Natalia Solano Valverde (’10, Costa Rica)
When Natalia graduated from EARTH University, she had her sights set on working abroad. A Mozambican classmate tipped her off to a project in Mozambique being led by retired EARTH professor, Dr. Panfilo Tabora. She reached out to her former professor and a short time later headed off to northern Mozambique to work for the Aga Khan Foundation as a business advisor in value chain models for artisans, and sesame and vegetable farmers.
What she thought would be just a two-year stint, has since become five. A couple of years ago she left Aga Khan and started her own consulting business. Among her current projects, Natalia is developing a study for Engineers Without Boarders to identify and analyze the impact of the emerging mining industry in northern Mozambique. She is also spearheading the MozaCaju project for Technoserve, a three-year project with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to increase market opportunities for cashew farmers and the capacity of processors in the country’s three northern provinces. Natalia receives, evaluates and presents sub-grant requests, manages all of the reporting requirements for Technoserve and USDA, and monitors the execution of the grant. Her work also includes oversight of a pilot smartphone app and open source software that is generating real-time data from approximately 18,000 cashew farmers to improve the link between farmers and potential buyers, as well as improve and evaluate the efficacy of extension programs.
Natalia sums up her motivation for staying in Mozambique with a story. While at the Aga Khan Foundation, she trained vegetable farmers to make and use bokashi (compost made with fermented microorganisms) to improve soil health. She recently discovered that one of the farmers she trained is now leading bokashi trainings for the cashew farmers involved with her project at Technoserve.
“Farmers in Mozambique need practical ideas and innovative technologies that are not resource intensive, and this is exactly what you learn at EARTH. The small changes and guidance I can offer as an EARTH graduate is duplicated and can have a very big impact here,” she adds.
She recognizes that Mozambique has plenty of agriculturalists, but that their knowledge is theoretical rather than field-based. This has made her deeply appreciative of all the resources she had while at EARTH, “We were so lucky to have all the world-class equipment, professors, laboratories, farms, as well as business loans and resources to develop to our full potential as students and as agronomists.”
She is especially grateful for the practical entrepreneurial training throughout her four years at EARTH, which she has applied in every position she has held in Mozambique. She is also working on developing her own fruit distribution business, and has completed the legal formation of the company.
Natalia has developed a deep affection for Mozambique and the simplicity of life there. She recognizes that the international connections made at EARTH opened the doors to this opportunity, and that thanks to EARTH’s multicultural environment she has the skills to adapt to new cultures.
“EARTH represented a big shift in my life, and it connected me with people in agriculture working around the world.” she concludes.