Archives for January 2017

DAY 24 – Rural Credit and the Quinoa fields

DAY 24 – Rural Credit and the Quinoa fields

Young quinoa seed head forming in its first 6 weeks of growth.

Young quinoa seed head forming in its first 6 weeks of growth.

PRODEM, a privately financed bank in Bolivia founded in 1988 to provide financing to medium and small, rural businesses, has the solution.  With over 2,600 employees and a network of 54 urban and 69 rural agencies, PRODEM is the finance source that many farmers turn to.  Savings accounts in Bolivianos are offered at a 2% annual interest rate.  Credit to farmers is offered to producers over the age of 18 who own land and have been commercially farming it for at least one year.  PRODEM offers everything from 9 month loans to agriculture wholesale buyers and distributors to a one year loan for farmland development and a 4 year option for farmers to buy equipment with.  Though their rates are not published online, farmers tell me they are at 12% – 21% depending on the type of loan, guarantee and term.prodem

We’re in Otuyo, the heart of the Royal Quinoa growing lands and despite nearly two weeks of steady, daily rain, many fields lie empty.  Some are fallow – the Bolivians follow a strict two-year rotation cycle for farming their delicate altiplano soils.  The fallow lands are bare, flat, dirt – the deep furrows that once housed robust quinoa plants are now leveled by the wind, a few dried quinoa stalks lay testament that indeed, there was once production there, not long ago.  Large, dark piles of llama manure dot these fields.  This will be spread by tractor in the fall (March-April) to organically feed the soil for the spring planting of quinoa in October 2017.

quinoa-growingMeanwhile other fields with deep furrows also lie vacant – these were prepared with manure and carefully planted in October and November – but drought and winds caused the delicate germinated seeds to wither and die or covered the emerging plants with dirt and also killing them.  The mayor of Oruro predicted a month ago that 50% of the quinoa harvest would be lost to drought this year.  And while the rains came just in time for some – as quinoa seed heads were just starting to droop – it was not soon enough for many.

Some families were out replanting their quinoa, now that the rains were present, hoping to squeeze in a second chance at a decent harvest.  Though many others opted not to.  It was late in the season they explained, the weather future is so unknown it is hard to make an educated decision for a late planting.  Hail and frost can come and kill off the plants too – especially later in the growing season.  And who knows how long the rains will last for, they add.

So back to the loans.  In my recent research, I noticed a recent trend for quinoa farmers to have loans – often pretty large ones of 11,000BS to 30,000Bs and upwards of $10,000 – some through banks others through cooperatives.  Considering the average rural family’s per capital income is $2,800 a year, according to the FSD, this can represent an entire year of income – taken out in loans.  Previously the families in the quinoa fields had risen to a much higher level, increasing by 39% according to the Borgen Project

This brings family earning levels to almost $4,000.  I observed families earning much more than this but these were the ones associated with powerful producer associations and high quality export certified organic and Fair Trade production.  Never-the-less, with relatively high debt load and a bleak agriculture and economic outcome for 2017, I was concerned about what would happen with the loans.

I asked the farmers if they had loans, many did. I asked if they were concerned, they were not.  I asked why.  They explained that the loans were backed by their farmland.  The banks had sent out agronomists who assessed and valuated the lands.  Legally, the banks cannot take these lands, only use them as guarantees for loans.  The farmers are producing on the lands as they had promised, so they see they part of the deal being covered.  Loans get paid at harvest time.  If they do not have the money to pay the loan at harvest, they explained, then they simply renegotiate terms with the bank.  At this rate, it seems that most will be defaulting on their loans to some degree.  These are also relatively new loans most just 1 or 2 years old. Most were given just as quinoa prices began to fall and farmers still had vast wealth accumulated from the previous 5-7 years of the quinoa boom and high production/earnings levels.  It will be interested to see if the banks are as relaxed with the potential defaults coming in June as the farmers are.

