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Enriching partnerships with Cordaid STARS

 

When it comes to international cooperation and rural development, Dutch professionals are widely recognised for their skills and experience. However, this experience does not come overnight and certainly not from within the borders of the Netherlands. For many young people in this sector, a major challenge is getting an opportunity to test their knowledge and acquire practical experience in the field. 

For many years, Young Experts Programmes (YEP) has been helping to bridge the gap by working with public and private sector partners in agro-food, water and energy to provide young Dutch experts an opportunity to work on projects abroad. It is a successful model that helps assure the continued availability of Dutch professionalism and expertise in these areas and contributes towards capacity building through knowledge transfer and innovation at an international level. 

 

Creating momentum and innovation

Maurice Koppes, a programme manager at development organisation, Cordaid, has a long history of working with YEP professionals on various projects in Sub-Saharan-Africa and can testify to the positive impact they bring. He has been overseeing the Strengthening African Rural Smallholders (STARS) programme, an initiative which started under ICCO, and which is now part of the Cordaid portfolio since the two organisations joined forces earlier this year. 

He talks about the unique impact of YEP professionals on the programme which focuses on improving access to finance and markets for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

“What I have noticed, is that despite the different cultures in the four countries, YEP experts have proven to be a perfect choice - both from a personal and professional perspective. I think this is because of the rigorous pre-selection and preparation process they go through. They never seem to fail!” What stands out for Koppes is that professionals from YEP seem more willing to collaborate across different organisations and have no hesitation in sharing knowledge. He says this is often beyond the terms of reference for the assignment but in the end, it creates momentum and drives innovative solutions. He adds that more should be done to foster this type of exchange and hopes that entities like the Dutch Embassy in host countries can organise more activities to bring experts from different sectors together.


A perfect incubator

Programmes like STARS, are the perfect incubator for Young Experts to test their skills and experience what it’s like to work outside a Western culture. As many impact specialists will testify, it is not always easy to adapt to a new environment with different work ethics and reporting systems. Koppes says his YEP colleagues seem to fit right in. “Often development organisations are located in the city far away from the farmers. YEP experts went out with us to the farms and talked to the farmers. They also had no trouble respecting local customs and hierarchies.” 

 

A market system approach to farming

The power of the STARS programme is that it applies a market system approach based on strengthening value chains and helping farmers commercialise their operations. For example, there is a perception among some lending institutions that smallholder farmers are high risk because they do not understand business. In response, Cordaid developed an app to help farmers put a value on their inputs and estimate their operating costs. The app, called A-CAT (Agricultural-Credit Assessment Tool), estimates the expected amount needed to finance inputs, labour and other costs, as well as the total net income from agricultural activities. This has proven valuable in helping loan officers from Micro-finance Institutions (MFIs) to accurately assess the financial aspects of a loan, including the repayment terms and collateral. Koppes: “It was a Young Expert working with the Dutch company, Simbuka who adapted the software for this project. It is now being replicated and rolled out to MFIs in Rwanda and other countries will follow suit. Another YEP professional is working with eProd, a Kenyan company that offers a Supply Chain Management system for agribusinesses in developing countries to adapt and implement a similar tool for use in Rwanda.”


M&E for lasting change

An essential element of any successful project is being able to determine what works and what does not. This is something that the STARS programme leader says, lies at the heart of the programme and is what brings about lasting change. To illustrate his point, he refers to the importance of M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) and the contribution made by two Young Experts towards the project in Rwanda and Senegal. “We call it synthesis. Being able to analyse the various aspects of a project, through surveys and interviews and figuring out what’s next - that’s synthesis. It’s a creative process that young people are very good at because they bring a fresh perspective and can immerse themselves in the reality of ordinary people in a completely different environment.” 


Even though the STARS programme is coming to an end, Cordaid’s collaboration with YEP professionals is continuing. This involves a re-forestation project on a tea plantation in Rwanda with Dutch International Business Cooperative (DIBcoop). Young Expert, Rebecca Groot, is helping to secure funding for the project and microfinacing for the farmers until the trees mature. 


Tremendous learning ground that needs to be nurtured

Koppes views initiatives such as YEP as a tremendous learning ground, not only for experts looking to gain international experience, but also for more experienced specialists who benefit from being challenged to seek out new approaches to problem solving. He adds that hiring a Young Expert is a unique opportunity to get what he refers to as, a lot of brain power in one place at an affordable rate. “If the people are motivated and willing to explore and develop innovative solutions, it is a win-win, especially in Africa where budgets are not as big as in Europe.” 




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