Agros International: Building a
Sustainable Economy, One Village
at a Time
By Sean Dimond
Images courtesy Ira Lippke
Issue 3 Spring 2010
Agros International is a U.S.-based NGO that is eradicating extreme poverty in Central America and Mexico one community at a time. Agros uses a cyclical financing model to provide loans, which enable land ownership, economic sustainability, community building and eventual loan repayment. The money from repayment is then used to support other impoverished communities. This article employs the inspiring work of Agros to inform connections with the principles of successful strategic design.
A Case Study in Sustainability: San José
Location: Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Size: 259 acres
Population: 32 families
Case study courtesy Agros International.
Before Agros’ Support:
Before working with Agros, the 32 families of the San José community in Matagalpa, Nicaragua lived in desperate conditions, suffering from the effects of long-term, extreme poverty. These families worked on plots of rented, poor-quality land, and were obligated to hand over a large percentage of their corn and bean harvest for payment to wealthy landowners. With very little left over for themselves, the families were in a constant threat of hunger and often had no more to eat than one meager meal a day. Living in the remote mountains of Matagalpa, they had no access to basic services such as electricity or waste disposal. The women had to walk several miles each day to collect clean drinking water and the children had no access to public education. Per person, their average income was approximately 25 cents per day.
Desperate to find a better way to provide for themselves and their children, the families contacted Agros International, who began working with them in early 2006 and formalized a partnership with the purchase of land in March 2007.
Because of their determination, hard work and long-term partnership with Agros, the members of San José are now living on high-quality land in a region with a climate that is perfect for crop production. They have adequate pasture areas for livestock, a river that provides year-round irrigation, productive coffee and cocoa fields, a community center with electricity, potable water and good road access provided by the land. The families have significantly increased daily calorie counts with three solid meals a day and they now have a wide range of healthy food available through the multiple, year-round crops they grow, harvest and sell. They also have potable water in each home, have established a community school to educate their children, and have gained access to agricultural markets to sell their products. The first harvest yielded corn, beans, taro root, coffee and tomatoes.
The net profit from their first harvest was $37,305.00. The income paid for production costs and an early loan payment. The community was even able to take out an additional loan from Agros to build a coffee processing machine and pump.
The cyclical poverty found in Central America leaves agricultural families fighting for survival without the resources to properly manage waste or support the local ecosystem that provides for them. The local economy is tumultuous because of civil unrest and dependence on wealthy landowners who control the natural resources.
Agros International is a Seattle-based NGO that is working to build a more secure foundation for small, rural communities. The organization provides communities of families with loans, which enable land ownership and income stability, resulting in environmental stewardship based on pride, ownership and training in organic farming practices. Today, half of the people on our planet live on $2.50 per day or less. The vast majority live in rural areas, dependent on farmable land for income, security and survival. In the Americas, the poorest countries are in Central America, where approximately 65% of the population lives in extreme poverty. The majority of these families live in rural areas and are landless, one of the most important indicators of extreme, rural poverty. These same families do not own or have a secure stake in the very land that they depend on. This is a design flaw, which can be addressed by public policy and interventions that engage and enable ownership options.
Agros, founded in 1984, addresses this flaw with a seemingly simple idea: rural poor need land in order to survive, and yet they do not have the resources needed to obtain access or ownership. Agros was designed to empower rural, poor families throughout Central America and Mexico to literally work their way out of extreme poverty with dignity. The organization does this by providing communities with long-term credit for land purchase, holistic community development and agricultural business training. By partnering with Agros, entire communities of families are able to start, develop and eventually own a thriving, economically sustainable village.
With almost 40 village projects across five countries in Central America and Mexico, the work of Agros is empowering thousands of men, women and children to work and achieve the dream of a future that is designed to enable them to escape cyclical poverty. Agros works with villagers, who often make less than 25 cents per day, are scarred by civil conflict, hunger, disease, natural disaster and the fundamental loss of dignity that comes from having been abandoned by their own civil authorities. These villagers go from the devastation of living in extreme poverty to becoming landowners with access to healthcare and education for their children, and ultimately, to owning thriving businesses and assets that create sustainable security and income for generations to come.
A Well-Designed Approach to an Economic Challenge
While most international organizations focus on one intervention (water, vaccines, malaria nets, micro-loans, etc.), Agros implements what is called “360° development.” This approach seeks to create a holistic and empowering development context that breaks the cycle of poverty. Agros begins by defining the condition of the assignment, using a specific and unique definition of poverty. Agros defines poverty as “broken relationships.” This influences how the organization develops a context for discovering solutions.
CATALYST insight: Strategic design uses a holistic, 360 degree perspective when considering stakeholders, lifecycle and consequences of design decisions.