DAY 23 – The Quinoa Processing Process

DAY 23 – The Quinoa Processing Process

What happens to your quinoa before you buy it in the store?  Here’s a photo essay of the quinoa cleaning process that each grain goes through before being shipped to the US.  Thanks to farmer-owned, Fair Trade, organic, quinoa farmers association, APQUISA for letting us take and share these photos.

First the grains are harvested, threshed and cleaned on the farm.  Then the are shipped to an industrialized center for further processing which removes all fine debris, the chaff, and the bitter saponins which protect the plants from insects and birds.




Raw quinoa seed comes in and has their chaff removed.  This bitter shell contains most of the saponins found in the quinoa.  This batch has a white seed in a red shell.  The chaff dusk colors the room a rosy color.  The removed chaff can then be used as compost on the quinoa lands.






Quinoa washing stage. Here the threshed seeds are washed to remove any remaining saponins. Saponins are used in pharmaceuticals as mild cleansers. Wet seeds are quickly dried using a centrifuge machine.



Workersquinoa-workers preparing to get wet quinoa to the drying table.  Six workers operate this plant which can fully process and pack up to a container of quinoa a week. Natural gas is used to make high drying temperatures.  Once dried to 12% humidity, the quinoa then goes to the sorting stage.


industrielized-seed-sortingThe sorter grades the quinoa by seed size separating the large Royal Quinoa seeds from smaller, less well-formed seeds and small debris.  The quinoa is sorted into primary and secondary quinoa grades. These are exported at different market prices.  Almost all of the quinoa exported to the US is 1st quality quinoa.






The optical scanner sorts seeds by color, separating out red, black and white quinoa.





The magnetic sorter lifts out any remaining volcanic stones or dust.  These special, mineralized soils are highly magnetic and produce the Royal Quinoa that can only be found around the volcanic salt flats of Uyuni.




Royal Quinoa is sorted into a mix of 60% white, 25% red and 15% black for export markets.

Finished cleaned, dried, sorted and mixed Fair Trae, organic Bolivian Royal Quinoa is now packed and ready to export to the US.


DAY 22 – Research versus Development

DAY 22 – Research versus Development


ANAPQUI’s Fair Trade, organic quinoa bread being made for local consumption in Salinas.

As I enter into the quinoa lands which I have grown to know so well both in my initial 2015 field research and subsequent projects and research performed in UMass classrooms, I have a better idea of needs, possibilities and opportunities.  In addition, I spent several years studying women producers in the Fair Trade and coffee industries too.  I feel I have a good grasp of the needs and wants of Bolivia’s Fair Trade women producers.  I am also an economist and have a theoretical grounding in development economics.  And am a natural business developer, marketer and partnership builder.  I teach marketing to graduate students and started my own advertising agency out of college until leaving it to come to Bolivia in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer – working in Business Development.  While in Bolivia I developed several businesses, mentored students in being marketing consultants, and worked with Bolivian businesses to create export and national marketing opportunities for natural foods and other products.  Though I’m not an expert, I have an idea of things that can get done in Bolivia, how they can happen and what the opportunities are – especially in a US market.

So how does this impact my role as a researcher?

As I talk with women and hear them complain about low quinoa prices and their desire to make processed food products from their quinoa to create new incomes and jobs – it reminds me of the women coffee farmers who wanted the same thing.  Consulting with Bolivia’s Fair Trade CLAC (Latin American small farmers) representative, Tito Mendoza, he confirms that there are women working with Fair Trade chocolate, sesame seed, and brazil nuts who all want to do that same. – process their raw materials to create alternative industries and not just export raw materials in bulk.  The men however, I found in my coffee research and others in the quinoa industry have confirmed, enjoy the big numbers and ease of bulk export and do not want to bother with complicated food processing.  Though Fair Trade is supposed to work together equally amongst gender, men tend to dominate the decisions about where community funds are invested, and usually disregard the women’s projects – leaving them with no funding or support.  Their ideas stay as ideas – more often than not.

In economic development theory, the next step from the mass export of raw material is the industrialization and processing of that material by the producing country – the is where technology, innovation, marketing, product differentiation, and job creation come into play. In my previous research, I have recommended that farmers invest into product industrialization.

