Archives for December 17, 2016

DAY 6 – Outernet in Bolivia

DAY 6 – Outernet in Bolivia

Location of Lasilao Cabrero, the quinoa capital, in Oruro, Bolivia

Location of Lasilao Cabrero, the quinoa capital, in Oruro, Bolivia

Here’s an excerpt from a message I just e-mailed to Charlie Schrenk, a UMass colleague, whom I am helping to expand his Outernet project to Bolivia…

“Great news – I just had Oscar Copa Gonzales – the district head of education for the entire Ladislao Cabrera region (like a county in the US) in Oruo (state), Bolivia, sign up for the Outernet project. He has 1,502 students in Salinas and 522 in a remote school in Pampa Aulluhagas.  The Salinas students include 8 remote elementary schools in areas with no internet or cell service – perfect for Outernet.

So there is a great opportunity to help with rural education.

The signed contract recognizing the start of the Outernet pilot project in Bolivia.

The signed contract recognizing the start of the Outernet pilot project in Bolivia.

On January 6th we will have a meeting with all of the school principles to demonstrate the Outernet and determine what materials they may want to receive from the Outernet.

To begin, the folks are thinking of starting with the human body and want more detailed info. on bones (numbers and types in the foot for example – with detailed info. on how the foot works, and perhaps a foot walking/bone moving experiment).  Can you find that in Spanish?  For a high school and elementary school level?  It seems a drawing would be good too – but not sure if that will fit with the 20MB per day limit.”

Stay tuned for the Jan. 6th update when we are out in rural Salinas trying to connect to the satellite and receive the foot data….


DAY 5 – It is not worth it to pay $40 for internet access

DAY 5 – It is not worth it to pay $40 for internet access

My biggest challenge in quinoa research is the extreme use I have of the internet.  It is easy to overlook ones constant reference to the internet for work and communications when in a hyper-wifi country such as the US.  Even living in rural Vermont, where internet service is slow and sometimes non-existant, a quick stop in any coffee shop or public library will give one immediate high speed access, for free.  In Bolivia this is not so.

Bolivian internet cafe - dark, noisy (even with headphones) and non-wifi.

Bolivian internet cafe – dark, noisy (even with headphones) and non-wifi.

While cell service is pretty inclusive and has far reach, Wifi is sporadic, nonexistent, slow and somewhat of a mystery to most folks.  Though most urban people know what Wi-Fi is, it is usually used in reference to video game parlors which have sprung up across the country in cities and rural areas alike and is more of a reference to internet access than actual Wi-Fi – since most places don’t even have a modem.  Wherever there is even the smallest amount of internet access, there will be a dark shop of rows of computers on desks pushed up against the walls, shaded form the sun with tinted windows and curtains, with kids, sometimes two to a computer,  glued to a haphazard array of flashing screens and a cacophony of sounds of shouts, revved motors, machine gun fire, explosions and video game music accenting the excitement of it all.   Keyboards that have bene so used that the letters are no longer visible on the keys.

I have my favorite café in La Paz city which has amazing wifi and for the cost of an expensive 14 Bs coffee in Bolivia ($2 in the US)  I can spend the day there rapidly cruising the airwaves and maintaining all sorts of intentional connections and academic research that we I so take for granted.  I discovered I had high speed wifi at my Aunt’s house in El Alto too – where her sons run a communications center in their corner store.  But alas, my study center is in Oruro.  Here even the main telecommunications center, Entel, looming large over the plaza in the center of town does not have wifi.  El Gordo, a Peruvian lunch chain understands he importance of wifi and offers some access but they are busy, noisy and with yellow plastic McDonald’s style seating, not a conducive place for long term internet surfing.

A friend mentioned that the hotels in Oruro have excellent Wi-Fi.  I always stayed with family in the Oruro and most of Bolivia and did not know much about hotels anywhere.  So my daughter and I started visiting hotels with WiFi, located near the plaza.  One that cost $10 a night admitted to having intermittent wifi.  The fancier $40 a night hotel swore their internet was the best.  So I splurged a booked a night at high speed paradise ($40 is a half week’s earrings for a rural family).  However, upon waking up at 5am to get a “head start” on my online postings, work and interactions, I found that the internet not working.  Now it’s at .84 for download speed and .42 upload with a PING of 57.  Sigh.

