Archives for July 2018

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

At 8:30 Carlos and Miguel showed up to our Salinas hotel in a new Toyota Hilux to take us to AIPROCA’s monthly quinoa meeting in Capura, their rural quinoa community, a short 1 ½ hour drive away across dusty roads dotted with wild vicuna herds.  We had visited Capura in December 2016 for our Fair Trade quinoa research and it will be nice to see how things have progressed since then.  I remember Capura as being very organized, clean – a model quinoa town.  I asked the young men in their 20s if it was still like that and they agreed, smiling.  Miguel and Carlos are both from the large commercial town of Huari where the regional brewery is housed.  Carlos married into the community and is related through this marriage to Miguel.  He works as a carpenter in Oruro and Miguel is a taxi and private driver also in the large city of Oruro – 3 1/2 hours away.   They come to Capura for the monthly quinoa meetings and when any quinoa work needs to happen.  Otherwise the town is left under the care of just 2-3 families who stay there largely to take care of the llama herds.  There is a school and health post, but like most rural centers now, they ae no longer staffed or used because there is no need for them.  There is no one in the community of closed up homes.

AIPROCA is a large producer community with its 100+ members each cultivating about 15 hectacres of land under their Fair Trade, organic certifications – with a market value of about $30,000.  They are careful to follow the guidelines set by Fair Trade Europe and keep accurate records of investments into certified sprays, natural fertilizers, testing, and other projects such as recycling, greenhouse gardening, and erosion control. We were invited to a breakfast and lunch and shared a prepared powerpoint presentation with them explaining market cycles, sales chains, and consumer research my UMass and SIT students had completed in earlier semesters – as we examined the existence of markets for Certified Royal Quinoa and rare gourmet quinoa varieties.  The good news that came from my studies was that the Fair Trade price farmers wanted for their quinoa and were not getting, 800Bs per quintal ($0.51 a pound or a 30% increase over today’s certified Fair Trade organic prices) would result in the cost of a finished packaged box of quinoa raising from the current price of $7 at the Brattleboro Food Coop to $8.  Most consumers, remembering the days when quinoa cost upwards of $12 a pound, said they would gladly pay that if the product had a better nutritional value and quality (which it did).

I shared this “proof of market” study with the US distributors, wholesalers and importers in the quinoa market chain.  None were interested in pursuing the marketing of quinoa varieties yet – there were busy enough with marketing the quinoa they did have – computing with others for new market sectors and loyal customers.

The quinoa producers from Capura enjoyed the presentation – though there were shocked at the final price that their $0.29 quinoa was sold at – they understood more clearly how and why the prices rose as the grain moved down the marketing chain.  They also understood what a mature market was and how product differentiation and the development of different market sectors were important for them to maintain their market position.

AIPROCA sells through SINDAN a large Fair Trade, organic quinoa exporter to Europe.  They are not so tied in with the European markets and who the final clients are of their quinoa, SINDAN handles that for them. The producers of Capura focus on what they do best, working together to grow large amounts of clean, healthy quinoa.  When not in the quinoa fields, families like Miguel’s and Carlos’ live in Oruro or Cochabamba, preferring the opportunity, education and ease of living these places bring – over the beautiful though windswept and dusty isolation of Capura.

After we finished our presentations, surveys, workshops, took photos, had lunch and said our goodbyes, Carlos and Miguel took us to Challapata – 1 ½ hours away, to drop us off at the bus stop to Uyuni and leave us for the next part of our quinoa adventure.

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Sitting on the warm sunny patio of Hotel Suk’arani, Thunupa, Neives and I spoke over glasses of “refresco” a sweet, ground toasted wheat drink which needed stirring each time a sip was taken. Thunupa was named by his mother for the volcano which dominates the Salinas landscape and is the beloved mother of so many folk lore tales.  Both Thunupa and Nieves had graduated from the Salinas high school a few years apart from each other.  Each chose to marry, raise families, and live in Salinas while working in their ancestral quinoa fields, Nieves’ being to the north and Thunupa’s being in the south.  This is where their similarities ended.

Thunupa quietly followed in his families’ footsteps growing quinoa as they always had, though with the additional help of a tractor now and as a member of the local APROQUIR producer group. He had 2 hectacres in production since prices were so low and with light fumigation, produced about 20 quintales of finished quinoa per hectacre which provided a supplemental income for the family and a health food source for his children.  He invests about $12 in fumigation, using natural pesticides, and earns about $3,000 a year (before paying membership fees for his growing group) with his quinoa production.  This is enough to cover basic costs but not provide much for investment or savings. “It’s for maintenance, nothing more,” explained Thunupa, referencing his small quinoa earnings.

