80 years Agromisa: a dynamic and challenging history

Bring agricultural know-how to bear directly on rural development in the tropics. This simple idea inspired generations of students at Wageningen University. When growing experience in rural development diminished the role of enthusiastic youngsters, graduates and old hands retiring after years spent in the tropics took over. Agromiso, recently celebrated its 80th anniversary, is keeping abreast of the changing times. Surely a unique achievement for an organisation born long before the term ‘development aid’ came into vogue! Time to look back.

1934 – 1968: The KALM years

Students of the Catholic Student Society in Wageningen established KALM, the forerunner of Agromisa, in 1934. KALM (a name approximating ‘Catholic Advisory Bureau for Agricultural Missionary Action’) was a question-and-answer service for missionaries faced with agricultural problems. With the missionary zeal that characterised the Dutch, students sought advice from university staff or in the library, and occasionally sent parcels containing books, vegetable seeds or small tools. In 1960 the numerous Q&A contacts spawned an ambitious idea: organise a short agricultural course for interested missionaries on leave in the Low Countries. In 1965 this new activity – the A- week – led to the birth of Agromisa, involving students of all denominations. When the Catholic Student Society moved to new premises in 1968, the ties with KALM were severed and KALM ended up as the Advisory Section of Agromisa. Agromisa had to find an office, the beginning of extended wanderings through town.

1968 – 1992: Publicity and inter-university cooperation

To keep up contacts in the South a quarterly – ‘KALM-Berichten’ – was launched in 1968. It was succeeded, first by ‘Vraagbaak’ and later by ‘AT-Source’. These successors with their wider scope were published jointly with technical, veterinary and medical student groups in other universities, united under the aegis of TOOL in the Netherlands and ATOL in Belgium. Funding for AT-Source stopped in 1992; from 1996 to 2002 Agromisa maintained external contacts through its own biannual ‘Newsletter’. Ever since 1978, Agromisa volunteers have been kept informed by an internal newsletter, ‘Infoton’, nowadays circulated by e-mail. In the early 1980s English replaced Dutch as the principal language for publications. A Documentation Section, started by Agromisa in 1968, became the first impulse for the ‘Agrodoks’, which continues to offer concise information on subjects recurring frequently in the Q & A Service. From 1989 CTA, the documentation centre of the EU for the ACP countries, took on the task of co-publisher and soon all Agrodoks were published in English, French and Portuguese

1961 – 1992: The A-week

Compared to a few students meeting up to discuss current questions and answers, the A-week turned into a gigantic operation: university staff conducted most of the lectures and practical sessions, families provided accommodation for sometimes more than 100 participants, and 50-60 students spent a lot of time during the year to set the event on the rails: planning, publicity, correspondence, seeking sponsors and contributors, escorting the missionaries during the week,  arranging meals and entertainment in the venues of the student societies, and evaluating the programme. They even had to find altars in churches and chapels for the priests to say their daily Mass. Mainly because it offered people from different parts of the tropics an opportunity to exchange experiences in a stimulating, informal setting, the A-week was an immediate success. And because the A-week was such a dominant activity, KALM set it on its own feet in 1965 as a legal foundation, and thus Agromisa was born. Furthermore, not only did the A-week give Agromisa its name, it also gave it a prominent position in the discourse on development assistance. This reflected the change in the background of the participants: whereas in 1969 nearly all were missionaries, in 1979 the large majority consisted of development workers preparing for assignments in rural areas. During the 1980s the course attendance dropped, mainly because other organisations offered similar courses. In 1990 the number had dwindled to 20 participants, too few to justify the effort; the last A-week was in 1992.

1990 – 2006: from student activity to contracted development work

The year 1992 was a watershed. The final issue of AT-Source reflected the declining role of students in the discourse on development aid. Moreover, study reforms had begun to leave less time for extracurricular activities. One lonely student among the 10 members of the last A-week Committee clearly indicated that – after nearly 60 years – Agromisa was no longer a student organisation. The heated student debates about how to reach and involve small farmers and whether or not to accept funds from dubious sponsors died down… In 1994 the A-week re-emerged in a different guise: a 5-day course entitled ‘Participation in local development’. Courses were organised in the Netherlands or abroad from 1994 – 2002; some or all trainees were from developing countries; fees were high; and participants required sponsoring or scholarships. ‘Agromisa towards 2000’ – a 1995 review, put participation in development in a central place in Agromisa’s mission. The plan of action included formulating projects qualifying for donor funding. This was deemed successful when the EU involved Agromisa in filling the ‘Interdev’ database and NOVIB/OXFAM financed a desk study on ‘Plant Breeders Rights’, both for the period 2000-2003. Participation implied that Agromisa established a presence in the Third World. This happened in 2003, when the Netherlands’ Government granted support for ‘Networking for Agricultural Knowledge Sharing’ (NAKS) projects for 4 years. Together with NGOs in Zambia and Kenya NAKS continue to gather, manage and share knowledge from the farmer’s perspective. Work on the spot includes short courses and workshops.

2007 – 2018: back to the roots

Dependence on a single large donor precipitated a crisis when the proposals for the next phase were turned down. Publication of Agrodoks and the Q & A service once more became the core business. Agromisa remains dependent on the inputs of volunteers, increasingly on pensioners with tropical experience, but also turns back to strengthening the ties with the students and the WUR.

2019-2021 and ongoing: online repository

Agromisa remains dependent on the inputs of volunteers, increasingly on pensioners with tropical experience. In 2020 the board decides to make publications freely available for downloading in 2021 and phase out with the sales of hardcopies and shipments from the Netherlands (in 2021 all stock was either sold or given to those showing interest). This made the way free to becoming a completely online officeless organisation.

Much has changed since 1934 when the initiatives that would lead to Agromisa were taken. But it is clear that Agromisa’s objects remain unchanged. It continues to be an intermediary in the process of disseminating the agricultural knowledge needed to ensure food security and food safety and improve the livelihoods of small-scale farming communities. With our online publications we hope to provide a small contribution to this objective.