Editor’s note: This blog post by Elyssa Lewis was originally a presentation given at the Horticulture Innovation Lab’s 2017 annual meeting. A version of this blog post was first shared on the Agrilinks website.
As a UC Davis graduate student, Lewis works for the Horticulture Innovation Lab as a manager of the Trellis Fund while pursuing dual master’s degrees in International Agricultural Development and Agricultural and Resource Economics, with an emphasis on monitoring and evaluation.
The Horticulture Innovation Lab launched the Trellis Fund in 2011 based on an idea from a graduate student, Peter Shapland, at the University of California, Davis, who identified a key gap in international agricultural funding. One of the main aims of the Trellis Fund is to fill this gap by provide funding to effective local organizations working on horticulture and then matching each funded project with a U.S. graduate student who can act as a consultant, sharing their agricultural expertise with the project. The projects last for approximately 6 months and have covered topics all along the value chain, including seed saving techniques in Zambia and vegetable production in Honduras. Since 2011, the program has completed 47 Trellis projects in 17 countries, with nine new projects recently started in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and Cambodia.
Here are five ways the Trellis Fund aims to generate impact:
1. Building local organizations’ capacity to grow and improve their programs
The Trellis Fund is designed to provide a “trellis” for local organizations to further grow their organizations, building their own capacity to design projects, write grants and work with international donors. For example, each proposal we receive undergoes a rigorous review process, and we provide constructive feedback to all the organizations that apply, so they can benefit from the advice and feedback of our expert reviewers. With those organizations that receive funding, we work closely to further refine project goals and activities to ensure success. By working on a Trellis Fund project, organizations learn about working with international donors and are better positioned to compete for larger grants in the future.
As a testament to this, we recently received a thank you letter from Eco-Agric Uganda, an organization that was awarded Trellis Fund grants in 2011 and 2012. The letter explains that the Trellis Fund was their very first external donor, but they have since developed partnerships with many others, including USAID, Catholic Relief Services and UNDP. The letter goes on to say, “THANK YOU THE TRELLIS FUND. YOU GAVE US THE VERY FIRST PUSH!” Read more about this organization’s experience here.
2. Improving local organizations’ technical knowledge and practices
The Trellis Fund also taps into the pool of agricultural knowledge that exists among U.S. graduate students. Traditional professional consultants are far too expensive and busy to work on the sorts of projects that the Trellis Fund supports. However, graduate students are the experts of tomorrow, and they are learning cutting-edge scientific knowledge in their fields today, in addition to having access to the wealth of resources available at their institutions. It is very common for a Trellis Fund fellow to create extension materials or train the trainers, which enables their organizational partners to provide scientifically valid information and base their future projects on best practices. In fact, I was recently talking to someone from Rwanda who is interested in applying, and he said that working with the U.S. graduate student was the most valuable part of this grant opportunity.
3. Engaging U.S. graduate students in international agriculture
For many students who participate in Trellis Fund projects, this is their first exposure to working internationally, and we see their involvement in these projects as a way of broadening their horizons and career paths. U.S. graduate students travel to work with their lead organization in-country for approximately two weeks, in addition to a minimum of 100 hours of remote work. This is an excellent opportunity for them to apply their academic expertise to real-world problems. Students also take a 10-week training seminar, designed to introduce them to the skills and tools they will most likely need when working on their projects. Regardless of whether they end up involved in international agriculture, students report these experiences have shaped the way they approach their careers. Read about one California farm advisor who was inspired by his work with Trellis in Malawi.
4. Creating partnerships between developing country organizations and tomorrow’s agricultural experts
Another avenue of impact is through the partnerships created between Trellis organizations and graduate students. In a number of cases, these connections have lasted beyond the funding cycle. For example, Development in Gardening (DiG), who worked with Belinda Richardson, has gone on to make additional connections at UC Davis, contacting faculty members for further advice and receiving fundraising dollars from a student organization.
5. Enabling the extension of cutting-edge horticultural knowledge to smallholder farmers and value chain stakeholders
And last, but certainly not least, the overarching goal of the Horticulture Innovation Lab’s Trellis Fund is to facilitate the extension of scientifically valid, useful practices and technologies to local smallholder farmers and other horticultural stakeholders. This happens both within the short-term timeline of the Trellis Fund projects themselves and beyond by improving the technical and managerial capacity of the organizations that serve them.
So far the results of the Trellis Fund projects have connected with nearly 7,400 farmer participants (69 percent women), enabling the construction of 219 demonstration plots and providing more than 235 training and extension meetings.
After three years of working with Trellis Fund organizations, I have been routinely impressed with the way they have been able to leverage this relatively small amount of funding to effectively promote horticultural best practices among their communities. Now that our organization is offering larger grants, we are excited to see what more can be achieved.
Photo at the top: During a Trellis Fund project in Zambia, Miguel Macias of UC Davis leads a training focused on solar drying and seed storage with the Tikondane Community Centre.