SCOPEinsight meets Chris Claes, Strategic Relations, Vredeseilanden/VECO

Every quarter we introduce experts and thought leaders of the agriculture and food  value chain community by asking about their role in the sector, their vision of sustainable agriculture and their personal preferences.

Tell us more about VECO and your role in the organization?
VECO is the fruit of a merger between three organizations in 1998. We moved from an organization focused on linking smallholder farmers to markets through program management and strategy development, to shifting our focus on supply chain development. Our objectives and activities revolve around three main topics:

– Strengthening farmer organization as business organizations (business of value chains ) and develop instruments for members
– Linking farmers’ organizations (FO) to private actors within the supply chain and focus on building long term collaboration
– Enabling environments through market transformation

We soon realized that capacity building can only be efficient and sustainable when farmer organizations get access to capital to grow their businesses. That’s why VECO co-founded KAMPANI. KAMPANI is a social impact investment fund that provides growth capital investments to entrepreneurial farming families organized in producer farmer organizations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. KAMPANI started its activities in January 2015.
At VECO I am a strategic advisor responsible for the organization’s corporate strategy and external relations. I am currently looking into how to bring VECO from a Belgian organisation towards an organisation with an international governance structure.

What is your vision of sustainable agriculture?
The World’s population is growing and the poorest people in rural areas are smallholders. Eighty per cent of the food produced in Africa and Asia come from smallholders. They need to be part of the solution. If they are well-organized, able to collectively sell their products through cooperatives and marketing systems, they can have access to agricultural services and finance. VECO strives to create a system that could facilitate the connection between smallholders and business actors, where smallholders are seen as organized professionals and have the relevant skills to do business.

VECO is one of the founding member of AMEA, can you tell us why VECO decided to partake in this initiative?

VECO has a co-founding track record. At the level of services towards farmer organizations, 20 years ago Veco co-founded Alterfin, an alternative financing institute of MFIs and farmer cooperatives. In 2015 Veco initiated and co-founded KAMPANI, a private equity fund that co-invests in farmer organizations. The success of VECO is highly dependent on the success of farmer organizations as reliable business partners in the food chains  and on efficient instruments for their farmer members. The initiative of Scopeinsight to found AMEA comes at a time where we’re starting to invest heavily in upgrading the capacity of our colleagues and the organization to really give the right support to farmer organizations to be successful. That’s why we want to support the creation of AMEA as a platform where practice from a variety of actors informs both the improvement of a joint set of metrics to assess the performance of farmer organizations, and the curriculum to improve that performance. The broad use of identical metrics and capacity building curricula might lead to increased trust by private actors and financial institutions to engage with farmer organizations involved in AMEA.

If you could get back in time, which period would you live again?
Well, one of the most interesting periods in my career may be the first 3 to 5 years after returning from Costa Rica. I had been working 7 years with smallholders in various types of programs and circumstances there: in the beginning it was about setting up inexpensive but effective learning systems for land settlers in the Caribbean Limon province – often without farming experience – to experiment, learn and extend their failures and successes to colleague farmers. We also did initiate some farmer markets in the central urban centers. Later it was about setting up the Costa Rican leg of ‘campesino a campesino’, a peer to peer experimentation and learning platform among farmers, and at the end it was about supporting the structuring of the Central American farmer movement. Back in Belgium I started working with a farmer organisation on setting up some collective initiatives: a label for regional products in Pajottenland, East of Brussels, a farmer-consumer local food chain network in Flanders; a farmer study group on exchanging financial business issues and related strategies; farmer study groups on building in sustainability in their practices…After a few years I became director of an extension service for organic farmers.

And it all turned out to be quite easy for me (well, not too difficult would be the correct wording here) to facilitate/enable those collaborations between farmers (and consumers). I did rely completely on the experience built in Central America, how people collectively learn, how to set up farmer-led research/experiments, how to construct successful collaboration between peers, between different perspectives. I often did get compliments in that period for managing quite interesting working methods, which were mostly developed in what we used to call ‘developing countries’ at the time. And that was quite nice.