At the heart of Palms development philosophy is the concept of mutual development. Our volunteers do not ‘give up’ one or two years to work abroad. Rather, volunteer placements aim to enrich the personal and professional lives of our volunteers as much as they enrich partner organisations.
Anthony Leddin served as a teacher with Palms in Samoa in 1999. After completing his placement, Anthony launched an initiative to combine his two passions of plant breeding and development. In 2018 this dream became a reality. Plant Breeders Without Borders aims to “empower smallholder farmers to reach their farming potential, through breeding and development of neglected and underutilized species.”
The NGO has launched two projects, in Ethiopia and Indonesia, with plans to reach further, to reach more farmers and communities. We asked Anthony about his passion project turned career and how his experience with Palms helped shape this incredible initiative.
- What first motivated you to volunteer abroad?
I guess living in the lucky country of Australia I have had opportunities that others in developing countries don’t get. I just felt that it is our duty that we should share some of this luck with people who may need it.
- What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your Palms placement?
To watch and to listen before having your say. Things that we do by habit where we live may not be normal in another place. Leave your old life behind and observe what the locals do, listen to their stories and if they ask you what your life is like be sensitive to their situation.
- When did you first think about starting your own volunteer organisation?
15 years ago I thought of the idea of Plant breeders without borders that combined my passion of plant breeding with my love of working on developing projects. As the idea grew it became something where volunteers were needed to the scale that warranted it becoming an NGO.
- Were there any practices that you adopted from Palms when thinking about how to prepare and support volunteer placements abroad?
We have had 2 pilot projects and only one volunteer so far. Over the next 3 years there will be 8 projects. I will train a lot of the volunteers and my experiences with Palms will help with this. Letting them know the highs and the lows of volunteering, what it is like when you come home and how you can continue to keep the fire of volunteering alive.
- What have you chosen to do differently in your own volunteer program, and why?
It is about filling needs, I see that there is a need for more plant breeders and the sharing of knowledge between the old generation of plant breeders and to encourage new plant breeders to take up the role. Bayer as the sponsor has a strong interest in smallholder farmers and empowering them. ‘Crops For the Future’ has an interest in underutilised crops. It’s all about fulfilling the needs of partners in project and using each partner’s expertise to achieve a goal.
- What is it about the volunteering model that appeals to you and that works in this field?
It is a great place to start. If you are interested in working in overseas aid and you apply for jobs the first thing they will ask you is ‘What experience do you have?’. It is impossible to break into this field without experience so volunteering is a great way to gain it and understand the needs of people in situations where resources may limit what can be achieved. It creates a ‘thinking outside the square’ mentality.
- When did your idea to start Plant Breeders Without Borders transform into reality?
It wasn’t until this year and the signing of the agreement with Bayer. I have been looking for a sponsor for 15 years. Without a sponsor like Bayer this initiative could not have been up-scaled. Projects are proposed to begin rolling out next year.
- What was the biggest challenge in starting PBWB?
Finding a sponsor. I believed in what I was doing I just needed to convince a large company that it was worth getting behind. I guess I was just lucky that the concept was in alignment with Bayer’s interests. They are a company that specialises in plant breeding and they were looking for projects that would have an impact on smallholder farmers.
- What was the biggest surprise in starting this project?
The look on peoples’ faces when they do their first crossing. Some of them may not even know what plant breeding is or if they do they may think you need years of training to do it. Anyone can be a plant breeder, it is not hard to do. But the key to success in being a plant breeder is being passionate about it. It has been 15 years of ups and downs in getting Plant Breeders Without Borders started, but if you believe in something you never give up. The day that Bayer came along and said that they believed in it too I could have jumped for joy.
- Given your success connecting with corporate partners, what do you think makes PBWB appealing to companies?
You need to be flexible, each partner will come along with their interests, it is about sitting down and working out the best way to make something happen. In the end you have to think of the end user and their needs and that is the smallholder farmer in this project. It touches on many world issues at the moment; world hunger, climate change, the shortage of plant breeders, sustainable farming, human nutrition, genetic diversity, small holder empowerment. These are all issues that are at the forefront of interest for companies such as Bayer.
- What advice would you give to Palms volunteers who are similarly contemplating ways to expand on their experience with Palms and create something like PBWB in their field?
If you have a dream don’t give up on it. I would try and volunteer in my holidays and look for funding opportunities to do this. Talk to your work, they may not be in the overseas aid business but may be sympathetic to your cause. I think this is the new way of volunteering, the public sector is stepping out of this space and it needs to be filled with the private sector. Encourage your work to get involved.
- How can other Palms volunteers or supporters support PBWB?
Follow us on our webpage (pbwob.org) and recognise that plant breeding is a part of your everyday life, all the food that you eat has been bred by a plant breeder. Learn more about underutilised crops and why they are so important for the future of agriculture in developing countries. Share the message of what Plant Breeders Without Borders is trying to do with others. Learn how to do some plant crossing in your own garden, maybe one day you will create your own variety!
Plant Breeders Without Borders aims to engage 1.5 million smallholder farmers in capacity building projects by 2030. To get involved, register your interest in volunteering.
To see how Palms can help you find your passion and give you experience in development, see current opportunities.