A fruitful exchange in Colombia

Story

Woman in field

Agribusiness expert Christia Roberts learned as much as she taught during her placement as a sustainable development advisor in Ibagué, Colombia. 

Experienced in commercial horticulture production, she wanted to help farmers in the developing world implement environmentally sustainable practices and generate more income for themselves and their families. When she retired, the grandmother of two signed on for a one-year placement with Fruandes, a Cuso International partner organization working with small farmers to grow and sell organic fair-trade produce. 

‚ÄúI have wanted to volunteer internationally for a long¬†time,‚ÄĚ said Christia, who lives in Vancouver. ‚ÄúI loved my¬†career, loved commercial horticulture. That‚Äôs what I could¬†do and what I had the skills to do.‚Ä̬†

In 12 months, Christia helped 100 farm families transform their crop yields. She developed experiments the farmers could easily conduct so they could see how small changes to their techniques would produce big outcomes. 

For pitahaya farmers‚ÄĒdragon fruit in English‚ÄĒit‚Äôs¬†important they control the flowering process to synchronize¬†the harvest. ‚ÄúYou don‚Äôt want to go out and pick two or¬†three fruits every day. You want to be able to harvest a¬†crop,‚ÄĚ Christia said. ‚ÄúHere, they didn‚Äôt know how to initiate¬†flowering in dragon fruit‚ÄĒbut they do in Israel.‚Ä̬†

Christia Roberts visits farmers in Ipiales, Colombia

She connected the farmers with scientists in Israel who explained how to make the plants flower concurrently. Since then, dragon fruit farmers have seen noticeable increases in the volume of harvest and their financial return, while information-sharing continues between the farmers and scientists from around the world. 

The banana farmers were concerned with how much water and fertilizer their crops were using. Christia recognized the issue right away. There were too many stems sucking up the nutrients and depriving the whole plant. 

Because they looked healthy, the farmers were reluctant to prune until Christia showed them they didn’t need the excess. 

 

‚ÄúBananas, they multiply like grass on a lawn,‚ÄĚ she said.¬†‚ÄúThe banana growers couldn‚Äôt be happier. The quality and¬†volume of the crops was dramatically affected in that one¬†year.‚Ä̬†

German Betancourt, technology leader of organic development at Fruandes, said Christia really connected with the farmers and worked with them as partners. 

‚ÄúShe brought methodologies¬†about how to work in a¬†more structured way and we¬†applied it to the tropical crops¬†here,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúShe was¬†loved, she was always available¬†to give advice and she¬†talked to everyone without¬†judgment.‚Ä̬†

The experience was unlike anything Christia had in her professional life and she was able to learn a thing or two as well. 

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not just 100 proprietors, but 100 families that often¬†included three generations of people,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúWhat¬†they do very well is cooperate with each other. They are¬†not internally competitive. They are caring, and that‚Äôs a¬†powerful way to work.‚Ä̬†