormed about priority concerns for farmers in the different countries and came up with two key issues: farmer cooperatives and water resource management.
A comprehensive learning route on water management was organized in Egypt during March 2013, another on farmers’ cooperatives in Morocco. As an agriculture engineer I’ve dealt a lot with water management issues so I chose to attend the 10-day conference on farmers’ cooperatives in Morocco. The “route” was conducted by KariNet and funded by IDRC (International Development and Research Centre) and IFAD (UN International Fund for Agricultural Development).
THE LEARNING ROUTE
During our orientation in Agadir, we each presented agricultural problems and knowledge shortages in our countries and what we hoped to achieve through the learning route.
For the next six days we visited three different cooperatives and cooperative unions to learn as much as possible about how they operated in order to use them as case studies. Each cooperative talked about what it does, how it is governed, what services it offers, including help with market access.
After each presentation, we met with employees and farmers for more detailed discussions. We divided into groups of experts and representatives from the organizations we visited and continued reviewing what we learned and sharing our impressions. The information-sharing brought us all a more profound and comprehensive understanding of what cooperatives really can do.
But our learning didn’t stop there. After each visit and meeting we used to debrief the case, analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT)and then list our recommendations for our hosts “the farmers’ unions.” Then we shared our analysis and recommendations with the farmers groups.
PROCASUR says 70% of innovation plans drawn up after a learning route are implemented.
INSPIRING MODELS OF COLLABORATIONS
The first cooperative we visited in Agadir was made up of women-run organizations that benefited women farmers. In fact, they don’t accept male members! But the way they worked was the very spirit of collaboration. The women collect the Argan fruits from a tree native to Morocco. The oil is extracted and used for food and for cosmetics. The women’s cooperatives focus on collecting and preparing the fruit of the trees for processing. The union (ANCA) then processes and markets the products.
The second union we visited was Morocco’s largest cooperative in citrus fruits, cow rearing and dairy production for local market and export. I was especially drawn to their farming school “Addar Al-Qarawiyya,” or village house.
The students mostly are farming children who had dropped out of school. They are taught different subjects like math, but in relation to farming, along with the technical vocational training in agriculture. The three-year course is both practical and based on experience and interaction with farmers. Armed with a strong scientific foundation and a diploma, the young trainees are ready to run their family-owned farms.
The third case was a union for herders. They focus on improving local sheep breeds. The government contracts them to work on behalf of the agriculture ministry in breeding and some vaccination. The experience is really impressive and should be followed on national level.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD
We worked hard, long hours trying to pack in as much as we could. But there were some lighter moments too.
While we were on our way to visit a cooperative near Marrakech we stopped for a quick break. A colleague from Yemen and I went into a small shop to get a coffee and discovered the person at the cash register was also from Yemen. After welcoming my colleague, he asked where I was from. When he discovered I was Palestinian, he wanted to know exactly where I came from. I was surprised by how much he knew about the West Bank but he said he’d learned a lot from a Palestinian friend So I casually asked, “Is his name Abdullah Salameh?” Abdullah is an old friend of mine who had moved to Morocco a long time ago and I had lost contact with him.
My question shocked him. “Yes, that’s him!” he said. He quickly called Abdullah and handed me his cellphone so I could talk with my long lost friend. How small the world is!
ANERA’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE LEARNING ROUTE
My last task was presenting an innovation plan. The ANERA plan focuses on technical and vocational training for children of farmers or young people who have dropped out of school. I’d had this plan in mind for a while but my participation in the ‘learning route’ helped crystallize the plan, especially the visit to the second union and its school. ANERA now is seeking funds to turn this dream into a reality .
Throughout the 20 years I’ve spent in the agricultural field as an engineer, I’ve participated in some 40 trainings and workshops. But, nothing compares to the learning route and the informative and inspiring interaction with fellow farmers and agriculture experts. It has encouraged me to create a farmer network for knowledge-sharing, which we lack in the West Bank.
Weeks after returning home, my memories of Morocco are as fresh as ever, from the stimulating conversations and the generous people I met to the delicious Moroccan cuisine and, most importantly, the creativity it has inspired.
The learning route is definitely one that I shall travel again!