3 Key Learnings from a farmer-centric (virtual) training program
At the end of March, we completed our 2020–21 Care Training program for 200+ smallholder women farmers from coffee-producing regions of Costa Rica. Although this was our fourth year of running Care Training, it looked a lot different compared to other years. With COVID preventing in-person programming, we needed an innovative solution that would still allow us to connect to the farmers, but not create additional technological barriers. Knowing all of our partners had access to Whatsapp, our team decided to hold the training over this platform. Whatsapp is simply a messaging platform. However, we found it to be a powerful tool that allowed us to balance the needs of the pandemic era virtual programming with the needs of smallholder women, most of whom did not have access to tools such as Zoom.
Watch the video below to learn a short feature by Facebook’s Community Voices on our unique approach:
Watch the video via THIS LINK
While evaluating our learning from the past year, our team has decided to keep the virtual programming element for our upcoming Care Training program. In 2021–2022, we will be doubling the number of producers enrolled into our program and want to continue providing key learning materials on topics such as Climate Change & Adaptation and Gender. Using Whatsapp allows us to create small communities within the cohort, where our farming partners can access bite-sized learning materials, along with knowledgeable community-based facilitators.
Although COVID drastically changed the ways we had previously run our programming, it also challenged us to come together and be innovative. Looking back with our team, we found three key learnings from the past year that we wanted to share for organizations and teams looking to adopt a similar approach:
- Youth as Bridges: Providing a direct-to-producer virtual learning journey would have been a cheaper, if not easier, option for many. However, after consulting our past producer participants, we learned the importance of having facilitators who are able to bridge the digital divide and provide one-on-one support. This allows the producers to quickly solve technical challenges and continue their learning journey. Thus we implemented community-based facilitators (we call them Care Facilitators) to lead the training while also being a support system to guide producers through the process. Additionally, it creates training and employment opportunities for youths in the region and we had no reason to think otherwise.
- Maintaining the Human Element: One of the major drawbacks of virtual programming was losing the face-to-face connections, side chats, and informal conversations. All of these were key elements of our programming in years prior and something that made our approach so unique. It allowed us to develop a relationship of trust and created a space where participants felt safe to share insights and constructive feedback (not only directly with us but amongst themselves). Recognizing the importance of these elements, we kept our commitment to direct-to-farmer engagement by continuing to organize farm visits and connecting with as many producers as safely as possible on a personal level. We believe that however big an organization may be, if the leadership is not directly connected to the community that it aims to serve, there is a major loss of learning (and unlearning) that is key to program improvement. Moreover, we committed to spending at least 15% of the virtual training time on checking in with each other, playing games and asking questions.
- Focus on Importance: Over the course of the year, our team found that it was impossible to condense materials from an 8-hour in-person workshop into a 2-hour Whatsapp session. Instead of providing the entire Care Training (which consists of themes on production, quality control, marketing, gender, and finance), we decided to choose only two topics and focus on those each year. In 20–21, our focus was heavily on finance and farm management (soil management, diversification, etc). In 21–22, we will provide training on Climate Change & Adaptation and Gender. Although not being able to share all of the wonderful resources and knowledge materials that the producers were eager to learn about can be frustrating, we realized that moments like these were great times to practice leading with patience. We discovered ways to reframe our thinking and reminded ourselves that we would be able to move through different topics, one week at a time. By cutting down on themes, it prevented us from sending too many materials and potentially overwhelming participants. Instead, we were able to dig deeper into each topic area, creating space for exploratory conversations that lead to productive learning and growth.
These are our top three reflections from the 2020–21 training season. We will be posting more reflections as Year 2 of our training unfolds in the following months. We have launched the call for applications to enroll 400+ smallholder producers into our program on June 1, and look forward to an exciting season of exchanging lessons, best practices, and stories with our network of women producers. We are grateful to everyone that made this work possible — from our partners, facilitators to participants!
Have you or your team switched to virtual learning this year? We would love to hear your key takeaways in the comments below!
If you would like to learn more about Care Trade or contribute towards its growth, check out this page!
Written by Bean Voyage
Edited by Kayla Sippl