Agriculture is a major source of employment in developing countries, but farmers in those countries often must contend with the challenge of accessing the education they need to improve their livelihoods. It can be difficult for farmers in remote areas to gain continued access to trained agriculture experts who can teach them to better manage their farms and their yields. The East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project, launched in 2008 by Heifer International, World Agroforestry Center, International Livestock Research Institute, Technoserve, and African Breeders Services aims to address this problem by introducing volunteer farmer trainers (VFTs) in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.
VFTs are residents of the community they work in and are local dairy farmers who have an interest in helping others. VFTs are recruited and hired based on consensus from their own neighbours and community members. They are initially trained in short, intensive courses, and then go on to train their fellow farmers in their community. They use demonstration plots on their own land to train local farmers, but they also travel to neighboring villages to provide training services to a wider area. In fact, it is estimated that on average, just one VFT provides these badly needed services to about one thousand farmers.
VFTs have rapidly become an important part of the EADD project. Through the services administered in part by VFTs, the project has provided training in dairy husbandry, business practices, and marketing of dairy products to 179,000 farming families. In addition, 27 milk collection hubs and 68 farmer associations have been established. As a result, between 2009 and 2012, the volume of milk sold by dairy farmers in the project increased by 102%. These families can now afford to educate their children, access healthcare when needed, and invest more in their dairy businesses.
VFTs have proven to be very motivated in their jobs, and the rate of VFTs leaving the program has been quite low. The key to this success has been ensuring that they feel they are gaining a benefit from participating in the project. Many VFTs feel personal satisfaction in helping their fellow farmers and have experienced enhanced social status in their community. They also have found that they can earn extra income by selling materials and providing services for a small fee to people outside their community. Economic opportunity, coupled with social recognition and altruistic motivations, have contributed to the VFT program’s sustainability.
The project partners have recognized that the potential of VFTs in improving the lives of smallholder farmers cannot be ignored. VFTs not only provide badly needed extension services over the course of the project, but can also serve as a knowledge resource for the community after the project has ended. It is clear that the VFT model can provide the needed resources to empower local communities and help farmers become self-sufficient over the long term.