interview

Manuel Otero, general director of the IICA

"Development banking has promoted tools such as microinsurance, microfinance and saving to make a fundamental contributions to financial inclusion"

Manuel Otero has a Master in Agricultural Development from the University of London, a Master in Animal Production from Costa Rica's Tropical Agricultural Research & Higher Education Center (CATIE) and a degree in Veterinary Science from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA).

He first worked in the IICA (Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture) headquarters in 1988. He has been Advisor to the Director General, Director of Programing & Assessment, Director of the Andean Regional Center, Representative to Uruguay and Representative to Brazil, occupying the latter post twice.

He has written many technical papers on international trade, sector policies and agricultural modernization.

He has been Agricultural Attaché with Argentina's Agriculture Department headquartered in Washington D.C. and has also been the Deputy Chair of the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) in Argentina.

In 2017 he was appointed Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), for the 2018-2022 term.

1. What do you see as the main obstacles to achieving agricultural development and rural welfare in Latin American countries?

Latin America and the Caribbean need a new paradigm which gives rural territories the importance they deserve, both in terms of agricultural development and the welfare of rural populations.

The rural environment in any part of the world should be viewed as a focus for the future and for progress. New technologies and connectivity can help reverse the stigma that currently stereotypes them as poverty-generators, areas from which human resources emigrate.

That’s why new institutional frameworks must promote a more productive, inclusive and resilient type of agriculture, actively involving young people and women.

With these challenges in mind, IICA has designed a medium-term plan, the new institutional roadmap for 2018 to 2022.

It’s based on five hemispheric action programs that will give focus to the IICA's work, providing advice and technical mentoring to governments and other societal and economic players in the agriculture and rural life of the American continent. The programs are: Bio-economy & Production Development; Territorial Development & Family Farming; International Trade & Regional Integration; Climate Change, Natural Resources & Management of Production Risks; Agricultural Health, Safety & Food Quality.

I believe that with this new action plan, working together with the different stakeholders, we can contribute towards the development of the new paradigm the American rural environment is seeking.

2. Do you think that technology can help correct the economic and social imbalances in these countries?

Incorporating and using technology must help social and economic progress. That’s why it must be applied to empowering the population and winning people over to the uses and advantages it can bring.

Disciplines such as biotechnology, agro-ecology and, more recently, robotics and communications, among others, are transforming farm production, generating extraordinary opportunities for increasing produce and productivity, while creating new challenges in terms of changes to the structure of farming and rural employment.

Each country's scientific and technical capabilities will determine how far they can make the most of these opportunities. But it will also depend on the extent of the private sector's development, public and private investments, and on the policies pursued by governments to promote science, technology and production.

Innovation and technology represent transversal issues on which the IICA's technical cooperation programs should act. These programs will take an innovative approach, using science and technology as tools for achieving transformation and improvement in farming across the hemisphere.

In IICA we are rolling out our technical cooperation with governments and other players in a number of ways: designing developmental strategies and identifying the needs for technical collaboration between countries; mobilizing external financial resources; managing and administering the resources provided by countries for their development projects; responding to concrete, one-off requests to trouble-shoot countries' specific problems and emergencies; horizontal cooperation between countries and in particular South-South cooperation. Our obsession is development. That means farming has to be a top priority.

3. Specifically, how do new technologies make a difference to farming in Latin America?

Applying new technologies in the farming and agri-food sector, in LAC and in other regions of the world, has enabled rural areas to progress. On the one hand, such technologies increase agricultural productivity and on the other, they improve working conditions in the countryside and thus the conditions of the people living there.  It’s what we have termed "Smart Agriculture".

But digitalization in agriculture needs to strive for goals such as reducing the digital divide, supporting the development of sustainable business models linked to new technologies, and properly managing the information the data provide, in order to reach the right decisions. However, for all this to happen, we need investments that provide broadband in rural territories.

There are numerous cases of Smart Agriculture. I can outline a few that are starting to be applied in several countries around the world: sensors, big data, operations management software, biotechnology, social economy companies, satellite technology, agri-food e-commerce, traceability and blockchain.

We are aware that in Latin America and the Caribbean, where most agriculture is based around family farming, these technologies are expensive. That’s why we have to encourage collaboration among small-scale farmers so they can invest and, with or without the help of new technologies, innovate jointly along the different links of the value chain. For example, in the Huila region of Colombia, thanks to the backing of Spanish strategic partners, we were able to support the roll-out of public policies to encourage people to get together in this way, as well as to strengthen the organizational abilities of a number of producers' associations.

