New learning routes for Central and Eastern Europe

By Eleonora Lago, IFAD

Viljandi, Estonia
From 17 to 21 November 2014, I had the pleasure to go on an interesting study tour which took place in Tallinn, Estonia. The focus of this learning journey was to explore how new technologies implemented in European Union countries can be shared and adapted in the Central and Eastern Europe countries (CEN). The project started with a contribution from the Ministry of Agriculture of Estonia to IFAD to support the former Soviet Union countries. Since 1993, IFAD has been working in CEN countries to meet an increased demand for innovative ways to address rural poverty. In concert with concerned governments, we've been replicating and scaling up best practices in a number of areas such as rural finance, creating employment opportunities and rural advisory services. The study tour organized by IFAD in collaboration with the Estonian Rural Development Foundation (RDF) brought together ten IFAD-funded project representatives from Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Uzbekistan.

Estonia, is one of the Baltic states and regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Apart from bordering with the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, it’s neighbors include Latvia and Russia. It is a mainly flat country with many lakes and islands and much of the land is farmed or forested. Estonia is a democratic parliamentary republic divided into fifteen counties, with its capital and largest city being Tallinn. With a population of 1.3 million, it is one of the least-populated EU member states. After its independence from Russia, the country faced development-related issues and challenges similar to the other former soviet union countries. The aim of the Estonian Study Tour was to exchange knowledge and best practices in rural finance with a view to applying them to IFAD-funded projects in other countries of the Former Soviet Union. Furthermore, the intention was to allow the participants to see first-hand how Estonia had managed to reinvigorate its agriculture sector.  

During the study tour we had the opportunity to meet with specialists from RDF and to learn about the strategies adopted to promote the agriculture sector in Estonia. RDF aims to expand the availability of financial resources, support development in rural areas, disseminate relevant information about agricultural practices to improve rural livelihoods, maintain cultural traditions, support vocational education, and build the image of agriculture and rural areas with a view to improve the business environment and create better living conditions. The activities of the Foundation include lending scheme, issuing credit and debt obligation guarantees. The study tour’s goal was to explore new approaches and technologies in the rural financial sector that can be applied in other CEN countries facing similar challenges, so that they can replicate Estonia's success and good practices. We visited a number of rural enterprises and had an opportunity to interact and learn from the very people who had benefitted from the successful interventions.
Dairy Farm - Vändra OÜ

In visiting rural enterprises were we saw successful implementation of different agricultural technologies, the most impressive finding was in the dairy farms, which had a completely robotized system capable of milking 250 animals and produce 9300 litres of milk on an annual basis per cow. What was also impressive was the fact that the plant was manned only by two people who worked the machines.  
I guess we all asked ourselves whether all or some specific aspects of this technologies implemented in EU-countries could be adopted in other CEN countries. 

To increase employment rates, a semi robotized system could be adopted in countries which are more populated and the unemployment rate is very high. The machines used in Estonia run from a range of completely automatized systems to semi automatized systems where a more human intervention is required. 

To improve health conditions and the wellbeing of the livestock, larger spaces could be utilized and farmers across the territory could engage and collaborate more closely on animal husbandry best practices.
With regards to the animal tagging system, the CEN countries need to improve this aspect to allow for traceability and better control of milk quality. This system in Estonia was initially implemented and financed by the government and now it is fully maintained by the smallholder producers.
Estonian Fishing Association - Estofish

Another interesting finding, which came out from the workshop, relates to the Estonian Fishing Association. This is a producer organization consisting of five companies operating in Estonian waters. The new refrigerating plant provides storage for up to 3200 tons of frozen fish and can freeze up to 200 tons of fish in a 24-hour period and relies on a completely automatic system. Whilst the above was already very impressive, what really caught the participants interest and my attention was the fact that before the cooperative was established, the different companies were not able to capitalize on their earnings. After finding a common agreement that allowed these different companies to collaborate with each other and to share revenues and losses, the cooperative was able to hold 48% of the historical sprat-fishing rights issued in Estonia and 43% of the Baltic herring-fishing rights. 

The experience allowed IFAD-funded project staff to learn more on innovative technologies from the Estonian experience and share knowledge that could considerably contribute to the economic development of the former soviet union countries. The participants had the opportunity to learn about the difficulties faced by their neighbours and to discuss together on how to better address these in their respective countries. Estonia is now a country able to share its achievements, also thanks to the collaboration and knowledge sharing with its neighbouring countries  and I think that this message was really taken on board by the participants and could be an important step towards a more effective and innovative future development plan for countries who share similar challenges and scenarios.