Next time I’ll save the $40 and opt for a $2 coffee instead!

DAY 4: No potatoes this year

DAY 4: No potatoes this year

“I did not even plant potatoes this year, explained Hugo Mamanai, “why bother.  It’s too dry.  Nothing will grow.  In vain I will be working.”  Hugo like many people in El Alto, maintain their family lands in the countryside, traveling out on weekends to grow crops for family consumption in the city.  “I love being in the countryside, it is my meditation,” explained his wife, Nica, who also lives in El Alto, running a corner store and telephone service, “but it’s harder and harder to go there, especially when there is nothing to do, it is a lot of work.”

With President Evo Morales’s recent land reform and re-development of traditional land management methods, which include a rotation of community leaders overseeing land use and development, Hugo had returned to his ancestral lands to re-claim them, reconstruct the small house there and cultivate potatoes, a native crop.  But now with the drought and uncertain agriculture conditions, he is leaving it empty again.


What fields look like with traditional grasses holding down the topsoils. Contrast this to the featured photos of a drought affected field and no grasses.

Traveling from La Paz to Oruro, it looks like winter.  The once light green hills are now vast empty places of dry, plowed dirt, surrounded by fringes of wild green plants – the remnants of what once were slopes dotted with scrubby brush, tolla grasses and tufts of green patches.  Dust devils are lifted with the wind.  Industrialized agriculture has taken over the highlands by storm – via donated Chinese tractors from what I heard.  Unfortunately, the climate and appropriate use of technology have not kept up.  Fragile, highland soils are now plowed in inappropriate ways, leaving the top soils vulnerable and eliminating important carbon inputs such as natural grasses and animal dung.

It seems the wheat, quinoa and potatoes that were meant for those lands were either not planted or were planted but did not germinate.  Where are the university programs with the students making analysis, innovations and teaching best practices?  Where are the extension agents?  The Department of Agriculture?  The infrastructure we are so accustomed to in the US, is not present here.

“University students do not do field work here,” I’m told again and again, “it’s not like the US.  Here they work with theory in the classroom, that’s it.”

I’m told that even the Center for Quinoa Research built in the quinoa heartlands of Salinas, and managed by Oruro’s state university (UTO), is no longer staffed and its key has been lost.  I hope to be out there in a few weeks to learn more about this myself!

DAY 2: A visit to Bolivia’s largest quinoa processing plant

DAY 2: A visit to Bolivia’s largest quinoa processing plant

Entel in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

A busy morning was spent changing my phone chip to that of Entel, the best provider of internet service to the rural countryside where we will be working these next 2 months.  For 20Bs (a little less than $3) I now have my own Bolivian phone number (011-591-71223765).  Buying a whopping 100Bs ($17) of credit will give me full data and phone service for the next few days at least – depending on how I use it.  I tend to average about $17 a week in phone calls.

My first phone call was to Jose Santacruz, an agricultural engineer who recently began working with Jacha Inti.  Santacruz is a Fulbright scholar who earned his masters in agriculture in the US.  This past semester my UMass students have been working with him on two projects.  One is to develop a kickstarter promotion for Kaniwa, a seed similar to quinoa.  The other was a market study of the US consumer’s interest in a Denomination of Origin for Bolivia’s Royal Quinoa.  It was great working with Santacruz from our Amherst, MA classroom – skyping and e-mailing with him, getting on the ground reports of families, conditions, stories and photos related to the ancient Andean grains.

Now we were meeting in person. We took the public transport through the teeming streets of El Alto, Bolivia’s newest and fastest growing city – surging to over a million habitants in just 35 years.   At first people come to El Alto for access to jobs, schools and opportunities.  Now they are coming less from choice and more from need, as drought, hail, and wind from climate change chases them off their family farms.

Jacha Inti founder, Sergio Nunez, with a sheath of quinoa - yet to be processed.