Now in the quinoa fields I ma met with women again, who want to transform product, create jobs for their community, feed the people of Bolivia and export their product to new markets.  However they don’t know where to start – need recipes, equipment, training, packaging, and investment.  They do have the raw materials, land, tiem and desire to make osmethign happen.

One items I brought with me to introduce women to the ways quinoa is being consumed in the US is a case of KIND bars which are made in New York and have popped quinoa as a viable ingredient.  The women were inspired by the bars and wanted to make their own.   When I contacted KIND about this they told me that each month they had a $10,000 fund that women could assess one time if they wrote a project proposal that won a monthly crowd funding competition.  Suddenly the idea of a feminine Fair Trade energy bar made from women-grown Fair Trade quinoa, brazil nuts, sesame seed and chocolate seemed feasible.  There is also Fair Trade honey in Bolivia but there are some restrictions with its use as an export food that need to be explored.  When I mentioned the KIND fund and quinoa bar to the women they are very excited and want to work on the project.

But what project?

I’m here as a researcher – not a developer.  Am I overstepping my role to start forming projects here too?  And where will the project take place?  Who will administer it?  Coordinate it?  See that funds are properly invested?  And of course someone needs to write the grant and get the funds in the first place.  Suddenly this seems really huge.  But it is also a great opportunity.  I think of the food processors I already know- making puffed quinoa, flakes, breads, cookies… Some are Fair Trade cooperatives such as ANAPQUI, or associations such as APQUISA, and others large private businesses such as Coronilla and Frencessa.  Can we share resources, or contract them for the project?  Or do we start with a quinoa community such as Otuyo – which is well formed and has resources (and also inaccessible due to mud) and begin on our own from there?  Tito from Fair Trade CLAC likes the idea and is willing to introduce the project to the other women in Fair Trade.  But it needs more support and collaboration than just that.  I also don’t want to get too distracted from my research.  However the final Part III of my research is in 2018 and that is time to get something set up perhaps – though from the US it would be difficult.

Thais is an open question I am still mulling over – what do you think?

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?


Me in Salinas – walking the quinoa trail alone?

What is the role of a researcher? It can be that of a non-participant observer, like one watching Aristotle’s cave. An interpreter of images on a wall.  Or is it can be a data gather.  A survey taker – rushing in to measure something looking for quantity, measurements and numbers –  Coming up with thousands of responses and statistical significance showing causal effects of something.  It is also a gather or other’s data – a cruncher of numbers and purveyor of literature – re-combining others’ ideas in new ways.

For me what’s important is the context.  What is the point of view where the data was collected?  How does it fit into the larger picture?  What influences may cause it to be presented or interpreted in different ways?  What was not reported?  How was the researcher perceived by those being studied?  How does this affect the information given?

Looking for guidance from Robert Chambers and his “participatory rural appraisal approach” creates a place for the researcher to be a part of and apart from the people being studied.  By participating in daily activities trust and experience is built.  Instead of writing that farming is hard, the researchers do the hard farming themselves.  This takes time, commitment and moments of unease and discomfort.  But then relationships are born and friendships made.

Now I’m in stage II of my research – back with my friends made over last year’s first steps into the quinoa lands.  I now know the people places, stories, histories and backgrounds.  That initial, self-conscious, deep reflection, first immersion is gone.  I know the towns, neighboring areas, the best place for lunch and dinner, it’s familiar and feels almost too easy to just relax into what I already know and verify that it’s what I think it is.  I’m beginning to feel anecdotal as I ask women quinoa farmers how their quinoa is and they tell me it’s bad, market prices are down, there are not good sales, they are owed money by their associations from past sales, they are saving their quinoa and not selling it until prices rise.

