I like young and ambitious team in Georgia, says Buba after two decades in development

I like young and ambitious team in Georgia, says Buba after two decades in development

21. 6. 2016

Buba Jafarli (58) is working for People in Need in Georgia and currently is managing the biggest development project of People in Need. He joined humanitarian and development sector in 1993 in Georgia. First international assignment came in 1999 when he started to work for CARE in Kosovo. Then he worked for World Bank and CARE in Georgia and continued with CARE in Sudanese Darfur as a Head of Monitoring and Evaluation team. In Indonesia he worked as Programme Quality Unit manager for Save the Children’s Aceh Program. After a while back in Georgia he worked as Team Leader of Kyrgyzstan Emergency Program and after ten months returned back to Georgia because of health problems.

You came back home only because of health problems?

Indeed, this is the only reason, otherwise I would keep working abroad. Maybe with some intervals between the missions, so as to spend some time with the family, because my grandson is growing and he is the center of the world for me. My daughter is an adult for many years, so, the grandson is now the person number one for me.

When you started with PIN?

I started with PIN on the 1st of January 2014, it was the launch date for a large scale farmer cooperation development project funded by the European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD). Some two years plus have passed since then but the feeling is that I am with PIN for ages.

How did you learn that PIN exists?

I was managing a CARE’s agricultural development project in Racha and that project was facing very many challenges because the massive out-migration of local population in the last 20-25 years resulted in abandonment of entire villages in the region. There were virtually no people to work with in the two target municipalities. While looking for a new assignment, I talked to my boss (actually, the country director of CARE), and he suggested to meet with Sarah Carrade, then the country director of People in Need in Georgia. Some time later I met with Sarah and she told me that they need manager for the project recently approved by the donor. The project idea, its vision and the approaches were very close to me, to my heart. I liked this new opportunity and applied for the Project Manager position with no hesitation.

It appears you were in a position when you could apply for the same Project Manager position with Oxfam, or CARE, or Mercy Corps – leaders of three other ENPARD consortia in Georgia. Why have you chosen PIN?

Honestly, the choice was very limited. In Oxfam, they have different setup of the project and they already had a manager. In Mercy Corps they wanted an expatriate because this is what committed to do in their project proposal. As for CARE I wanted to change the environment despite the fact I had excellent relations with the entire management of the organization. What I liked in PIN most of all was the team of young and ambitious people. They were  strong professionals and, at the same time, passionate enthusiasts – this combination is quite rare in our time.

And what about the project?

This project simply matched my qualifications. I feel like I was born for this project or maybe the project was born for me? J

What is your responsibility in the team?

It’s a quite standard set of duties of programme manager. General supervision of staff, elaboration of vision and strategy plans, relationships with the donor and the government, coordination with partners, budget management, quality control and, to the certain extent, supervision of the compliance with PIN’s regulations.

How big is your project in terms of money and how many people you have in your team?

As far as I know this is PIN’s largest development project so far. Its budget exceeds 3.2 million euro. In terms of people, the team is relatively small, we are seven people directly working for the project. This number does not include the support staff shared between the projects.

Two years of the project have passed already. Are you satisfied with your achievements? 

Yes, I think we have done a decent job. We are as good as three other organizations, our project is highly respected by the donor and the government. And we have virtually no complaints from the beneficiaries. It is a grant project, such interventions always keep somebody unhappy. But in our case nobody talks about the bias and lack of transparency in decision making on grants. This is because we’ve chosen a number of good grant practices developed in PIN and other organizations alike. The other reason of my satisfaction is the nature of the project - it employs a number of innovations, it works with people, and it promises to bring tangible improvements to the lives of small farmers. Please note that small farmers always represent a “difficult” category of beneficiaries. This is caused by a number of factors such as lack of land and other production assets, little access to “know-how”, fear of innovations (risks are barely affordable when you are poor), marginal profits and extremely limited access to capital that is necessary for supporting growth and expansion.

