For this month’s community interview, we sat down with Bob Jan Schoot Uiterkamp, Business Advisor to Agriterra to talk the work their work in Myanmar.
Tell us about yourself.
Since March 2017, I am the country representative of Agriterra in Myanmar. My personal and professional journey have been largely interwoven since I visited India as a business student in 2009. Shocked by the extreme poverty, I started questioning myself what made some countries rich and others poor. That was the first moment I realized that I was very privileged to be born in a middle class family in one of the richest countries in the world, the Netherlands. So encountering people with hard lives in India formed the starting point of an exciting journey. That journey led me to many so-called developing countries and it gave me the opportunity to meet many people with inspiring stories.
I have a strong believe that – given the boundaries of a capitalist society – the only tangible impact you can realize is to ensure that people have well paid jobs that offer learning possibilities and joy. With jobs come income, and with income comes the possibility to invest in proper sanitation, education, health care and nutritious food.
I have worked in various roles, most of the time for one of Dutch’s leading dairy cooperatives, FrieslandCampina. After a couple of years in the Netherlands, my wife and I decided to embark on a new adventure to Myanmar to get to know a fascinating new country with inspiring people and to bring a spark of our passion.
Tell us about Agriterra Myanmar.
The governments of Myanmar and the Netherlands work closely together on professionalising Myanmar’s agricultural sector to make it internationally competitive and attractive to work in for current and future generations. One important component of the partnership is to create strong farmer organisations – and agricultural cooperatives. Without organized farming, it becomes very hard, perhaps even impossible to realize the ambition to transform Myanmar’s agricultural sector.
As the cooperative enterprise development expert from the Netherlands with operations in 17 countries and implementing abilities, Agriterra was invited to work in Myanmar. Agriterra works by providing training and advisory services to agricultural cooperatives and regional & national farmer organisations and by organizing exchange visits.
Agriterra started its operations in Myanmar in March 2017 and adopted a two-fold approach. First of all, Agriterra works on a national level and in partnership with MoALI and other partners on getting the basics right for organized farmers. Secondly, Agriterra aims to develop model cooperative enterprises in Southern Shan State and in the Dry Zone. These models need to demonstrate that working together as farmers with a clear fundament, business ambition and business support does result in a better income for all individual members. These models will then function as a lighthouse to inspire other agricultural cooperative leaders to embark on a transformation of their organisations as well.
What is the importance of strengthening farmer organisations and cooperatives in Myanmar?
Cooperatives have a questionable reputation in Myanmar at best. Traditional cooperatives in Myanmar did not have a bottom-up governance structure, which resulted in limited ownership and commitment of members and therefore these cooperatives did not deliver any benefit to members. That is a pity because farmer organisations and agricultural cooperatives play a key role in transforming agricultural sectors worldwide.
Agricultural cooperatives provide scale and efficiency and form the basis of farmer-owned investments in adding value to agricultural commodities. At the moment, local cooperatives have already started to improve their reputation by providing much needed loans to individual members. However, the members are not engaged in business activities together, thereby missing the opportunity to reap the full benefits of their membership.
What has your key achievement been in Myanmar?
Agriterra and MoALI have developed a Cooperative Development Plan that encompasses a structured approach to address the five key challenges that need to be tackled to revitalize Myanmar’s agricultural cooperatives.
The five priority areas are to: 1) create trust in agricultural cooperatives; 2) create inclusive member ownership and commitment (including a position for women and youth); 3) create access to finance; 4) create access to (inter-) national input and output markets and 5) to develop cooperative leaders’ capabilities. Having a national framework that is adopted by all is crucial to ensure that government and development partners are aiming at the same target and ultimately to succeed. Therefore, we are actively collaborating with other partners to create alignment and scale. The implementation of priority area one and two have been started already.
What accomplishment are you personally most proud of?
I think it is incredible that within a short timeframe, the mindset of the general public, but more important of farmers, towards agricultural cooperatives has changed. Farmers moved from being very skeptical to believers.Some of our clients are already in the process of reforming their traditional cooperatives into cooperative enterprises or even decided to start a cooperative enterprise because they believe it is the legal form that represents their members’ needs best. It shows that with the right intention, focus and determination, a huge impact can be made in Myanmar.
What does the future hold for Agriterra in Myanmar?
Our work is done when agricultural cooperatives will be able to achieve one or more of three targets: 1) attract loans to realise their business investment; 2) create added value to members via processing, storage or other instruments; 3) are able to sell their products at competitive prices in the national or international markets.
There is still a challenging road ahead. To contribute the most, our priorities in the coming years will be tree-fold. First of all, we continue to support our existing cooperative clients to become model cooperative enterprises. Secondly, we will upscale the national partnerships and train national trainers to become ambassadors of cooperative enterprises. Last but not least, we will support private sector companies and NGOs with training and advise on cooperative enterprise formation or acceleration.
Last but not least, what is your favourite spot in Downtown Yangon?
We worked for almost a year from Hintha Business Centre at Merchant Road. Although I travel a lot, I can dream the way to all restaurants in the neighborhood. The people I met on that way were strangers in the beginning, but later I noticed that many people are always there. Although we speak different languages, we enjoyed making contact together and wishing each other a beautiful day. Then, after lunch entering the Hintha Business Centre again and seeing the smiles of the Hintha Team, always gave me new energy to get back to work. So I would say that my favourite spot in Downtown is the Hintha Business Centre and the streets around the Centre.