Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time to reflect

It’s been exactly two months since I boarded a plane in London for Entebbe, a good moment to reflect on how I am spending my time here, and how the experience is taking shape so far.  I have transitioned from the phase of getting to know the people and organization I am working with, and the place in general, to living, functioning with some modicum of familiarity.  I feel less like an alien being constantly staring with mouth open at the strangeness - and strange sameness - around me, and more like a participant, albeit a temporary one.  It definitely helps that Tom has come to stay with me until I leave; he has brought a kind of comfortable domesticity that is a kind of relief, a kind of retreat at the end of each day when I return home from work and meetings out at the cooperative.

My work in the cooperative has come out of the needs that have arisen since I have been here.  One characteristic of Peace Kawomera, at least right now as the coffee harvest ends and the vanilla-buying season begins, is that the staff and Board are all overwhelmed, and putting effort into long-term planning and projects is difficult.  This is not helped by the fact that the cooperative as an organization is very young, and its management and staff are gaining experience running an organization that has a different vision than other cooperative organizations in the area, one that requires more resources.  Promoting interfaith relations, peace, and rural development requires much more than just commercializing coffee; and even the task of producing and delivering quality coffee requires a set of very developed skills.  Peace Kawomera is a learning organization in both these respects. 

I have come here to investigate the role of institutional and local culture, social and political networks, and the environment in cooperatives’ access to coffee certifications, governance of certifications, and in the impacts that certifications have on those they are meant to benefit – in this case, smallholder coffee farmers.  Peace Kawomera is my third case study, after CECOCAFEN/UCA San Ramón in Nicaragua, and Cooxupé in Brazil.  My approach to my relationships with all of the cooperatives I work with is to make sure that the work I do benefits the cooperative and its members, as well as my own research.  In this way, I essentially came here available to work with PK on projects that they needed assistance on, because I have the time to do so, because they don’t have the time to do so, because I can actually improve my own skills in project development and writing, and because doing so also inserts me into the structure of the cooperative itself, allowing me to know it infinitely better than if I had simply arrived and performed thirty farm surveys and a set of staff interviews over a packed six-week period. 

I had met and conversed with JJ Keki, PK’s Director a few years ago at the USFT Convergence in Boston, and was impressed by the story and vision of the cooperative.  I knew it would make an interesting and unique case study in my research.  After conversations last year with Ben at Thanksgiving Coffee, and some email exchanges with JJ, it seemed that my experience managing a community agroecotourism project in Nicaragua could be useful to PK.  The initial idea is that I would work with PK to do a diagnostic study on the development of such a project with their members, as well as do farm surveys and interviews for my dissertation research.   Neither has actually been started yet in any real material fashion.   They have not been forgotten, simply put on a more realistic timeline, making room for my participation in other projects. 

My time currently is split between various projects.  First, I am working with Johnbosco, the PK Agronomist, Ben from Thanksgiving, Ben from TransfairUSA, and others to write a proposal for a small grant from the ILO for training and capacity-building.  We have succeeded in narrowing down the focus of the grant from every problem PK has, to strengthening management and administration systems and strengthening farmer groups, member participation and extension services.  I am currently spending my mornings revising the second version of this grant, and we hope to submit it to the ILO early next year.  In the afternoons, I have been working with the six PK Field Facilitators (themselves farmers who are hired and trained essentially to be extension agents using the Farmer Field School method) to do research on what kinds of trees farmers prefer in their coffee gardens and on other parts of their farms, and why.  We essentially are having focus groups with about twelve of the forty farmer groups, which each contain 25 farmers, and discussing that question.  The result is that I am developing a spreadsheet of trees with names in Luganda, Lugisu, Lugwele, and some English, and all of their advantages as cited by the farmers in the focus groups.  When we are done with this stage, we will hopefully apply all of this knowledge to the development of a project that will include the establishment of tree nurseries in each of the farmer groups, to facilitate increased tree planting and reforestation on their farms.  The idea here is to mitigate the long-term impacts of climate change, which here include increased drought as well as irregular and more forceful rains, through reforestation.  Trees are what will protect the coffee, and protect the farmers’ livelihoods.

I am spending my spare time mostly on working with all of the staff and Board members to compile information and text for the future Peace Kawomera website.  We have gotten as far as designing the structure of it, and now are working on information.  It is moving along, but I think it will be an ongoing project for the next few months.  A bigger priority that I am not yet working on, but suspect that I soon will be, is the development of an Internal Control System for PK.  This would involve some fieldwork to do risk assessments (probably by farmer group, but possibly by parish), outlining the roles of staff in certification systems and methods of working, and all policies and protocol for production, monitoring and documentation of practices at farm and cooperative levels, and evaluations protocols, and then a lot of office work to write it up into a sort of guidebook for the cooperative’s coffee chain. 

Given how fast time is passing, I am planning to perform the tourism diagnostic with the PK staff next month, so that I can actually do my own farm surveys and interviews in February and March.  I am really looking forward to working on the tourism diagnostic, as it will allow me to really get into analyzing different villages’ infrastructure, cultural activities, and accessibility, as well as potential markets, marketing plans, etc., the kind of work I really enjoy.  The challenge I am having so far in getting this process started is simply getting a conversation started within the cooperative about which parishes, which villages, should benefit from tourism – where should visitors go?  I am starting to get my own ideas as to this question based on my visits to the different farm groups, but I feel it is super important that we actually systematically address this question, so that we can have answers that are fair and logical.  There is already a bit of tension within the cooperative as to who benefits from tourism visits, because generally speaking the Jewish members benefit more than the Christian or Muslim members from the tourists and delegations that do already come.  So I am trying to get that conversation started about which villages will actually receive visitors, and how the entire cooperative and community will benefit materially from those visits.  I will let you know how that goes.  

Until then, Happy Holidays!