Can you describe the impact of your project on Georgian farmers?

Actually, we are talking about some 760,000 families in Georgia that are directly linked to agriculture - most of them possess one hectare of agricultural land or even less. Given the lack of knowledge and production assets, these farmers receive very little incomes for reinvestment in production. As a result, farms run by such people have very little chances for development.

Of course, our project will not help that many people, however, we can still talk about thousands whose lives will be positively affected – some 300-350 households will be benefiting directly and another 2,500-3,000 – indirectly, through gradual adoption of methods promoted by the project and enjoying services established with the project assistance. The project impact will not be fast and massive, however, the expected 25-35% increase in the participants’ incomes by the end of project means a lot for those struggling to get out of the vicious circle of poverty. At least some small farmers, these with stronger business orientation, will start generating money for investment in growth.  In addition to this, the project will create a hundred of new seasonal jobs.

300+ households directly benefiting from the project is not a small number…

Although of a large budget, our project is designed as a pilot. It’s believed that in the years to come the government will continue providing at least some of the services tested through our project. This is why it is very important to develop the most effective and efficient approaches and to share the project learnings with the government and the donors.  So the final tangible outcomes of the project will be the long-term economic improvements in 300+ households and a valuable model of supporting the most business-oriented small farmers. Many international donors and NGOs are trying to support Georgian agriculture since 1995, however their attempts have quite a modest impact.  The main systemic problem that limits the development in the entire sector is the very small land-holdings, one hectare per household or so. Such an area of land can feed you and your family, and, if you are lucky, generate a little amount of money. But the monetary income you generate is immediately spent to cover the most basic needs of your family – pay electricity bills, buy firewood for cooking and winter heating, repair leaking roof, etc. As said earlier, there is no cash left for any economic investments. 

What can be the solution for Georgian farmers?

The only realistic solution of the problem is the enlargement of farms that brings about improvements in the economies of scale. Given that those moving to urban areas are not yet ready to sell their land (they consider the land as an asset for “rainy day”) and those remaining in the villages have no money to expand to the abandoned neighbors’ land, the support to transactions at the land market is not the most relevant strategy for farm enlargement. So what is left from the enlargement options is farmer cooperation. The costs of this are quite high, but nobody can offer a better solution. 

As said earlier, the cooperation of farmers increases their incomes by a quarter or a third – this is not a revolutionary change, but the gains are enough for a gradual acquisition of some productive assets including land. With the emergence of farmers generating some discretionary income, the land transactions will become more and more frequent. Of course, this process will be slow, at least in the beginning – given a number of mental obstacles (excuses like “I may need this land as my pension plan”), the proper enlargement of farms may take one or two decades.

On one hand, we need to get more people out of farming (according to experts, Georgia does not need more than 70,000 farmers) but on the other hand we want to give a right direction to the enlargement process through empowering the most business-oriented farmers.

Summarizing briefly what I have told about our project, we test the process of acceleration of the most important systemic change in Georgia’s agriculture – the enlargement of farms.

So that’s mean that this program has impact on whole setup of agriculture in Georgia?

Absolutely. The strategies of CARE, Oxfam, Mercy Corps and PIN in this programme are quite similar – we all transfer the diverse technical, business management and organisational “know-how”, plus give grants, to a limited number of cooperatives selected through a thorough competition process. The number of farmers impacted by the programme directly is quite limited, but the final target is the entire agriculture sector of Georgia. We bring very important evidence of the advantages of farm enlargement plus the methods of enlargement that keep the best small farmers in the business.

Can you tell me how the ENPARD project is connected to other programs of People in Need Georgia?

Yes, we have two initiatives that are related to our project, both are funded by the European Union, and one is actually funded through ENPARD facility -  this is so called Rural Development in Kazbegi project.  This intervention is developing a number of economic and non-economic models for supporting both individual rural households and the entire rural communities. The domains of the Kazbegi project are agriculture, tourism and environmental development. Some of the approaches of the Kazbegi project are similar to the ones employed in our project – these are context research and selection of priority economic sectors, grant competition, participatory selection of grantees, and, where appropriate, development of cooperatives and associations.

