In April, I visited farmers’ plots and greenhouses in western Georgia supported by the recently closed USAID’s New Economic Opportunities (NEO) Initiative. Our team met dozens of farmers, who were eager to share how they adopted new technologies or new crop varieties to double, triple, or even increase their household income 20 times over. For some, enthusiasm was an understatement.
I specifically recall speaking to Nana, an animated new strawberry farmer who heard about an information session from one of NEO’s community-mobilizers and decided to attend. After listening to NEO’s fruit specialists, she took the leap to begin strawberry farming, earning income for the first time on her own. Nana told me that people thought she was crazy. She had never farmed, and no one believed that strawberries could grow in Georgia.
Nana is now the chairwoman of the NEO-supported Berry and Fruit Cultures Development Association, which provides access to new varieties of strawberry plants, drip irrigation systems, and training on modern production techniques to farmers throughout the country.
Connecting with motivated beneficiaries = results
Nana’s story is just one of thousands from the NEO project. Throughout my travel, I continually heard that NEO was a game-changer in terms of rural economic development in Georgia. As the project came to a close this December, I sat with each staff member and asked them, "What made NEO work?" There were countless variables to the project’s successes, but a resounding response credited the beneficiaries themselves. In short, identifying motivated beneficiaries exponentially increased results.
Beneficiary selection process under NEO
On NEO, we used a selection process to identify motivated, committed, and commercially oriented beneficiaries who were willing to invest in their own livelihoods and reap the most benefit from project support. Although the project offered an incentive by providing equipment and ongoing technical assistance, beneficiaries were required to make significant financial and non-financial commitments in terms of land allocation, time, and input supplies to learn new trades and production techniques.
In some ways the process was self-selecting. Vulnerable beneficiaries risked losing their state-provided social benefits, and farmers had to be willing to break with practices that they had been following for years. Applicants underwent field-based interviews, skills assessments, environmental evaluations, and financial reviews.
It was an intensive process, but the results more than justified it: 93 percent of vocational and on-the-job trainees gained employment or gained better jobs due to the training programs, and the project's agricultural beneficiaries saw a 176 percent increase in income based on the adoption of new practices.
Beneficiaries behind the numbers
As development professionals, we often laud the work of our technical experts and field staff, who inevitably inspire positive change on a daily basis. At the same time, we should remember that economic development is dependent upon the willingness, hard work, and risks taken by the beneficiaries behind the numbers. Finding the right person to invest in can make all of the difference.
Spencer Nordwick is an associate in Chemonics' Europe and Eurasia Division. He supported USAID’s New Economic Opportunities (NEO) Initiative, a rural economic development project that closed in December 2015.