Day 28- what happens when it just doesn’t work.  Asemblea de APROQUIRI

Day 28- what happens when it just doesn’t work.  Asemblea de APROQUIRI

Quinoa production, management and sales can be tricky.  Especially in rural communities with hundreds of families being members of a quinoa cooperative with no computer.  I was invited to present my research and continue my studies at the APROQUIRI Assembly, a bi-annual event where all quinoa grower members get together to review their sales, plans and new for the next six months.  I had been invited to Assemblies before and found it to be the perfect atmosphere to conduct my quinoa research.  This consists of a it on US markets created by my US college students studying quinoa markets in the US, plus a short 20 minute survey on well being of quinoa farmers and a 30 minute private discussion amongst the women about what vivir bien meant to them.  All in all, it would involve on hour of time and full cooperation of the quinoa community.

My appointment was set up 2 weeks in advance by Pedro from FAUTAPO with the APQUIRI president Martha Poma.  FAUTAPO had been helping APQUIRI start up a quinoa processing plant to expand the types of products they offered and build more economies.  I was to visit this as a potential part of a project I was forming for my students at Landmark College – focused on the direct sale of seed varieties and processed quinoa.  The day of my visit was fast approaching. I called to confirm and was told the date had changed to Tuesday instead of Monday.  No problems I shuffled thigs around on my scheduled and even found a ride out to Puqi the remote quinoa town where the meeting was being held – an hour away from where I was staying in Salinas, the capital of the quinoa producing lands.

Puqi is located at the edge of Salviaji a small mountain which was once was a high rolling pile of foaming, frothing lava and is now dry and hardened.  The hundreds of holes and mini caves left by the immense frozen froth are dotted with mummies and artifacts from the people who lived in the region thousands of years ago, explained the sub alcalde Mario to me.  The pre-inca people considered these caves to be sacred and special. They are still preserved that way.

Mario explained that Puki had 300 residents but out of that, 50 were permanent citizens, the rest come in from nearby cities and towns to plant quinoa, attend celebrations and meetings.  Puqi is the commercial center of the 15 other small quinoa communities nearby.  It has a regional high school and rural radio station.  Some quinoa fields had already been fertilized and flowed others were waiting – piles of llama and sheep manure heaped onto the fields, along with sacks of dried quinoa chafe from the ANAPQUI processing plant.  The chafe is used to put organic matter and saponins into the soil to help with forming plant nutrients and organic pest control.

I arrived at the meeting at 11am as planned and was heartily greeted by members.  Immediately I was given a space to talk.  There was no projector because the electricity was not working but I was prepared to present without my PowerPoint presentation anyway.  Martha briefly introduced me and I shared my quinoa market data – explaining how quinoa is now being produced in a mature market cycle meaning that these is no a lot of awareness of the product and competition.  The way to compete is by diversifying one’s product offering I explained – offering different quinoa varieties and quality that cannot be found or replicated elsewhere.

“This is how you secure your permanent piece of the market”, I explained, “by offering something that everyone wants, but no one else can make.”

One quinoa farmer was suspicious.“ You want to take our seeds to the US to grow the quinoa there,”  he grumbles.  “Like the people in Colorado did,” referring to an agriculture project started at the University Of Colorado in the 1980s.  I had heard this before.  I carefully explained to him that yes, quinoa is in the US, Canada, France and 75 other countries worldwide.  Countries now have their own varieties and seeds in production.  But none is like the quinoa found in the inter-salar altiplano, not can this inter-salar quinoa be replicated anywhere else because of the soils and conditions. This, I explained is he unique selling point that APROQUIRI can take advantage of.  I looked toward Martha for confirmation.  Usually at this point the organization leader will step forward to emphasize their agreement and trust with me, and clarify any confusion. But Martha was unresponsive.  More questions ensued which I answered, but I sensed that we were losing time and I had other things to present.  I asked Martha if we should move forward but there was no clear response.  I explained I had a survey which would help to capture people’s experiences and make their voices heard outside of the quinoa fields.  I explained he importance of numbers and not just words, and how these surveys are used to count the people and put emphasis on their words.  Martha suggested we hand out the surveys after lunch and do them then.

