Volunteer Stories

Eric Doesburg


ASHI Microfinance and Coconut Farming

Areas of expertise: Mechanical engineering, supply chain/operations, investment banking


Location of the project: Philippines
Organization that sent the volunteer: Grameen Foundation


My project focused on profiling Coconut Farmers within ASHI’s microfinance members to understand their current economic realities, needs and risks. The overall intent being to create a relevant data set regarding Coconut Farmers in the Philippines and to use this data set to tailor microfinance products, services and education opportunities to reduce income volatility as well as raising overall income potential for small leaseholder Coconut Farmers across the Philippines. Before arriving in-country I had the opportunity to conduct multiple video calls with the ASHI (host organization) and did extensive academic research on the Global and Filipino Coconut Supply Chains to prepare an initial draft of a survey tool and process to test in country through a focused pilot. This pre-trip contact and preparation was key to maximizing the impact of my time in the Philippines.

My time in-country was from late January-to-mid-February 2020. After my initial meeting in Quezon City with the ASHI senior management team, I spent the bulk of my time in the field at ASHI’s office located in the town of Unisan in Southwest Quezon Province. I was embedded with the local ASHI Development Officers and staff. It was a pleasure working with such a passionate, caring, energetic group of people. It was amazing to see the tangible actions they take every day to help reduce poverty for the most at risk groups within their respective communities. Working with the ASHI team, we would travel to the local ASHI centers and would meet with the ASHI members and explain what we were doing, why we were doing it and that this is the first phase of a bigger project focused on efforts to reduce poverty in the coconut farming community through income stabilization and overall income increase. During this field pilot work we completed 12 ASHI Member Coconut Farmer interviews across 5 ASHI centers around the Unisan area.

All of the members we interviewed were open and gracious with their time, input and insight. These farmers are truly resilient in addressing the challenges on their specific farms as well as due to macro factors such as weather/global warming and market/supply chain dynamics that they are subjected to. It was a pleasure to tour each of the farms and hear the story of each farming family. In addition to each personal interview, we also brought technology into our data set by geo-tagging each farm so we can look at satellite data to better assess the health of the crops, understand the farm geography and have an opportunity to look at the aggregate ASHI coconut farming community. This will allow ASHI to identify opportunities for better crop cultivation methods, increased crop yields and production of higher value products (ability to move up the supply chain/value chain). Through these pilot interactions, we collected an initial set of structured and unstructured data that allowed the team to refine the survey content and flow. Without this pilot fieldwork and the participations of the ASHI Members, ASHI Unisan Team and ASHI R&D representative, we could not have adequately developed the survey tool and process to effectively roll out the data collecting initiative.

Upon completion of the pilot interviews, we worked on redesigning and refining the survey tool for wider roll-out and summarizing initial findings from the pilot data. We spent a significant amount of time training ASHI staff on tools to geo-tag (specific geographic location detail) the farms that will be surveyed in the larger survey roll-out using mobile phones. Getting accurate location data for each of the farms is a critical data element in the data survey as it will allow the integration of additional 3rd party data to assess farm practices and potential. Once the broader data set of coconut farmers is collected and the data analyzed, ASHI and the Farmer to Farmer team will need to assess opportunities to support improved agricultural practices through training/education and targeted microfinance products and services. As part of this review will need to assess opportunities for farmers individually or as a group to move up the Supply chain though economies of scale or up the Value Chain through further processing at the farm level.

It is unbelievable the challenges the coconut farmers face from so many fronts (typhoons, erratic rain, rising temperatures, small plot sizes (0.5 to 8 hectares) declining crop yields, dropping market prices, deep poverty – to name just a few), yet are so resilient in facing these challenges every day. So much data and experiences to digest in such a short time! This experience was incredibly rewarding to me professionally, personally and intellectually. I hope that these experiences and some of the small insights that I brought to the team during our field collaboration will bring a lasting and sustainable impact to the ASHI Organization and its members. I look forward to future projects through the Grameen Foundation, Bankers without Borders and the Farmer-to-Farmer/Coco Project. These phenomenal organizations and projects are making a difference every day for the most at risk communities. If you want to make a difference in our global community and have fun in the process, consider volunteering for one of their many projects across the globe.

Learn more about Eric's assignment in this video!

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