JAD Executive President Osmar Benitez discusses how the organisation has become one of the Caribbean’s most successful, influential and sustainable farmer groups.
Junta Agroempresarial Dominicana (JAD), the Dominican Republic’s farmer organisation, has long been viewed as a poster child for Caribbean agriculture. As far back as the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) singled JAD out as the only farmers’ association that represented agri-entrepreneurs in a truly holistic way that was neither antagonistic towards the government of its country nor dependent on it for survival. So what has set JAD apart from the rest?
JAD’s leadership recognised early on the importance of building a broad membership base, says Benitez. By offering technical assistance and laboratory services, and ensuring that it proactively represents its members in any dialogue with government that relates to the agricultural sector, JAD has helped build trust and attract more members. “That gave us a unique image as an institution that will work for the farmers, always,” he notes.
From the start, JAD’s strategy was to be self-sustaining long beyond its initial three-year USAID grant and, according to Benitez, this has created a bedrock for its success.
To finance JAD’s activities after the end of USAID funding, the organisation used grants from international and local organisations, banks, agro-industries and private companies to create a trust fund. JAD does not touch the initial capital from the trust. Rather, it relies only on interest or income from the trust to fund its operations. The result is that it has a stable financial foundation to work from and to steadily increase the services it provides, says Benitez.
Helping shape public policy
When the Dominican Republic’s government formulated its 30-year National Strategy for Development in December 2011, it consulted JAD on what services were critical for building sustainable and inclusive value chains in the country. JAD defined these as including: improved credit; land property and titling; research, innovation and development; rural infrastructure; and export strategies.
JAD also advised the government on the importance of creating a policy covering the relationship between agricultural development, the environment and climate change and discussed the importance of institutional development or reform of the agricultural sector and of promoting farmers’ associations or cooperatives.
Innovation and improved governance are key to sustainability
However, to continue offering its services on a sustainable basis, especially to small-scale producers, innovation is key, Benitez believes. “The world is changing so rapidly that we need to focus on new technologies,” he states.
Strengthening smaller farmer organisations and working with them to bolster their institutional governance is also important, as is offering them in-service training and ensuring market information related to agricultural value chains is regularly updated and communicated, he emphasises. In addition, offering technical assistance that is tailor-made to fit the needs of each farmers’ group keeps its services relevant and the organisation sustainable.
Private sector is best placed to foster entrepreneurial spirit in farmers
In Benitez’s opinion, the private sector knows the best way to help transform small farmers into entrepreneurs and business people. It also has a unique role to play in helping them benefit from innovations in market information, in training and technical assistance, and in institutional development and governance, he adds. Many governments are now setting up public-private partnerships and contracting services providers to help farmers access more programmes.
Through this kind of partnership with the government, private sector players can help channel resources to farmer organisations. This will help farmers improve their agricultural yield and their income, as well as enable them to employ more technical and management personnel. The private sector should also work with farmers to improve financial options in the form of credit and financial support from the government or donor agencies, he says.
“Most important of all is establishing a working relationship that will focus on improving farmers’ income, improving their families’ values and life conditions and also securing that they gather enough resources to be independent and self-sufficient,” stresses Benitez.
Lessons for fellow farmer organisations
Through its long years of experience, JAD has learned a number of lessons that could prove useful for other farmer organisations in the Caribbean and beyond. Benitez believes that establishing a broad base of supportive and involved members means that an organisation is more likely to develop programmes and services that are actually needed by the farming community it supports.
“Institutions with a large scale of farmers will be able to survive if the leaders of those organisations focus on creating programmes and services that will be highly demanded by the farming community,” he says.
“Secondly, do not give anything for free,” Benitez urges. “In JAD’s experience, farmers value a service more highly if they pay for it and farmer organisations need this income to continue offering services.”
However, he acknowledges that the smallest farmers cannot be expected to pay more than they can afford, so farmer organisations should tailor and scale their fees accordingly. “If they cannot afford the full amount of the cost of the service, then ask them ‘What is the amount that you are able to pay?’ and let them pay that amount,” he advises.
Staying in regular contact with members is also important in terms of keeping them engaged. “It is important that you create the type of network that will allow the farmers to continuously receive information on the programme of the institution, through a newsletter and regular meetings,” states Benitez.
Also, “celebrate activities frequently, at least every two months, where farmers can gather to visit a farm that is using new and modern technology so they can learn from it,” he says. At the same time, keep farmers involved in any discussions the farmer organisation is having with the government related to public agendas.
Finally, ensure that the organisation does not become embroiled in politics, “because that will be the beginning of the end of an institution,” notes Benitez. A successful farmer organisation’s sole focus should be on producing more food, making farming more profitable and ensuring a better life for farmers and their families, he concludes.