For the rural poor, all of the fundamental connections and relationships that make up a sustainable way of life are damaged or destroyed by extreme poverty. Therefore, the causes of poverty cannot be effectively isolated and repaired on the individual or family level. Instead, economic, cultural, social and personal factors all play into establishing generational cycles of poverty that extend across communities. This definition of poverty enables Agros to design solutions that address the core problems of lack of access to, or destruction of, basic community systems and material resources, all of which lead to the erosion and eradication of human dignity and worth.
Before intervention, Agros families suffer from “extreme poverty,” meaning that they cannot meet their basic survival needs: food, water, shelter, sanitation and healthcare.
As fundamental relationships that make up a healthy community break down for those living in extreme poverty, access to essential services and income-generating opportunities are significantly compromised or destroyed. It is possible to measure and quantify the systemic and pervasive effects of these broken relationships through per capita poverty statistics including life expectancy, malnourishment, unemployment rates and literacy rates. The qualitative effect is a cycle of despair and hopelessness that stretches across generations. It is also possible to measure the impact of redesigned systems of community engagement and empowerment.
Click here to view the cycle chart larger.
CATALYST insight: Agros works in a way in which it is possible to measure empowerment, engagement and education. The organization is designed to fulfill user needs, but not at the cost of the environment.
Agros seeks to empower communities to begin to rebuild and restore these fundamental relationships by providing communities with the necessary and tangible elements needed to work their way out of poverty and to enable economic wellbeing. The organization is the only international NGO designed to provide long-term loans for land and holistic development support to maximize the potential of that land. By enabling rural communities to build long-term assets within the context of a supportive, thriving community, its proven development model provides a lasting, sustainable impact for everyone living in an Agros village.
Furthermore, Agros is designed to provide sustainable strategic advantage for the rural poor, enabling the families to thrive over time. It does not believe in simple, easy fixes to complex problems. Its model provides a framework in which communities are capable of indefinitely maintaining productivity and contributions to society.
Model for Sustainable Life
In practical terms, Agros assists families in reaching economic self-sufficiency by providing loans for capital costs (land, homes, irrigation) and assisting families with technical training, infrastructure and micro-enterprise opportunities. Families repay their loans with income from their crops and other income-generating activities. The repayment of loans received from Agros villagers is used to fund new projects, and the process begins again for the next village.
CATALYST insight: Strategic designers develop systems instead of objects because systems can be self-sustaining. Waste = Food.
An Agros village is comprised of between 25 and 145 families who are striving together to make a better future for themselves and their children. Each family is lent a parcel of land, materials to build a house, and access to an integrated irrigation system. Through additional small business loans, education and accountability, villagers achieve a level of economic sustainability sufficient to repay their loans and create a fundamentally better future for their children. Each village has community governance with elected positions who decide the goals and priorities based on input from other villagers. Villages have co-ops, community banks and other economically-based programs all focused on sustainability.
The Agros development model combines:
Self-organization of families at the community level
Access and ownership of farmable land
Community support and development
Agricultural business training
The goal is for the community to become self-sustaining. In the first several years of working with a village, Agros’ involvement and investment in training and agricultural inputs, like equipment and training, is significant. As the years go by and the community becomes more self-sufficient, Agros’ involvement begins to diminish.
Nurturing the Land and People
Many cultures in Central America and Mexico have the tradition of caring for and stewarding the land. However, due to lack of land and resources, including time and capital, many families are forced to choose between survival and environmental stewardship. Therefore, many environmental problems plague the communities of these countries. Environmental contamination due to improper disposal of trash and lack of waste/sanitation systems and lack of proper training in use of systems for waste management, all contribute to environmental degradation. Furthermore, slash and burn techniques deplete the soil of beneficial microorganisms and bacteria. Another problematic issue is the over-harvesting of wood sources, which causes a loss of root systems, desertification, loss of underground water sources and microclimate change.
The Agros development model seeks to help communities find solutions to these environmental problems. By developing the communities in a sustainable way and learning new techniques and approaches to agriculture, families of Agros’ communities can avoid the problems caused by environmental degradation. Throughout its involvement, Agros has learned that if a community is empowered to own its own land, they will naturally take better care of it, and if they take care of it, it will last as a resource for future generations.
Additionally, Agros strives to teach communities how to farm sustainably. Its team of agronomists works with communities to develop and implement organic, sustainable agricultural practices as well as responsible chemical usage that combine traditional and new technologies to improve production and land quality. These agronomists also promote multi-crop diversification year-round, individual family gardens, animal husbandry and the planting of fruit trees. Agros communities also learn how to utilize low water drip irrigation systems so that they can conserve water and continue to farm year round. Training is provided so that families can find markets for their goods and not only gain sustenance from the land, but also an economic livelihood.
CATALYST insight: Strategic Design implements sustainable systems that solve multiple problems.
Mario, a farmer in the Aduana Dos community, began planting fruits and vegetables around the bases of his plantain plants in order to maintain humidity in the ground and diversity of his crop. After seeing the success of his yield, Mario’s neighbors happily followed his lead and decreased their dependence on irrigation.
