Studying Entrepreneurial, Place-Based Curriculum Success in Nicaragua


This photo was taken on the return trip from the Center for Agroforestry and Environmental Education in Wawashang, Nicaragua. Photo credit: Henry Quesada-Pineda for InnovATE

You have to take a boat to get to the remote 300-hectare farm in Wawashang, Nicaragua where the agroforestry education and training centers of the Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (FADCANIC) are located. But the rural location is part of what makes the programs unique, according to John Ignosh, area extension specialist and member of Virginia Tech’s biological systems engineering department. With funding from the Feed the Future project, Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education (InnovATE), Ignosh and Virginia Tech’s Henry Quesada-Pineda, associate professor in the sustainable biomaterials department, visited FADCANIC in October to study its highly successful entrepreneurial, place-based agroforestry and agricultural curricula.

Quesada-Pineda was a member of a 2014 InnovATE scoping team that assessed the agricultural education and training systems in Nicaragua. One recommendation of the assessment was to develop a case study on successful vocational programs for entrepreneurship to address youth unemployment in the Atlantic Coast region. FADCANIC’s successful agroforestry programs were the perfect subject for the case study.

Since 1990, FADCANIC has worked to improve the quality of social, economic and political relations of the indigenous and ethnic communities of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. Two of its most important programs are the Center for Agroforestry and Environmental Education (CEAA) and the Center for Agroforestry (CAF). The CEAA is a technical degree-granting educational institution while the CAF is an agroforestry product manufacturing, tropical crop research, and outreach institution. The CAF does a variety of capacity building courses with women’s groups and other local organizations. The courses are usually train-the-trainer type events so that the participants can return to their villages and begin small businesses using value-added processing examples learned at CAF. The centers collaborate closely on teaching, research and extension activities.

CEAA offers 3-year and 5-year technical degree programs in addition to short courses lasting a day to a couple of weeks. Each degree has a specialty in either agroforestry or carpentry. However, the center is planning to expand its program to include food processing, refrigeration and small engine repair. Currently, CEAA has about 210 students.

Forty youth graduate annually from CEAA, but it is not the numbers of graduates that make the programs stand out, says Ignosh, but rather the quality of the graduates and the place-based curriculum. Ignosh and Quesada-Pineda have identified several elements that make the program successful:

  •  a market-relevant curriculum;
  •  inclusion of an entrepreneurial mindset and skills driven by economic necessity;
  •  an appreciation for diversity; and,
  •  community involvement.
This carpentry student made the cane seats next to him for rocking chairs. Photo credit: John Ignosh for InnovATE

This carpentry student made the cane seats next to him for rocking chairs. Photo credit: John Ignosh for InnovATE

The teachers develop the curricula with an eye toward economic opportunities for the students. The curricula are relevant to the local agricultural and agroforestry industries in the region, so CEAA’s graduates are in high demand.

The programs operate on an experiential learning philosophy. About two-thirds of the program is hands-on and one-third is theory in the classroom. The students are able to perform at a high level in and out of the classroom. Ignosh says that CEAA students have developed a reputation for not only competing in but winning national science competitions.

Both the CEAA and the CAF sell the farm and wood products they produce. Students have the opportunity to participate in production, processing, and selling of these products. The CAF produces coconut oil,hearts of palm, fruit and vegetable flours, and cocoa powder. The carpentry program of CEAA produces wood furniture and musical instruments.

Entrepreneurial skills and values are incorporated in the curriculum partly because of economic necessity. The Atlantic Coast region is rural with very few employment opportunities, particularly for youth. As a result, the centers are developing not only employees for existing companies but also new employers for the region. According to Quesada-Pineda, many graduates return to their own farming communities and set up business activities.

Profesora Rosita (right), a teacher and an alumna of CAEE, and a student show a turmeric crop at the CAF. Photo credit: John Ignosh for InnovATE

Profesora Rosita (right), a teacher and an alumna of CAEE, and a student show a turmeric crop at the CAF. Photo credit: John Ignosh for InnovATE

CEAA and CAF embrace the diversity of the region which includes indigenous peoples and ethnic communities with multiple languages and cultures. Appreciation of diversity in culture, gender and race is a priority in the curriculum. Ignosh said that many students learn not only about other cultures but also seem to gain a deeper understanding of the history and traditions of their own cultures. Also, they live and work alongside students from a variety of backgrounds. Currently, CEAA has students from seven different ethnic groups.

Community involvement seems to be a critical piece to the success of the curriculum and the students. When students go home during school breaks, they are given an assignment to conduct a demonstration or a field exercise in their home communities of the knowledge and skills they learned at school. They plan and conduct the demonstration, and then they have to report on it when they return to school. According to Ignosh, this exercise accomplishes several objectives. It gives the students experience applying what they have learned and an opportunity to test how well they have learned the skills. It also helps students hone their public speaking and presentation skills. Additionally, students and FADCANIC’s programs become known to the communities. Students told Ignosh and Quesada-Pineda that through these demonstrations they have become known as sources of information and resources in their communities.

While they were visiting the centers, Ignosh and Quesada-Pineda interviewed administrative personnel, faculty, students and alumni to discover the strengths and weaknesses of this entrepreneurial, place-based curriculum model. Quesada-Pineda said they realized that there is only a little information about the long-term impacts of CEAA. To address this issue, Quesada-Pineda and Ignosh have designed a survey instrument and, with CEAA’s assistance, will conduct a survey of all CEAA alumni. The hope is that the data from the survey will show the impact of the programs on the region over time.

Quesada-Pineda says that they intend to include in the case study of CEAA specific strategies that vocational training organizations in other developing countries can use to replicate the model in order to produce home-grown agricultural entrepreneurs. Though it is not easy to get to, CEAA is well-worth the trip.