Theo de Jager is President of the World Farmers’ Organisation, which represents more than 1.5 billion farmers across the globe. Here, he speaks on what he learned from his experiences with CTA over 10 years, and the secret to the organisation’s success.
It was in attending one of CTA’s Brussels Briefings events in 2010 where I first learned more about the organisation and what they were doing. After being elected President of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions in 2012, I had an opportunity to sit down with CTA leadership and discuss strategic planning for the organisation. We considered how to ensure African farmers would benefit from the work of CTA, and the priority topics that were important for small-scale farmers to achieve profitability and sustainability in their businesses.
Since being elected President of the Pan-African Farmers’ Organisation in 2014, I have had more regular encounters with CTA. That same year, I attended an event to celebrate 30 years of the organisation and I remember the run up to this occasion very well. We had good discussions about where the organisation should go next, what they should try to encourage in the agricultural sector during the next 5 years, and how they could make sure their work was really drilling down to the bottom line and having an impact at the grassroots level and on the farms.
Pioneers in development
The organisations in which I have had the privilege to serve have hugely benefited from CTA’s work in information sharing and knowledge exchange, partnership development and capacity building. But this is not all that CTA has done and the impact is much greater than just on these three pillars. Looking back at the culture of where I come from in South Africa, farmers in the 1820s/30s had wagons that were pulled by oxen into the hinterland, and at the front of those oxen was a boy who led them. When I first encountered CTA, the picture in my mind was that of the little boy in front of the oxen, scanning the horizon at all times and looking for the best path. It’s hard to turn the wagon around if you take the wrong course – so you actually have just one chance. In their role of looking to where agriculture and rural development should be in 5-10 years from now and what was needed to get there, CTA have been scanning the horizon and introducing the future to the farmers of today.
For example, the first time I ever heard the term ‘big data’ was at a CTA Brussels Briefing, where I also learned about blockchain technology. It was also at a Briefing event where I was introduced to the idea of drones for agriculture – I had never considered it! It seems crazy that 5 years ago, blockchain did not exist and drones for agriculture was a brand-new concept, and that in another 5 years from now, it might be very common. But to get these technologies and ideas from where they first appeared on the horizon to where farmers are now using them to enhance their profitability and sustainability, takes a very special mechanism, and CTA has been that mechanism.
A unique skillset
In order to anticipate these trends in future farming, CTA has relied upon their biggest asset – the human capital. They have managed to recruit the brightest minds, whether that be in digitalisation, business strategy or in identifying shortcomings and opportunities in agricultural development, the people at CTA have been the secret to their success. The topics they have focused on, and the way they have made new and complicated concepts digestible to farmers’ leaders – in a way that they could go back to their national/regional/continental-level organisations to introduce and apply new technologies at the farm level – is an achievement very few other organisations can really show.
I have not encountered any other organisation that fills the same space. It is a unique skillset that you need to fill that space, and in my 10 years of working with the organisation, it was not just as if CTA dominated that space, they were alone in that space. They really brought about a number of game-changers in terms of technology, digitalisation, and in introducing new ways of farming long before the reality hit, and this really helped to prepare us as farmers.
I believe that the work of CTA should not be judged in 2019/20, we should look at it again in 20 years from now, 50 years from now, when the seeds they have planted have germinated and grown. I think in years to come, we will look back and realise that was it not the for the way CTA linked up the latest technology and the cutting edge of new developments to small-scale farmers in the world’s poorest countries, we would not have been able to wipe out poverty and hunger in our lifetimes. CTA is a planting organisation, not a harvesting organisation, and we should not be impatient for the harvest.