Building Pride and Economic Success
The Agros International Development Model has had enormous impact on the economic situation of the communities where it has been implemented. Before Agros, the majority of families were living on borrowed or rented land with no control over how they generated an income. Their livelihood was dependent on the number of crops they could produce, which ?was ultimately limited due to little or no access ?to quality land.
Most families living in Agros villages lived on approximately $0.25 to $0.50 per day, per person before partnering with the organization. The families had no job security and often had to travel long distances for work. Many families were broken apart as husbands and sons migrated for seasonal work or as family members sought to immigrate, undocumented, to other countries for work. Many families also ended up borrowing money from predatory lenders forcing them deeper into poverty.
Agros seeks to change all of this. The Agros Development Model focuses on establishing food security, increasing family income, asset ownership, increasing productivity for animals, forestry, and agriculture and increasing the community’s access to markets. In addition to providing families with loans for land purchases, Agros also provides micro-loans for other income generating projects.
These loans are primarily for activities such as: raising small livestock like pigs and chickens; making bread, tortillas, tamales and chorizo for sale; selling embroidered clothing and handicrafts; production of pea crops, coffee, peppers and bananas; and large cattle production including cows and bulls for sale.
The profits from projects are used to not only pay back the Agros loans and improve the village, but most importantly, profits are used to invest in basic needs such as food, clothing, medicine, education and more. Agros provides training to families on project development in order to ensure that the loan is for an appropriate amount and that a significant amount of income will be generated so that the loan can be paid back.
Sustainability is achieved when villages are motivated and led by their own values and vision and have realistic plans based on their collective priorities and goals.
A Process Grounded in Recognizing Assets
Agros uses a unique process called “Values-Based Planning.” A values-based planning and management model provides a framework for Agros’ philosophy of holistic community development. Rather than base development on more traditional “needs assessments,” Agros assists community members in identifying their core values and assets, then seeks to harness those elements within a specific development plan.
CATALYST insight: Agros practices a strategic allocation of creative assets by aligning the values and skills of community members with economic opportunities.
Sustainability is achieved when villages are motivated and led by their own values and vision and have realistic plans based on their collective priorities and goals. For example, at first glance, a rural, poor community may be seen as having very little to offer. However, upon further inspection, it becomes clear that perhaps the people have skills working with coffee plants, plantains or cattle. Furthermore, as Agros begins to ask about the community members’ values, Agros recognizes that the individuals’ hard work ethic and love for their children are values on which Agros can build a development plan. Agros implements values-based planning in the following four key stages:
DEFINITION of the situation recognizes the roles and contributions of both men and women. We hear the “story” of the people and it helps us appreciate what they have achieved and who they are. We work with community members to recognize their individual and collective strengths and resources and define them as assets.
The VISION of the future gives serious attention to the vision of the entire group as a motivating factor that will help them focus in working together to realize their dreams. The community’s goals
Project or program PLANNING requires that each community or group reach consensus about their priorities and then work on realistic plans with specific objectives, strategies and resources. Each community’s plan includes a budget, human resources and local resources that are available to the community.
MANAGEMENT emphasizes decision-making based on monitoring key indicators that the community and Agros have specified in relation to each component of the Agros Model. Given that Agros works with groups of people who are often illiterate, the organization often uses group dialogue, drawing, art-based methods, and other appreciative inquiry approaches.
CATALYST insight: The Agros process is similar to the “4Ds” used by the design community: define, discover, design, deliver.
CATALYST insight: The design of visual communications helps Agros bridge varying literacy levels and language barriers.
Disseminating the Model
Currently, Agros shares the message of its work through an organizational blog, print and e-newsletters, and through Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Its visibility has grown dramatically since it started integrating messages across all of its social media channels. All told, Agros reaches more than 55,000 people, which represent almost 70% growth over the last nine months.
Over the years, Agros has been approached by many organizations all over the world to help implement a similar development model. It is currently investigating an expansion strategy to other geographical regions, which would consist of partnerships, training and advocacy. The current thinking is that an expansion strategy would not be designed to start “Agros Africa,” but would seek to give the Agros model away to other indigenous, local entities already working in specific geographical regions.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Establishing a sustainable and effective micro-financer
Establish the loan beneficiaries as stakeholders
Align skills with employment training
Create a model based on cyclical funding
Continually refine the process in order to maximize resources
Use video and photography to elicit support
Capitalize on social media for messaging volunteers and donors
About the Author:
Sean Dimond currently serves as the Director of Communications for Agros International, a Seattle-based nonprofit working with rural, extremely poor families throughout the remote areas of Central America and Chiapas, Mexico. Prior to Agros, Sean was the owner of a creative media firm working with both international nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. He has produced art, documentary and multimedia projects throughout Africa, India and Central America. With a degree in philosophy and post-graduate work in theology and counseling, Sean resides in Seattle with his wife and two children.
Connect with Agros International at agros.org
Download IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit at ideo.com
The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs
Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age by Michael H. Shuman