4. 60% of the clients in the BBVA Microfinance Foundation Group are women who have managed to improve their standard of living, their children's education and their development. What would your proposal be for further empowering rural women and reducing inequality?

In IICA we have put together a technical reference paper on the situation of rural women, with recommendations for public policies to strengthen and improve women’s contribution to the development of agriculture and progress in rural territories.

Among our governments and strategic partners, we are going to promote the application of policies and measures in favor of gender equality in the rural areas of our LAC region.

5. One of the products and services offered by the Group's entities to achieve the inclusive and sustainable economic growth of entrepreneurs is microinsurance. To what extent do you think that this is important for the sustainability of rural entrepreneurs' businesses in the face of unexpected eventualities?

Development banking has promoted tools such as microinsurance, microfinance and saving to make a fundamental contributions to financial inclusion. According to a recent ECLAC report, our region has low and unequal access to the financial system. As such, anything that we can do to promote financial instruments and insurance for the most excluded is extremely valuable.

We consider microinsurance to represent an opportunity for the most vulnerable population, who are generally more exposed to risk. Exposure to risk in the case of low-income entrepreneurs can lead to economic losses in their households. Fear reduces the likelihood that these groups take the step of starting a business that could generate more income for them and as such could enable them to reduce their poverty.

Microinsurance is a useful mechanism for reducing the vulnerability of poor households, while improving their standard of living.

6. What initiatives has IICA pushed through to build partnerships for a stronger agriculture sector?

The IICA has specified in our road map for the next four years how we will be promoting partnerships with a broad portfolio of strategic partners who work in complementary areas.

Over the course of 2018 we have signed dozens of collaboration agreements with international bodies such as the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB), universities in a number of countries, among them Spanish universities, research centers and the private sector.

One of the agreements I would like to mention is the one reached between IICA and Microsoft last November, which we have worked long and hard for, and which represents a milestone in the history of the Institute. Thanks to this strategic relationship it will be easier to implement the Internet of Things, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence in the farming sector across the American continent. We are planning a host of initiatives in collaboration with Microsoft.

We have also got IICA's Goodwill Ambassadors Program, which is part of a drive to tackle the challenges and opportunities facing agriculture in the Americas, which requires a collaborative approach with institutions in the private sector and organizations from civil society.

The IICA's Goodwill Ambassadors share our concern and commitment to achieving sustainable and equitable development. They are prepared to join a cause to raise public awareness and work towards development through projects relating to food security, bio-economy, gender relations and youth, responsible production and climate change, all key issues on IICA's agenda.

7. ¿How do you think the private sector can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and, in particular, to SDG 2 "End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable farming”?

In the last Ibero-American Summit, entrepreneurs and institutions came to an agreement, for the first time, to work following the same roadmap: Agenda 2030. The SDGs are, therefore, an excellent opportunity for all players to be able to align the priorities of our actions so that we can have global impact.

Sustainability has been proven to be the way forward for companies, so that its benefits impact on the communities around them, but also on business profits and greater acceptance by consumers.

Thus, the private sector has many opportunities to contribute to the Agenda 2030. In the case of SDG 2, I would like to highlight two examples: companies in the agri-food sector must make sure they are supplying safe foods but they also have to ensure that agri-food production increases sustainably.

Turning to the financial sector, we understand that instruments encouraging saving, access to loans and microinsurance also underpin the development of farming businesses so that farmers can invest when necessary but also buy food when they don't have enough.

The private sector's commitment to the SDGs and to informing its clients properly, helps to generate valuable brand-equity and engagement for consumers who are ever more demanding when choosing between one brand or another. In the 21st century, consumers not only expect to be able to buy and meet their needs, they also expect the brands they buy to generate positive social and environmental impact.

8. Would you like to share with our readers any achievement in the course of your professional career of which you feel particularly proud? And a personal one too?

I feel very proud to be the first Argentine chosen to lead an international body since 2003. It is an honor that my country put me forward as a candidate for Director General of IICA and to be leading the transformation of this body so that it is closer to its member countries and promoting real changes to make agriculture inclusive, modern, competitive and sustainable.

Continue reading the magazine nº 18