Thursday, October 23, 2014

What do Peace Corps Agribusiness Volunteers do in Panama?

When I think back to the months leading up to my Peace Corps service, I can still clearly remember how concerned I was about my future work.  I was passionate about business, helping people, Spanish, and travel and had asked my recruiter to find me a placement where I could use all of those skills and hobbies. 

Since only 20% of volunteers are currently serving in Spanish speaking countries and Community Economic Development is one of the smaller programs within Peace Corps (Education, Health, and Environmental programs are all larger) I gave the placement team quite a task.  When they assigned me to serve as a Sustainable Agricultural Systems Extension Agent in Panamá, I called to let them know they had likely mixed me up with another candidate.  Other than living in the country, I had zero experience in agriculture. 

What I didn’t yet know was that Peace Corps Panama’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems, SAS, Program was in the process of increasing the business/entrepreneurial advising work that volunteers take part in in order to work towards the program’s goal of improving agribusiness practices in rural Panama (The other two goals relate to improved staple crops and agroforestry practices.)

Though it may vary year-by-year, recently the Panama placement teams have been selecting about 20 SAS volunteers with more traditional agricultural experience, and 5 or so with a background in business. 

I posted about one of my typical workdays a few months ago, but the work that volunteers do varies tremendously by volunteer and by site throughout the country.  In preparation to train incoming SAS volunteers on what we do in the agribusiness program, I made a video highlighting some of the many agribusiness related projects that volunteers have been working on here in Panama.  While it is certainly not all encompassing, I think it’s a great overview of what Peace Corps Agribusiness Volunteers do in Panamá. 

To summarize what many of us said, here are some of the activities a SAS volunteer in Panama may find him or herself doing:

  • Giving personal and group financial training
  • Training interested group or community members in computer programs like Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Email
  • Assisting with group organization
  • Training on the function and roles of board and group members
  • Official group establishment support (There’s a long paperwork process to this here in Panama)
  • Advising the producers on how to improve their products
    • Value can be added by improving the production process or by lengthening the production process: 2nd rate cacao -> 1st rate cacao; cacao -> chocolate bars
  • Directing producers on how to manage and/or improve their product line
  • Assisting with logistical challenges (We live in some pretty out-there places!)
  • Connecting producers with potential buyers
  • Teaching producers how to maintain positive and sustainable client relationships

As you may have noticed from my posts, many of us like to work both in and out of our communities.  Interested volunteers can apply for Work Related Leave to travel to other Peace Corps sites to help with casual informative sessions, charlas, in just about any topic relating to agribusiness/money/finance.  For example, I’ve recently been helping several community water groups to organize their resources and financially plan for the implantation and maintenance of their new aqueduct systems.  Though it’s not quite “agri-business,” the SAS volunteers in Panama are some of the only ones who receive relevant training during PST. 

So what about if you’re really into business and especially love working with new communities?  If that’s your case, you could apply to be a National Agribusiness Coordinator for the SAS Program!  Usually formed as an East/West pair, the Peace Corps Agribusiness Coordinators are given additional support and a travel budget in order to spread agribusiness knowledge throughout the country.  Duties include:

  • Train incoming volunteers in relevant agribusiness practices in Panama during their PST (Pre-Service Training) and IST (In-Service Training)
  • Develop positive relationships with related government agencies and NGO’s
  • Support volunteers in their in-site work through site visits, seminar assistance, and additional training
  • Develop new training materials and techniques to be shared through Peace Corps Panama’s Agribusiness Manual
  • Serve as the point person for volunteers and staff for any questions or resources related to agribusiness

If you’re a future volunteer with an interest in business or a SAS volunteer coming to Panama, there are two important takeaways I want you to have.

First, just because you’re not enrolled in a business program does not mean you won’t get to do business related projects during your service.  One of the great things about Peace Corps is that it is what you make it.  If you want to work in business, do it! 

Secondly, if you’re a SAS volunteer, I can almost guarantee you that some business-related project will come up throughout your service, even if you’re intent on working 100% on the more agricultural side of things.  So, don’t zone out during your agribusiness trainings and don’t be afraid to ask one of the agribusiness volunteers for help if you need it; Goodness knows we’ll need yours when it’s time to fertilize the yucca! 

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