Nieves was a much more active producer.  Since a child she was enthralled with organic quinoa production and has always been interested in nutrition, organic eating, and organic production.  She is a member of PROQUIRCA, another Salinas quinoa group with an organic certification from IMO-Cert that costs 3,000Bs ($428) per hectacre to maintain.  Nieves grows her certified organic quinoa in the community of Chayuquota and plants it both inside and alongside a vast crater left by a meteorite thousands (maybe millions) of years ago.  I asked if the quality or characteristics of her quinoa changed whether it was planted inside or outside of the crater and she said it as the same.  I had thought perhaps some special space minerals left from the meteorite would favor the quinoa inside the crater!  She takes much care with her quinoa investing into prevention applying more expensive, certified organic insecticides almost bi-weekly in the early growing season of the quinoa.  She talks eagerly of the different quinoa varieties she plants, psaqalla for puffed quinoa, chilpi to make ground toasted quinoa with for beverages, and the pantela and toledo used in soups.  She also produces black quinoa toasted and used as a chocolate flavor.  Nieve’s certified organic quinoa fetches a 15% – 20% higher market price than Thunulpa’s non-certified production.  However, as many producers point out, the costs in money and time for organic production, do not cover the extra they earn in the market.  Never-the-less, they maintain their certifications anyway, largely because of the commitment they feel for producing heathy food and caring for the earth.

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Since 2015 I have been traveling to Salinas, the world quinoa capital and the site of some of the earliest evidence of cultivated quinoa, 5,000 years ago.  I’ve stayed at military bases and Quinao Research Centers and felt I knew the tiny town well, tucked into a corner of the high Bolivian altiplano, fed by fresh springs and guarded by the Thunulpa volcano to the south and the vast salt flats to the east.  However what a surprise I found when this time when I was invited to stay at Hotel Suk’arani, a combination of the Aymara worlds, Suka Rani,“always full.”  This gem of a hotel, which had been in Salinas for 10 years, was tucked away into the mountain skirts above the hospital where I had last held meetings with the women quinoa growers – under the leaking room of the unfinished emergency room.  I had never noticed the rustic hotel perched above the village offering amazing views of the volcano, quinoa fields and distant salt flats.

Enzo the hotel attendant and well-known tour guide was taking a year off from his hectic life conducting tours in La Paz and Uyuni to relax a bit in his own home town of Salinas, reconnect with the family, land and people, catch up on his own archeological research, and help to improve the tourism for Salinas.  A largely undiscovered gem from a tourism perspective, Salinas offers the quiet colonial town pace of life paced by the noon time ringing of the lone church bell, carefully placed by the Spanish in the adobe tower they built 500 years ago, and the 8am and 6pm honking of the bus horn signaling its departure to the city of Oruro, now just 4 hours away.  Other than that, the silence of the sturdy hills and vast flats is dotted with bird twitters, children’s laughter, the put-put of a motorcycle motor coming in from the neighboring countryside, and an occasional barking dog.

Salinas offers, besides a vast network of quinoa production and export – natural carbonated mineral waters which are said to be a cure for most any ailment, and a vast array of ruins from pre-inca civilizations.  Once called “The Machu Pichu of Bolivia” by the Peruvians, the largest of the ruins, Alcaya, was located a short 1 ½ hour walk away.  First I had meeting scheduled with Thunupa Garcia and Nieves Catari, two young quinoa growers in the region.  Later Enzo promised he would arrange for us to have a tour of Alcaya.  It was turning out to be a great day.

Hugo Lopez, a Bolivian folklore music professor at the city university and native of Salinas, built the hotel in 2006 as a way to invite guests to his hometown.  The hotel has native design features such as cactus wood doors and furniture, a round stone structure for its central rooms and tall, round thatched roofs.  Walls are made of adobe.  Floors are polished tropical woods.  Handmade art and woven tapestries add color to the muted tones of peach, sand and white walls.  My favorite feature was the array of handmade tables featuring glass overlaid boxes which housed a large array of local treasures such as pre-colonial ceramic pieces, hand knapped arrowheads and stone axes, minerals, and different types of quinoa seeds.    We were welcomed every morning to a smiling Enzo with hot coffee, yogurt, puffed quinoa and toasted bread.  He was a gracious host treating us to little snacks during the day and a hot tea at night before bed.   Used to roughing it on our own or staying with busy families, it was nice to be treated as such a special guest for a moment.

Day 5.  The European Fair Trade challenge.

Day 5.  The European Fair Trade challenge.