The farmers want a minimum of 600BS per quintal ($86 per quintal or about $0.39 a pound) or preferably 800Bs ($.52 a pound) which is what was considered a dignified price by the Fair Trade associations a year ago.  This is double the current 300Bs per quintal price most Fair Trade organizations are paying farmers for their quinoa.  300B does not cover production costs.  I noted this to the Fair Trade buyers and was told that farmers exaggerated their production costs and can actually accommodate quinoa production at 300Bs.  Seeing that just for a 3-acre plot (1 hectare) that produces about 5 quintals of processed and cleaned quinoa there is a $100 cost for llama manure, $30 cost for pheromone traps and $100 cost for paid labor, $230 total – the numbers do not match up.  At current prices of 300Bs a quintal total earnings are just $214.  For a year’s worth of work, the farmer makes $16 per hectare of quinoa planted.  In the heart of the quinoa lands farmers are cultivating about 8 hectares each.  This is much less than the 15-20 hectacre plots being managed when quinoa prices provided a living wage.  At current planting rates, the total yield for the year is about $128, which in Bolivian currency is enough to sustain a family of 5 for about a month.  When I tell this to the buyers, they explain that farmers need to improve their yields which the buyers are working on helping the farmers to do.  However – the delicate lands of the quinoa region do not bode well with massive production – they quinoa is a heavy feeder, pulling vast amounts of minerals and nitrogen out of the earth.  These take time to replace.  So it is an evolving problem-solution story.

After eight years of ever more quinoa production and ever higher prices – increasing at a rate of 20% a year and hen plummeting in 2015 by 300% in just two months and staying at this low price level –  this is the first time, that issues of soil loss, unpaid expenses and economic instability have emerged.

But where is the research here?  I have piles of surveys, but the high school seniors who used to do the surveying for me are away on their two-month summer vacations.  I can visit quinoa communities for observation and to offer women’s workshops but the rains finally came but now the quinoa communities are left inaccessible as the slippery dirt roads that climb the vast mountain scape become impassable.  I can offer workshops in the (accessible) larger quinoa towns, but many farmers are not present as this is time for families to be together and many have left for the cities and abroad in search of better work.  In addition, my NGO counterparts have left as their organizations have moved onto other projects.  I have lost a lot of my infrastructure and backing – and am now here in towns with friends, stories and observations.  I feel lucky and lot at the same time.

I worry about my data.  My work is about the life of the women and I worry my friends are not representative of that, or that the few people I am having informal conversations with in passing – the woman on the bus, the indigenous leader in the plaza, the lady butcher – who are all women export quinoa farmers – are not a significant data base.  I don’t want my data to be anecdotal (not really accurate or measurable) and I also don’t want to be missing important data this is not being collected.

I want to do the study that was done before one again, but now the time has changed.  Do I plug away with my old research method anyway trying my hardest to get the surveys out myself, set up workshops on my own?  Or is there something different I can be doing instead?  Or is a hybrid of a bit of both – some surveys and workshops and more participant observation, informal interviews and modified workshops?  The clock is ticking.

My friends are sympathetic and trying to help out – they introduce me to a doctor that I can tag along with for a rural site visit and offer a workshop to women while he is checking baby weights, another engineer offers to take me to his town where there is a women’s group I can meet with and hold a workshop with.  But I already started with this type of research, working with Tito as he visited Fair Trade communities – spending a few hours in each one. And I feel that a few hours spent collecting data in a community creates more questions than answers and does not give me the deep understanding I need to properly interpret the data nor does not build the trust I feel when I’m with a community for several days.  It’s just numbers – not understanding.

I feel we are applying patches rather than a real, deep plan.  But I also feel I’m in an important place in that I do have these connections and understanding.  So the big question is quality versus quantity, the degree of bias from small sample sizes, how much to measure and what…

DAY 20 – Opinions and Perceptions versus facts.

DAY 20 – Opinions and Perceptions versus facts.

Bolivian meeting.

Bolivian meeting.

On day 16-18, I presented a compilation of different responses I received over the past months from a multitude of people working on different areas of food production in Bolivia.  This was done to create a perception of how and where the county is in general in its approach to a possible food crisis.  The is information was gleaned via informal interviews and casual conversations with many people.  Since it was not a direct part of my official research on the wellbeing of women quinoa growers, it was not conducted in a strict academic or journalistic setting with fact checks, researched, verifiable data, etc.  It was presented more as a mulling over – and perhaps something for more in-depth academic or journalistic research in the future. I did not publish the names of my informants nor quote them because our conversations were more informal.

