12 May 2000

FARM EXPERTS

BADLY NEEDED

Declining employment

prospects in UK agriculture

are prompting many of those

in the industry to look

elsewhere to farm. One

organisation to gain is VSO,

as David Cousins heard

WITH UK agriculture four years into a recession, its tempting to jump ship and look for employment possibilities in parts of the world where farming is more profitable and less regulation-bound. New Zealand, Canada and Australia are all obvious targets, but what about Kenya? or Uganda, Tanzania or Namibia?

These may not seem logical places to take your farming skills to, but theres an urgent need for them right across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Thats the opinion of VSO placement adviser Kirstin Johnson. She says that although theres been a sharp increase in those in farming and its ancillary industries applying for placements with VSO, theres still a pressing need for more.

VSO doesnt just send agricultural experts to developing countries either; health, education, engineering and business experts are equally in demand. In all, about 30 agricultural advisers of one sort or another head off to their host countries each year.

Its not a static set of countries either. UN data on indicators of poverty like infant mortality and literacy are used to compile a list of needy nations. These change over time.

Requests for agricultural experts come from the ministry of agriculture in a particular country or – more likely – from one of its district branches. Or from one of the many small non-government organisations that operate in developing countries. They may need someone to manage a farm, or to improve a dairy herd, or provide vaccination advice.

While vast swaths of Africa are in urgent need of agricultural advice and training, the farms that VSO volunteers go to are sometimes even needier than that. They often have to support schools for ill or disabled children, a group that finds itself particularly disadvantaged in countries where there is no welfare state.

While there has always been a steady flow of VSO volunteers from the UK farming community, Kirstin Johnson has noticed a sharp increase in applications in the last six to eight months. "We think that part of the reason is that many people are becoming disenchanted with the increasing emphasis on profit and loss in British farming," she says. "A lot of people here have all the skills and energy to put into farming but find that those skills arent valued. They also want new challenges."

What qualifications

do you need?

"For a start, we specify that you are between 23 and 68," she says. "However the average age of those taking up VSO placements now is 36, whereas 15 years ago it was more like 27. Being older can be advantage as youre often working in cultures where age denotes wisdom and where it can be more difficult for a younger person to command respect.

"You do need to have agricultural qualifications, whether its a degree, HND or whatever, though we do sometimes make exceptions where someone is a particularly good all-rounder. Equally, you should have had 1-2 years of practical farming experience, ideally helping to manage the farm business and working with other people."

The right personal qualities are important. You need to have an outgoing personality, be able to deal with others and be a good listener. You have to be a realist too – dont get carried away with the idea that youre going to save the world. Finally, you need to examine your own motivations – if all your reasons for going are negative (get away from UK farming, get away from family, etc) you should perhaps reconsider.

How long are

placements for?

VSO stints are typically for two years, though a third of people go on to extend that. Others finish one placement and then go to another part of the world to start a second one.

How does the selection process work?

Anyone contacting VSO is sent an application form in which they can outline their qualifications, where they want to work etc. On the basis of these, suitable applicants will be chosen to come to an assessment day

This is a chance for VSO to assess applicants personal skills and discuss their motivations with them. There is some group work, but Kirstin Johnson stresses that people wont be competing against each other in the way they sometimes have to during selection procedures operated by big firms.

Though the selecting may have been done, theres a still a lot of training to do. All the successful applicants are invited to a 2-day residential course where they receive much more detailed information about what will await them in the host country.

After that comes the most important part, which is matching applicants to jobs. This task comes down to three placement advisers, of which Kirstin Johnson is one. Where possible, each would-be volunteer is offered two or three placement opportunities, usually in sub-Saharan countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda or Namibia. Or in Asia, probably Pakistan or Indonesia.

"A suitable placement usually comes up in the first few months, but it could be up to a year," she says. "It depends how specialised your skills are but for general agriculturalists we usually quote six months between first application and going to the country."

What do I get paid?

"Dont expect to come back with savings," is how Kirstin Johnson sums it up. "We pay all travel costs to UK courses, and the cost of the residential course. Plus we pay medical insurance while youre abroad and National Insurance premiums while youre away."

The initial return flight and permit/visa is paid for and arranged by VSO. If theres an emergency at home, the organisation will pay for a return flight in specific circumstances.

Theres also an equipment grant of £500 before you go, a further £300 midway through the placement and a £1500+ grant when you get back to pay for resettlement and job interviews.

While youre abroad you do get paid a living allowance – usually equivalent to a local wage. Accommodation is provided free so this is for food, living costs etc. Its adequate but not luxurious, say volunteers.

Can I take a partner?

"We look at requests to take a partner on a case-by-case basis," says Kirstin Johnson. There are several options. If the job is one that is in particularly high demand because there are only one or two people that can do it, then VSO may well support a partner as well. Equally the partner may take up their own placement nearby, which VSO is happy to support provided that their qualifications and qualities match those needed. A third option is for the partner to pay for their own flight and support themselves independently of VSO.

More details?

Phone VSO on 020 8780 7500 or check out their comprehensive web-site on www.vso.org.uk

A VSO volunteer in Thailand. All placements are requested by governments, NGOs or other employers.