Jacha Inti founder, Sergio Nunez, with a sheath of quinoa – yet to be processed.

I have been to several quinoa processing plants and Jacha Inti (Quechua for “Big Sun”) was by far the most organized, clean, and carefully set up.  Eighty employees worked in two shifts to process 20 ton lots of quinoa that were collected largely from a network of 18 quinoa grower associations.  Jacha Inti is the production arm of US based Andean Naturals, the largest quinoa distributor in the world.  Andean Naturals was founded by Bolivian, Sergio de Arco in the early 2000s.

As Santacruz introduced us to the plant it soon became clear that we were in an exceptional facility.  The company provided free hot lunches each day.  The lunch the day we visited was a generous portion of thinly sliced, fried beef, mixed vegetables such as broccoli and carrots, sliced baked potato, rice with vegetables, a natural fruit drink, and an apple for dessert.  Workers also get free company transportation which picks them up and brings them home from convenient locations, and an on-sight doctor and free medical care.

To enter the plant, we needed to wear a sock and other protective gear such as hair nets and shoe coverings to keep both ourselves and the product safe.  However we never felt endangered.  The quinoa comes in form the countryside already partially sorted and cleaned in 21-22 ton lots.  Famer associations are given one to two week’s notice of the need for a quinoa lot and begin sorting and cleaning the quinoa they have already harvested and stored.  All quinoa harvesting is done in May and sales of quinoa continue over the course of the year, one lot at a time, at a rate of one lot every 4-6 weeks.

At Jacha Inti, the quinoa lots are stored in a holding facility and processed over a 2 day period.  To begin quinoa is sorted by size – too large, just right and too small.  Only the “just right” size continues through the process.  About 5 to 10% of each quinoa lot will be sorted out as second quality and saved for sale as seconds.  Then the quinoa is sorted by weight, the seeds that are too light are selected out.  The remaining seeds are then de-hulled which removes about 80% of the saponin, a bitter protective coating that protects the seed from being eaten by birds and has use in pharmaceuticals and beauty products (it is soapy).  The next step is washing.  A water bath removes the remaining saponin, a centrifuge machine removes the water, and the 24% humid quinoa is quickly transported to hot air drying tables where workers rake it over heating vents until it is at 12% humidity and ready for its next step of processing.

Quinoa testing at Jacha Inti

Quinoa testing at Jacha Inti

The final processing happens in another part of the facility.  Covered tubes transport the quinoa up, down and through the steps mentioned above.  In this same tube, the quinoa is brought to the next room.  Here a team of quality control technicians check the quinoa for contaminants.  If the quinoa does not pass the chemical analysis test for organic certification – it is either returned to the producer association or sold as a lesser price as conventional quinoa. Strick organic guidelines permit only a .01 milligram of chemical presence per 100 tons of quinoa. The chemical most present in the quinoa is cypermethrin, a chemical used in early production to ward off leaf eating pests.  Santacruz explains that cypermethrin is permitted to be present at a .03mg rate for other organic crops such as corn and wheat.  Since organic quinoa is a newer crop, there still needs to be more testing done to establish he proper guidelines for chemical presence, so in the meantime, the USDA has a very strict .01 tolerance set at the guidelines. To prevent their quinoa from losing its organic certification, farmers simply avoid using cypermethrin and turn to other organic pest control methods such as phenome traps.  In a certified organic processing plant, everything is organic, even the mouse traps which line the outer walls of the facility.  These have a natural phenome which repels the mice.

If the quinoa is particularly dirty, it goes through an additional magnetic sort which removes any remaining soil and debris – which is magnetic due to the high mineral quality of the soils where the quinoa grows. The producers are charged extra for this step, so they work hard on their end to make sure the quinoa they sell to Jacha Inti is as clean as possible.

Finally, after a day and half of processing, the quinoa is ready to be bagged for export.  It goes through one more sorting and magnetic recovery process, where any loose screws from the massive machinery and fine soil particles are sorted out.  Here it is stored in another warehouse for up to a month as arrangements are made for international shipping mostly to large US buyers such as Kelloggs, Whole Foods and Pepsi.