Lesson #2: Community Over Individual

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on February 22, 2018 | Print

I learned in agriculture school how to help individuals become model farmers in their local communities. We would reward the model farmers at the annual agriculture awards banquet hosted by the county and everyone would strive to be like him or her the next year. This worked well where I grew up.

The basic idea, learned from our US agriculture experience, was this:

  1. Find a key farmer or two in a local community .
  2. Pour knowledge, time, new technology, and some financial resources into them.
  3. Show the rest of the community what innovation and hard work could do.
  4. Everyone would love what the “champion” farmer did and would want to do it as well.

Sounds good, right?

When we got to the Philippines, we noticed that this approach didn’t work as well.

Honestly, there were a few success stories with this method – very few. From time to time, some of the farmer-entrepreneurs succeeded and the new technology trickled down to others. However, because the people we worked with were more community oriented, we would often see a negative reaction to the model farmers we helped establish.

I remember helping a farmer friend start a new vegetable garden near his home. It was large enough to provide nutritious food to his family and produced extra to sell and earn income. I thought every one of his neighbors would see it, be inspired, and start their own gardens.

The garden grew well. My friend was a good farmer. They had lots of produce and things initially seemed to really click. However, as the months went by, I noticed that my friend virtually abandoned his new garden leaving it to grow up in weeds and not replanting much of anything.

When I asked him about it, I was surprised to learn that he really liked the garden but he couldn’t see any benefit. When I asked him why (because he grew some really beautiful vegetables), he said that the more vegetables he grew, the more his neighbors came and asked for some. And because he was a good community member, he couldn’t sell to his family and friends… so he wound up giving away most everything he grew. In the end, it was more trouble for him to have a good garden.

We were a bit confused but then realized that there might be a better way. We backtracked a bit and decided to relaunch a gardening project but this time, with the whole community. Not everyone in the community participated but we did reach a high percentage. We found that when vegetables were available in each household, people were less likely to ask neighbors for help. Then, the community could come together and start a roadside market to sell their extra produce!

It is a bit foreign to us, because we love to celebrate the individual rising up and overcoming daunting odds. But in most cultures, if you want your community development efforts to be successful and sustainable, you had better find ways to involve whole, or at least the majority, in a community.