As with any moment of casual conversation, there were some inconsistencies and generalizations in how some folks remembered or understood the current conditions here in Bolivia – the biggest one being the answer to the mystery: Where did all of the NGOs and foreign development programs in Bolivia go?  Contrary to popular belief that the Evo Administration kicked them all out (as was my personal experience working with the US Peace Corps when they were banned – and still are – from the country) – my friend, colleague and fellow Bolivian scholar, Linda Farthing, points out the decline was in fact largely the result of Bolivia’s recent positive economic growth which lifted it off the World Bank’s list of nations most in need of assistance.  Though some NGOs such as the Danish IBIS, and US USAID and Peace Corps programs were banned by Morales, many NGOs, explained Farthing, simply saw more need (and funding) for programs in Africa. So they closed their Bolivia programs to attend to other countries with lesser economic growth and greater need.

Interesting!  Big thanks to Linda for clarifying this.

I see the holes that these NGO programs once filled – though I also see community organizing and ownership filling them in as well.  It would be interested to learn more about the aftermath of development when progress calls and one’s poverty is no longer fashionable (nor fundable).   Ideas of self-determination and empowerment arise as one thinks of the cycle of dependency that charity can build. Good fodder for a future paper on the aftermath of development.

DAY 20 – Industrialized Organic Quinoa

DAY 20 – Industrialized Organic Quinoa

NOTE: This is a look back to a visit made earlier in December. I hope to visit this site again for an update before I leave in February.


Walking the recently machine-planted quinoa fields. The seeds normally germinate within three weeks – if there is ample rain.

Today we went with Paola Mejia Valdivia, the General Manager of CABOLQUI, the Bolivian Chamber of Quinoa Exporters, to visit an exciting new organic quinoa project they are working on with the Ayamaya community or La Paz.  CABOLQUI is a Bolivian non-profit that works to promote quinoa sales to the US and Europe and is also working to get Royal Quinoa recognized – with a Mark of Denomination of Origin  – as  having unique properties and characteristics, that come from the rare, fragile, volcanic soils it is grown in.

CABOLQUI  has high quality quinoa export members, most of whom have organic and ISO9001 certifications such as:

  • SIMSA a 78-year-old company that works with industrialized production and is a certified organic processor and distributor of Andean cereals for global markets. Their current quinoa products include quinoa flakes, quinoa flour, quinoa bars and puffed quinoa.
  • Quinoa Foods – A 14-year-old organic Royal Quinoa processor and wholesale and retail exporter founded by Juan Pablo Selene and featured in my previous quinoa research.
  • QuinoaBol – A small, regional quinoa processing and exporting company founded in 1998 by quinoa producer, Raul Veliz Mamani.
  • Irupana – One of my favorite socially responsible Bolivian business who has been producing organic products such as honey, granola, teas and cereals since 1985.
  • Coronilla – Another favorite of mine which for 30 years has been a pioneer in the development of certified organic, gluten free quinoa pasta and snacks. In 1996, I worked with them as an international marketing consultant with the Bolivian chamber of Small Industry.

Other members include organic food processor Andean Valley, organic Royal Quinoa promoter and advocate EIPEA (cabolqui), quinoa food processing innovator CITY and market developer, Comrural XXI.

Water tanks set up for spray irrigation on emerging crops.

Water tanks set up for spray irrigation on emerging crops.

CABOLQUI works to develop all members of the quinoa production chain promoting organic production, social and ecological responsibility and the development of small farmers.

The project we visited was an innovative model of large scale, 100% industrialized, organic quinoa production located two hours outside the city of La Paz towards the traditional quinoa growing zone of Oruro.  Spanning a massive (for Bolivia) 1,235 acres, it was developed under the new government title of “Plural Business.”   Plural Business was developed by the Minister of Productive Development and Plural Economy as a way for private businesses and farmers to work together in agriculture innovations.

