CHAMP Interview with Kelly McKinnon
Kelly McKinnon is the Project Manager here at Roots of Peace. We sat down with her to talk about CHAMP, our current program in Afghanistan, and other ROP projects around the world. Q: Can you tell us a little bit about CHAMP?
CHAMP (Commercial Horticulture and Marketing Program) is a program that we implement in partnership with USAID that helps farmers shift from low-value crops, like wheat, to high value crops like pomegranates and grapes. The program is really focused on income generation meaning we work with farmers who are interested in farming as a business. They aren’t necessarily growing for their own diets, rather the motivation is really what’s going to generate the most income.
In many cases we have helped farmers triple their income. We do this by both changing what crops they grow and by introducing things like trellising—a technique that will give the farmer a higher quality and more consistent product versus keeping the plants on the ground.
Another big component of CHAMP is the marketing program. This is what the program is moving towards and it’s becoming one of our main focuses. For a long time we had to spend most of our energy rebuilding the Afghan agriculture industry by restoring orchards that were destroyed during the war. Now, the farmers we work with have an amazing bounty of produce and we’re working to connect them to people they can sell their product to at a worthwhile rate.
Q: What have been the program’s greatest successes?
I am particularly proud of the staff. We employ over 200 Afghan people who are truly experts in their field. These people, who are specialists in a variety of different industries, are incredibly talented and would be competitive in any work force. I think it benefits both their families and their country to be involved.
I’m also proud of how the program is perpetuating itself. We started with a focus of rebuilding orchards and vineyards, now that the farmers are producing good quality fruits the natural need is to focus on marketing and allowing the program to move forward.
And I should also mention that the fruit is really amazing—the pomegranates are the best I’ve ever had and the melons are legendary. It’s truly an impressive product that is worth sharing with the world.
Q: What’s it like to work with a team in Afghanistan?
It’s such an honor and an incredible experience to get to spend time with people who are so different and far away but to feel like we both, myself and colleagues, have an opportunity to build a relationship around that. We have a common goal and that’s very bonding. As much energy as I put into this work, I know it’s reciprocated.
I also really love how every interaction is slow and intentional. We start everything by having a conversation. There’s an earnestness about the way the Afghan team approaches their work and our interactions. It’s an incredible blessing to see the intelligence and skill that the team has.
I will say that communication is an area that I try to focus on. I’m used to moving fast and giving running lists, and that absolutely doesn’t work. I often have to remind myself to slow down, think through what my priority tasks are, and how to best convey them.
Q: You’ve traveled quite a bit to Afghanistan, what is it like to visit the ROP programs there?
Most of the time I’ve spent in Afghanistan has been in Kabul and one of my favorite things to do is simply take in the city. I find that some of the most interesting moments are the mundane every day activities—things like garbage collection or watching the kids go to school. The boys are so boisterous and are always horsing around and trying to look cool wearing their sunglasses and jeans. It’s an important reminder that there is a lot of normal life stuff beyond the war and turmoil; and that the normal lives are lived by such good people.
Another thing I love are lunches with the women on the staff. We sit and eat together and talk about everything under the sun. We have really open conversations about marriages, babies, and beauty and likes and dislikes. We laugh a lot. It’s not self-conscious and there is so much friendship and wonderful female energy in the room. It feels like a unique perspective that is open to us as women.
Q: ROP runs a similar program in Vietnam; can you tell us a little more about that and how it’s similar/different to Afghanistan?
The program in Vietnam is similar in that we’re promoting a high value crop—in Vietnam it’s black pepper. We’re helping farmers to maximize their profit by growing and selling a crop that will help them generate a higher income.
That being said, the sheer size and context is very different from what we’re doing in Afghanistan. In Vietnam we work in 3 provinces with about 1,000 farmers while in Afghanistan we’re in 18 provinces with 40,000 farmers. Working on such a smaller scale means we can have a really close relationship with each farmer. We can talk about a specific person and know their individual needs.
The Vietnam project is also newer; it’s only in its 4th year right now, which means we’re still focused on the production side. Eventually we’ll get to the same place that we are in Afghanistan and will have a larger focus on marketing. It’s great because we’ve been able to take all of the knowledge that we have from Afghanistan and lend it to this project in Vietnam.
Q: What new opportunities with CHAMP are you excited about?
I’m really looking forward to deepening our knowledge of the value chains we work with and having a greater focus on the marketing side of things. It feels like a good step forward. Personally, I’m also really excited to look at applying this experience on other projects. It’s wonderful to think about using everything we’ve learned in a new context and having new programs that will have the successes we’ve seen with CHAMP.