We broke for lunch but when we returned the meeting turned to accounting, bookkeeping, unpaid loans, faulty receipts, and unbalanced books from 8 years ago.  It was amess.  The community was at odds with each other.  A handful of male farmers dominated almost all conversation.  There had been almost 1.5 million Bs in sales that year or $214,000 total.  But from this there was 400,000Bs taken out for other costs which were not clearly defined, nor had clear receipts. This left 200,000Bs were out of balance on the books and the cooperative members wanted to know why.  The balance sheet was read to members by an ANAPQUI representative – slowly reading from a laptop computer.  No paper copy was provided to anyone.  APROQUI is a cooperative member of ANAPQUI, Bolivia’s largest and longest running quinoa cooperative.

APROQUI members started accusing others and past leaders of faulty bookkeeping and unpaid loans.  It was noted too that several salaried engineers had left their work saying it was too difficult to work with the APROQUI community. The community wanted more clarity on this and wanted hard working engineers who were well trained and knew their work.  Apparently, there had been a problem with the community expectations of the engineers.  The community wanted to choose their own engineers to pay.  ANAPQUI leadership were present and granted this to the APROQUI.  They also reminded APROPQUI that they had brought in a lotte (50 quintales) of red quinoa last year that was rejected because of the presence of pesticides.  Another lotte of red quinoa was requested by ANAPQUI but was never provided.  ANAPQUI reminded the farmers of the importance to work together, trust each other, and think of the markets and quinoa buyers which we do not want to lose.  Two young leaders were chosen to represent the community.

The conversation came back to the bookkeeping.  Finally, the head bookkeeper of APQUISA’s mulit-million dollar cooperative with international sales, Celia Acyne, who I had interviewed previously, was there and we had a good conversation together.  Eventually she led the meeting forward committing the people to moving forward in their current bookkeeping and conducting an audit, which ANAPQUI will help pay half the costs of, on the previous five years of disputes.  It was estimated the cost for a professional audit would be about 50,000Bs. It took two hours to get to this point.  The day was moving on, it was almost 3pm.

Coca was being passed about to keep people alert and alcohol sipped to bless the meeting, calm nerves, and keep things moving forward.  I was hoping to have a moment to continue with my study and start with data collection – especially since this was a region that had not been in my previous studies.  That never happened.  After bookkeeping came representation, votes, other news and concerns, the meeting dragged on, the sun set.  An associate requested that the village fix the electricity so they can complete the meeting.  After a few wire reconfigurations and light bulb changes, a single bulb was light up in the long, adobe and cement meeting hall. The meeting ended at 8pm with the promise of a laptop computer to Martha with a new Orion system of accounting software that training will be provided for.  This would help the group to be more organized in their accounting system and have the books clearly noted and data accessible to all.  Celia warned that going forward ANAPQUI would be more strict with its requirements from member cooperatives and urged the folks of APROQUI to pay more attention to their expenses and reporting.

I thought about my own town and if we ever had an occasion where so many different people, over 108 families from 17 different communities, would work together.  I thought of the local organic milk buying cooperatives. Perhaps they have large meetings like this.  But with technology we would have shared spreadsheets, open accounting information, an agenda already made and a meeting of maybe 2 hours with workshops and activities for the rest of the day.  I realized the difference technology made when working together in large groups and could not imagine how hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and transactions could be managed with disparate slips of paper a pen and an open ledger that gets filled our differently by each person each time.  ANAPQUI had acknowledge this too, and attributed it to growing pains that they were learning from and are quickly working to be a well connected, professionally driven, organization with the latest technology.

I also reflected on leadership.  The fact that Martha was the President of this large cooperative was a sign of social progress.  She also was not blamed for the organizations’ shortcomings but instead given tools to improve it going forward.  I thought of her passive leadership style and the fact that she lost the opportunity to have her communities counted in the quinoa study and also lost the chance to have her product presented in the US.  I realized there was more to being a leader than just being able to speak in front of people.  Being able to anticipate needs, and situations, plan out events in advance and manage the plan going forward, direct conversations and situations, clarify details, summarize and move on discussions, suggest ideas or end points, and direct content and timing were all important leadership skills.  I will keep these in mind as I teach my own students at Landmark College.