Agriterra gives boost to farmers in developing countries

ABN AMRO employees are allotted a certain number of days each year to contribute to social initiatives. One of those is Agriterra, a Dutch foundation which advises and trains agricultural cooperatives in emerging market countries. “Wherever you go, farmers speak the same language.”

“It’s not so much the poverty that stuck with me,” says Harm Folkers, a relationship manager at ABN AMRO, of his travels to developing countries with Agriterra. “What really impressed me, though, was the level of skill which farmers and their cooperatives in faraway countries possess – how they manage to get things done despite working in very difficult conditions, often without power or even a decent water supply. I have enormous respect for that. Plus it opened my eyes to how good we have it here in the Netherlands.”

Social impact

Harm has been involved in the partnership between Agriterra and ABN AMRO from the outset. As a relationship manager specialising in agribusinesses in the northern and eastern regions of the Netherlands, he first had dealings with the Arnhem-based foundation back in 2013. Harm soon recognised that the bank’s social impact aims fitted perfectly with the non-profit organisation’s mission. 

Cees van Rij, Manager Agri-Consultancy at Agriterra, wholeheartedly agrees: “When it comes to development cooperation, there’s no shortage of funds or programmes. But we can never get enough knowledge. ABN AMRO has an extensive network and expertise to offer. Together we match that knowledge with demand outside the Netherlands.”

By farmers, for farmers

Founded by the Dutch agricultural sector in 1997, Agriterra supports agricultural cooperatives in developing countries through advice and training. Over the last five years, the organisation has reached more than 1 million farmers and mobilised over €55 million in loans, for improvement of the cooperatives’ business operations and the construction of new factories. 

Agriterra is all about the “farmer-to-farmer approach”, says Cees, himself the son of a farmer. “We see cooperatives as autonomous entities in which farmers themselves decide their own future. Our aim is to support them, not try to steer them in one direction or another. Obviously, the context in Peru or Kenya is totally different from the one we have in the Netherlands. But at the end of the day, farmers speak the same language everywhere. Our organisation is run by farmers, for farmers. That’s what makes the concept so effective.”

Awe-inspiring

ABN AMRO’s task is to assess cooperatives on Agriterra’s behalf, to conduct strategic sessions or to conduct market research. Some thirty bank employees spread across various projects are involved in the process. “We look at where an organisation currently is and where it wants to be,” says Harm. “What’s the market like? What are the expectations? The objectives? We then draft a report together with a presentation setting out the adviced steps to achieve this and how the process can be financed locally. We basically play a coaching role.” 

“There’s a huge demand for that knowledge,” Cees adds. “In many of these countries, the Netherlands truly inspires awe, and internationally the Dutch agricultural sector in particular is held in very high regard.”

Agriterra currently has about 300 development programmes in twenty-one countries. A single programme with a cooperative can last anywhere from three to five years. Although Agriterra is a non-profit organisation, it does take a business-oriented approach. In the event of insufficient progress or doubts about the viability of a project, it is either temporarily or permanently discontinued. “In that case, we give them ‘homework’ and perhaps follow up at a later date,” says Cees. “Obviously, we’d prefer it if every project were a success story, but unfortunately, that’s not always the reality.”

Personal development

ABN AMRO employees are entitled to take leave to do voluntary work. In addition to the positive social impact of the work they do for organisations like Agriterra, the activities also contribute to their own personal development. 

“It gives them a chance to broaden their horizons, and it’s a very enriching experience,” says Harm. “As an ABN AMRO employee, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice if you fail to take advantage of these opportunities. There’s always something to do at Agriterra with the knowledge you have. It’s often about the little things, but in the end, they make all the difference. This isn’t about ABN AMRO’s financing – it’s about sharing knowledge and experience, and above all: a healthy common sense.”

“That’s the power of a network organisation,” Cees concludes. “Thanks in part to ABN AMRO, we have access to a vast source of expertise. It all started with Harm in 2013, and now dozens of employees are participating. But we’re just getting started. The potential for agricultural development is limitless.”