ANAPQUI, a member of European Fair Trade, is the oldest quinoa cooperative in Bolivia explained Celia Arcaine, the CEO of this multi-million dollar cooperative.  Managing 70 workers, 5,000 family farmers from the departments of Oruro and Potosi plus two processing plants is no easy feat, nor is it cheap.  Fair Trade Europe does not cover our costs, explains Arcaine.  The prices come from Peru, now the world’s largest quinoa producer, and the German Natural Products trade show where all orders are placed each year for all of Europe.  Fair Trade Europe needs to compete with other market forces to set a price the is as sellable and fair as possible.  “Today,” Arcaine said, “a ton of Fair Trade, organic quinoa is $2,200 – $2,400 FOB” (freight on board – this is to say at the time the shipment of quinoa leaves the port of origin for its export destination).

I think about this.  This is 15% less than it was a year ago – and even then, farmers were complaining the price did not offer them a “living wage” as Fair Trade guaranteed.  A previous study in mine in 2017 confirmed that $3,000 a ton FOB was a fair price.  This translates to a 800Bs a quintal price for organic quinoa farmers.  Today’s common market is at 570Bs. This gap has maintained itself since the extreme drop of quinoa prices in 2015, the year my study began.

Arcaine explains the extreme methods and special care the ANAPQUI takes with all of its production.  Besides having their own team of agricultural agents, they also give each member their own warehouse for their quinoa – locked with a ley and tag that can only be removed by the member itself.  When a sale comes that includes that member’s quinoa, they personally come to the plant to open their warehouse and submit their quinoa for final testing.  This way the quantity of their quinoa is always known up front to be 100% pure, organic and ready for market, explained Arcaine.

ANAPQUI owns and manages its own Fair Trade Europe certification and as a group chooses how to apply the premium they earn through their sales.  “Each year we rotate,” explains Arcaine.  “One year we favor the producer, another the region, and the then plant.”  She invited me to visit the new plant they had built in the El Alto industrial zone of La Paz, where they produce the highest quality gluten free, quinoa noodles and cookies.  This week is the annual assembly of the cooperative.  Leaders will come together to determine how the premium will be distributed, this time to the producers.  This year it is their turn, explained Arcaine proudly.

Arcaine spoke of her childhood in Salinas where she grew up as a quinoa farmers, growing quinoa and potatoes with her family for their own consumption.  Back then quinoa was easy to grow, no market pressures, and no insects, and animals eating it.  No droughts, dust storms or early frosts.  It was an easy time, she explained.  A hectacre of land easily produced 20 quintals of seed and the families consumed it themselves.  If it was sold, it was valued at a rate of two bags of quinoa for one bag of rice or sugar.  Arcaine explains how even today she continues to enjoy the traditional quinoa growing methods she learned as a child, working alongside her husband, in the Andean chachi-warmi style, to hand plant seeds; blessing them with a q’olla offering to the earth mother, Pachamama; nurturing them as they grow by decorating the fields with confetti, paper snakes and streamers during carnival; and hand cutting and collecting the robust, colorful seed heads for processing into quinoa.

Day 4. – What happens when US Fair Trade goes south?

Day 4. – What happens when US Fair Trade goes south?

US Fair Trade is managed largely by private import companies who contract out to farmers who together with the importers agree to follow predetermined guidelines of an adequate minimum trade price, good working conditions and a healthy production environment.  US Fair Trade in Bolivia is managed through Jisa, a quinoa buying and processing company owned by Andean Naturals in the US.

Today I talked with Eufraem Huyallas, the founder of APROCAY, a large quinoa association with 407 members who historically produced upwards of eight metric tonnes of quinoa a year valued at over $32,000.  We were in the city of Oruro, far from the Quillacas quinoa fields where I first met Huyallas in 2015.  For the past five years he explained, they worked with Jisa (once known as Andean Family farmers) as a Fair Trade producer.  They benefitted well he explained, receiving access to better natural pesticides, a mechanized processing plant, warehouse, and machines to make quinoa flakes and puffs.  All of this was purchased with the Fair Trade premiums they earned through their Fair Trade quinoa sales and investments made by the Association itself.

This year, that relationship ended.  As the quinoa market prices dropped so did Jisa’s sales from APROCAY plummeting from eight tonnes in 2015 to just two by 2017.  With fewer sales came less investment for future production.  Farmers for the first time since becoming Fair Trade members had to make personal investments into natural pest control and fertilizers.  Some members might not have purchased the highest quality products as before, explained  Huyallas, causing a container of quinoa to be returned in 2017 – at his own cost.  APROCAY’s quinoa did not pass Jisa’s strict organic standards in a laboratory test of random samples.  The second order came through OK but it turned out to be the final order from JISA.