The other initiative that we implement in Imereti and other parts of West Georgia is aiming to improve the delivery of vocational education and training in to farmers. The lack of technical knowledge is one of the largest factors impeding agricultural development in the country, so the project hits the right targets – it develops the capacity of agricultural colleges that are active in the region. This project is planning to use our cooperatives as a field practice base for the students of supported colleges.

Do you think it is possible to transfer the experience from your program to another country?

Yes it is possible, but not automatically. Georgian farmers are not the same as Cambodian farmers, and Georgian traders do not necessarily act like Mongolian traders. The reasons of differences should be looked for in their very specific historical, cultural and economic backgrounds. The assessment of the backgrounds, combined with the analysis of systems shaping the sector should be done before you decide to “borrow” an implementation idea from a different social and economic context even though the context looks quite familiar. The idea of farmer cooperation that appears to be working in Georgia these days was extremely unpopular among the same groups some 20 years ago when the farmers were just learning the first lessons of individual small-scale farming and when the memories of inefficient and non-democratic “Soviet Collective Farms” were very fresh.

In all cases, if you are bringing an idea from one environment to another, test it on a limited scale.

Are you interested to visit another mission of People in Need? If yes, what mission appears to be the most interesting for you?

Yes, I am interested to visit PIN’s agricultural and rural development projects inother countries. And I believe the most interesting mission for me is PIN-Mongolia. Of course the structural context of agriculture in my country and Mongolia is different. The majority of farmers in Mongolia focus on livestock and sheep breeding. They don’t face the problems of lack of agricultural land. This resource is uncounted in Mongolia. But the weakness of farmer education system appears to have the same roots and bring about the same results in both Mongolia and Georgia. The non-accessibility of financial services can be also quite similar because bankers don’t want to chase farmers in the middle of Gobi desert or in the forgotten mountainous villages of Georgia for two thousand dollars. Plus both Georgia and Mongolia are still transitional economies with large gaps in agricultural policies and farmer mentality. Because of all these factors PIN-Mongolias agricultural and rural development projects appear to be the most interesting to me. Please forgive me if I am wrong in my assessment of Mongolia because my knowledge of this country is quite superficial.

And now more personal question. Did you find some new friends here?

Of course! One of the reasons why I really like my current job is that I have very open, very friendly relationships with the members of my team and my peers. We are almost like a family in the project - we do not hesitate to discuss our problems, we ask for advice, we seek mutual support, we make many decisions in a participatory way, and we substitute each other when necessary. In addition to this we share our happiness with each other, we share the food and have fun together. As for the peer project managers, we “know what the other guy is doing” and openly share our experiences and lessons learnt with each other.

What you think you personally bring to People in Need?

I am in relief and development since December 1993. I changed several organizations, several employers. Of course each organization has strengths and weaknesses in its organizational culture. I managed to learn many of these strengths and weaknesses and this knowledge is eagerly shared with my colleagues in PIN. I believe this helps them in their decision making. The other advantage of mine is my experience in both agriculture and post-conflict, post-disaster rehabilitation - for virtually the entire period since 1993 I am either in agriculture, or rural development or rehabilitation. So the experience of how things are working in different cultures is something what I can also offer to my colleagues in PIN. We have very many people with excellent university education - they learnt from wise teachers and wise books but, so far, not from the real life. So I think my practical knowledge can effectively complement their knowledge of various theories. 

Will you stay with us in the future?

I am sure you had situations in your life when you like a person from the first sight but when you get closer to the him or her, you find that this isn’t the person you want to go with in a long journey. You get a job, you think it’s great, but after some time your opinion evolves to “eh-eh”. And then you start looking for a new job. But this is not the case with PIN - I’m already with the organization for more than two years and and I remain happy with it.

Author: Petr Štefan