Industrialized seed preparation and planting equipment.

Industrialized seed preparation and planting equipment.

After a competitive search with 19 communities applying to be a part of this new company, CABOLQUI, with funding from its members and private investors, chose to work with 196 families in Ayamaya, outside of SicaSica, La Paz.  The project requirements were that the land needed to be undeveloped, certifiable as organic, with a local water source (in this case a well), flat, connected, and with favorable soil and climate conditions.  According to Plural Business guidelines, individual farmers donate their lands for development and share in the production earnings 50/50 with the developers.  In turn the developers assume all costs and risk involved with the agricultural land development.

The Ayamaya project is a 12-year program, currently in its second year.  The first year was spent strategizing the project and developing the new machines and technology for it to work.  2016 was the first year the land had been plowed and planted.  Unfortunately it was also when an tremendous drought hit, upsetting the customary rain cycles needed for effective quinoa production.  Never-the-less about 70% of the quinoa planted 42 days ago in November, when two small rainfalls did take place, is growing and thriving.  Once germinated and about 3” high, quinoa needs very little water.  It is the germination process that is precarious in times of unpredictable rainfall.

70% germinated and growing - a 2 month old quinoa parcel doing well.

70% germinated and growing – a 2 month old quinoa parcel doing well.

We traveled with Paola, a petite highly organized director who checked on other projects – verifying distribution of organic pest control to hundreds of farmers producing for the members she served – as we traveled with her and agronomists Adalir and Oscar  to the site.  Raised in Bolivia and educated in the US, Paola specializes in accounting and management systems.  She explained the Plural Business program and patiently answered my slew of questions. After working with small farmers for so long, I was very curious about the idea of large scale organic industrialized production.

Upon arriving at the project site I felt I was in another world. A huge water tower and immense water tanks greeted me.  In the spirit of mechanization and innovation, the entire project is attended to by just 6 workers.  We observed that it had rained up to about 100 yards from the site entrance, though the site itself had received no rain.  No problem, two tractors provided sprayed water irrigation for the scores of 2.5 acre (1 ha) land parcels currently in production, at a rate of 321 gallons per acre, daily.  However with the drought, this seemed like it might not be enough.  With the planning season almost at an end and no rain in sight, agronomists decided to go ahead and plant a few dozen more parcels, hoping for rainfall, and experimenting with their irrigation methods.  Currently the spray did not seem to be penetrating the soil enough to promote germination, the agronomists and Paola were worried about what this would been for the project.

Moth capturing system with pheromones made in Europe.

Moth capturing system with pheromones made in Europe.

Seed planting was done in a way I had never imagined, and according to Paola, has never been undertaking by anyone else either.  A slurry of composted cow, sheep and llama manure was mixed in large industrial mixers with sand and water to create a highly nutritious muck.  Quinoa seeds were added to this and the entire mess encapsulated into golf ball sized seed capsules which would dissolve in the muddy soil, giving he pre-germinated quinoa an extra boost.  Unfortunately with the dryness, it was not known if the capsules would simply dry up and harden – trapping the sprouted seedlings.  The last planting had been done 5 days previously, with no rain in sight.  Traditionally, quinoa seeds could stay in dry soils for up to 3 weeks and still be viable when the rains came.  But it was unknown what an already sprouted seed would do in such drought conditions -Ayamaya’s current irrigation method was not set up to saturate the soils like rain does. Fingers crossed they get some rain!

We went on to examine the organic moth control system they had set up across the site.  This consisted of a 2-liter soda bottle bottom affixed to a plastic trap that consisted of a covered top, a pheromone plug made in a European laboratory, and a cross section that led male moths to a funnel and into he soda bottle bottom where they became trapped.  Traps were hung on metal wire hangers and placed at about 2 per every acre (4 per ha).  The cost $2.5 and were currently being distributed by PROIMPA, a Bolivia counterpart of mine and agronomy NGO.

After driving around the site a bit, we packed up and headed back to the city.  All a bit more quiet and pensive as the unknown consequences of the lack of rain fell heavily on the project developers.