“The returned my letter, (Fair Trade certificate)” explained Huyallas.  “Always they (Jisa) managed this and paid with our premiums and our money.” He continued.  He explained the certificate cost $4,000 a year to maintain not including the cost of maintaining the organic certification as well.  “I’m not a sales person,” lamented Huyallas.  “I produce quinoa.”   This year APROCAY will work with irrigation projects and will produce more quinoa.  However, they do not know where to sell it because the only (US) Fair Trade buyer is Jisa and Jisa is no longer giving them contracts.

Hyallaes ran through numbers talking about there much higher cost of producing quinoa according to Fair Trade organic standards including more expensive fertilizers, pest control and the added cost of certifications.  In all, he explained it would cost the farmers more than they could ever make back if they continued as an organic, Fair Trade producer group estimating that each farmer would lose about 50 to 70 Bs for each quintal produced (about a 12% loss).  He explained even with his past Fair Trade market access, the prices paid did not adequately cover production costs, though the premiums did help the strengthen the organization.

Now facing no Fair Trade market access at all and having to sell on the common market which he has had little interactions with for the past six years, Huyallas is considering dropping APROCAY’s Fair Trade and organic certifications.   “There is not enough to be made with organic certifications which cover the cost of that certification either,” explained Hyallaes.  Organic quinoa fetches a 10% higher market price than conventional quinoa and through organic certifications seem to cost about the same as Fair Trade ones, a 12% extra cost.

I asked what his next steps will now be since he does not have guaranteed access to the local markets.  He expressed interest in working more on his quinoa processing into puffs and flakes and selling quinoa as an ingredient for school breakfasts.

“Who knows?” he asks, turning to face me, “maybe we’ll end up producing onions.  If all goes well with the irrigation project we will be very good onion producers.”

Day 3: Living Well – a new paradigm for development

Day 3: Living Well – a new paradigm for development

Day 2: Tales of Resilience and Hope.

Day 2: Tales of Resilience and Hope.

As Bolivia falls in the global market of quinoa sellers, being outsold by massive quinoa producer, Peru and other countries developing their own internal quinoa production, it is losing control of pricing.  The costs to cultivate Bolivia’s single-season, hand grown quinoa are 20% higher than Peru’s highly mechanized 3-season growing method.  Yet Peru sets the market prices, and Bolivia, follows along, often at a loss.  This has eroded Bolivia’s once robust quinoa associations and cooperatives, development programs, and led to a massive migration out of the quinoa lands.  Now windswept and almost vacant communities house a handful of farmers who hold on and stay with the quinoa production.  Why do they do this is a question my research this time will be looking at.  Seeking tales of resilience and hope the theme of my research is “Why are you still here?”  I suspect answers will be of the sort, “I have no other option” or “God has put me here to do this.”  But it will be interesting to have the real words and reasons.  We will be filming interviews this time, hoping to make a move of tales of Resilience and Hope.

Famers now are interested in their own self development and want to generate direct sales of the quinoa the rest of the world cannot grow: the Royal Quinoa, the highest quality quinoa with a large, robust seed, cultivated and harvested with blessings and prayers, organic methods, and indigenous traditions.  Within this Royal Quinoa are varieties of quinoa that the world has not seen – Kaslala, Chiri Miri, and others.  Some while, some colored – but each with their own properties and uses.  As quinoa communities have invested in their own micro-processing quinoa equipment they are reaching out to me for marketing information about the US consumer.

Over the years my classroom studies conducted at UMass and the SIT Graduate Institute have examined quinoa marketing opportunities in the US.  They have determined that there is a demand for and interest in quinoa varieties and Royal Quinoa.  My students also fund that consumers will pay 20% more for this product as well, especially since quinoa prices have dropped so low in recent years and it is now a well-known product in the US.  This 20% is the difference between a dignified life or abject poverty for Bolivia’s most ancient quinoa farmers.

Day 1: After 3 years, now what is happening in the quinoa fields?

Day 1: After 3 years, now what is happening in the quinoa fields?

Sixteen months have passed since I was last in Bolivia as a Fulbright scholar studying the quinoa.    How has life changed in this region as prices remain low, outside competition grows and Bolivia once again seems to be falling behind and forgotten in world markets?  My life has changed. I now have a more permeant position as a Professor of Business and Economics at Landmark College – where we specialize in bright students with dyslexia, autism, ADHD and other social and communication challenges.  I no longer assume how information is shared and materials presented, instead, I am always thinking about access, scaffolding, and neurodiversity.  It slows things down and creates new challenges – especially as I teach in a project-based learning way.  In a way, I feel my world has turned upside down.  It seems hard to get the students engaged and participating in my quinoa work with it being so far away, different and as yet, undefined.  They have challenges navigating their own local environment.  So I come to Bolivia this time, feeling a bit alone.  There is no new market or economic analysis project for next semester.  Rather this has become just my story – which I feel compelled to share with the world in a book, a movie and perhaps a new quinoa business.