Technical Task Force: Creating New Income Opportunities

63 years old Liu Zehua proudly displays the increased output from his mushroom field in Ji County, Tianjin. Through the UNDP-supported Technical Taskforce initiative, his income has increased as he has learnt how to improve his cultivation techniques and expand his markets.

Making a living in one's hometown was practically impossible for much of rural China, prompting the massive migration of villagers and farmers to cities in search of employment. Now, thanks to United Nations Development Programme and its Chinese government partners,some villagers are discovering economic opportunities where they least expected them.

Liu Zehua proudly displayed the increased output from his mushroom field in Ji County, Tianjin. Liu has good reason to be pleased. He increased his harvest by 20 per cent and raised his annual income from 6,000 yuan (USD 882), to 30,000 yuan (USD 4,412) he said. But it has not always been this way for small-scale farmers in China.

Highlights

  • Entitled the Technical Task Force (TTF), this program refers to groups of highly trained professionals, development experts and academics, often with entrepreneurial skills, who are working together with poor farming communities to reduce poverty.
  • In all, more than 10,000 new job opportunities have been created through the TTF, especially for women in Tianjin.

The number of rural villagers rushing to China's larger cities estimated to increase by 350 million more between 2005 by 2025. Liu and fellow mushroom farmer, Zhan Hongqin, are part of an entire generation of farmers being lured by the prospect of higher incomes and better opportunities available for their families in the rapidly modernising cities. Now, however, Zhan has returned to her native Ji County to take up farming once more. "Unlike before, I can now make seven to eight times more planting mushrooms than I could as a worker in the cities," she explained.

The secret behind this rural agricultural revival is a joint initiative between UNDP and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China. Entitled the Technical Task Force (TTF), this program refers to groups of highly trained professionals, development experts and academics, often with entrepreneurial skills, who are working together with poor farming communities to reduce poverty. Millions of farmers are benefitting from technical assistance and training, which include helping them identify and introduce new technologies, develop community associations and expand the marketing dimensions of their existing business activities.

As a concept, the TTF was originally launched in 1998 by local government officials to help farmers recover from disasters in China's eastern Fujian Province. However, seeing its enormous potential, the Ministry of Science and Technology sought UNDP's assistance in broadening its application to include a range of services for arable and livestock farming industries in other poor communities.

Since its operations began in 2006, the programme has assembled and dispatched 150,000 Technical Task Force personnel to project sites in all 31 of China's provinces. In just four short years these projects are estimated to have benefited more than 8 million rural families and indirectly more than 36 million farmers. At the foundation of the project's success has been its ability to rely on traditional local systems to introduce new technical knowledge in which the farmers themselves are interested.

In addition to establishing a completely new agricultural business model, the achievements of the TTF can be attributed to the dedication of practitioners like Tianjin University Professor Guo Chengjin. Recognising the unique opportunity for economic development and poverty alleviation, he first sought to advance mushroom production, a crop known to work well in the local conditions in Ji County, in 2006. Farmers were encouraged to invest in land, greenhouses, mushroom seeds and raw materials. In return for his technical support, Guo received a very modest fee following successful sales.

As a result, mushroom seeds that have a higher market value have been introduced and cultivation guidance has allowed crops to be planted all year round, increasing yield potential, creating job opportunities and raising average incomes by as much as 67 per cent. Formal classroom training and technical seminars have also been set up to provide computer skills training and introduce farmers to e-commerce, while a 24-hour hotline offers round-the-clock advice on environmentally sustainable agricultural practices, among other things.

Since the TTF relies on policy support from the government, UNDP has also contributed to government discussions that have helped enable a policy environment for this initiative to flourish. Among them, UNDP commissioned the Central Party School, among the most influential think tanks in China, to publish an analysis of the TTF System, which was subsequently submitted to the Political Bureau, the highest level policy making body in China. UNDP has also helped to establish a national level knowledge sharing network for practitioners and local and provincial government officials to exchange good practices for rural development, and is actively engaged in helping to share these experiences with other developing countries.

"Around the world, the extension of agricultural public services has not been so successful in addressing the global challenge of small-scale farming," said UNDP Associate Administrator, Rebeca Grynspan. "But, by maintaining diversity in the solutions available to poor communities, China has had a very positive experience that other countries can certainly benefit."

In all, more than 10,000 new job opportunities have been created through the TTF, especially for women in Tianjin. Local communities have been able to develop their own area of expertise and, in the case of Tianjin, connect with markets as far away as Taiwan. UNDP has helped organise and set up community production associations to help farmers become more competitive and reduce the market risks they face as individuals. As a result, the mushroom industry is maturing in Ji County, while at the same time project beneficiaries like Liu and Zhan are now working as TTF practitioners, passing on their newly-acquired knowledge to thousands more poor households.

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