Day 32 – How Fair is Fair Trade?  The rumors, truth and all in between

Day 32 – How Fair is Fair Trade?  The rumors, truth and all in between

Here’s a question that came up my final days in the quinoa fields.  This always happens a great question comes just as I am finishing my work and I don’t really have time to study it.  The two primary Fair Trade USA producers in my study from Sau Sau and Quillacas, lost their contract with their US quinoa buyer Andean Family Famers this year.  According to my calculations they made up about 20% to 30% of the total Fair Trade quinoa sold by this company.  For my research I wanted to know who else was selling to Fair Trade USA so I could have a balanced representation of Fair Trade growers from both programs.

ANAPQUI and CECOAT are two large Fair Trade Europe organizations in my study whose members are in 9 different quinoa communities I have personally visited over the last three years, some more than once.  In addition, I visited 5 non-fair trade communities and plus non- quinoa real producers in the valleys of Anzaldo and the high plains of Poopo.  Having a diverse array of experiences and approaches to learn from creates a more balanced, meaningful study.  So it was important to get more of the Fair Trade US perspective.  After more questioning I was given data by Jacha Inti on the quantity of quinoa they sold at Fair Trade prices in 2017, 30 lottes.  I compared this to the groups they said they were working with.  Each group would have to produce an astronomical amount of quinoa, about 13,000 quintals each in order to meet the full amount of the 2017 Fair Trade orders.  It did not really make sense.

This is when long term development worker, agronomer and quinoa grower Ecebio Calani explained the process to me.  Farmers are in quinoa associations.  When in the association, depending on the type of association they can produce quinoa under strict organic certification and also fair trade ones.  But they also might have other quinoa they grow differently that is not a part of the association – that they have for their own use, their markets, for security, etc.  When an order comes through the association needs to reach out to its members and ask for quinoa to be brought in.  An association may have 100 members and an order for a full tonelada of certified organic quinoa may come in.  that’s 100 bags of quinoa.  A price is given and the member farmers who have the quinoa and want to sell it bring it over for the order.  Sometimes an organization might not have enough farmers responding.  It might be a bad time of the year or the price might be low.  In that case the association needs to look elsewhere for its quinoa – usually in the markets of Challapata.  This is where the contaminated quinoa can come in and even some non- fair trade quinoa too.  The cooperatives take a risk when they buy quinoa from the common market to complete their orders – and that is hoy recently so many certified organic cooperatives have been having their quinoa shipments returned.  They failed the laboratory analysis for pesticide residues., explained Ecebio.

I contacted Jacha Inti and they said they had no Fair Trade quinoa orders for 2018 so far. I thought this was interesting since there is plenty of Fair Trade quinoa on store shelves in the US from customers for purchase quinoa wholesale from Jacha Inti as a US importer, Andean Naturals.  Plus Andean Naturals are the only Fair Trade USA Bolivian quinoa suppliers I know of in the US.

When I asked, how fair trade quinoa can be on sale in t US store shelves without any being purchased in Bolivia, I was told that maybe they had back stock on the product that they were still selling.  Maybe.

It made me wonder though, if a company is buying both Fair Trae and non Fair Trade quinoa and the only difference is the price paid, and they sell both fair trade and non fair trade quinoa products to the public, who’s to verify that the products are not being mixed?  This is a question I began asking Fair Trade leaders here in Bolivia but they had no response for the controls would have to come from Europe or the US they explained.  These questions I will continue to pursue in the US.

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.

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 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 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value

DAY 42 – Creating a real Fair Trade value


Breads made with kaslala quinoa.

Looking at the quinoa market from the producer perspective, the Fair Trade producer earns 4% of the total value of the quinoa they produce.  Producers however, consistently say this is not enough.  To cover production costs including their own labor, they need to earn 800Bs a quintal ($114 for 220 pounds) or $.51 a pound.  Plugging this amount into the current quinoa production costs it brings us to a FOB of $2,778 per ton.  This is 6% more than the current Fair Trade price.  To continue down the value chain through distribution to wholesale re-packagers down to consumer retailers, the final product arrives at a consumer price of $8.12 a pound – a 12% increase over the current Fair Trade, organic quinoa price.

Org quin variety pie

The proposed pricing for a pound of premium, heritage variety gourmet organic quinoa sold to consumers for $8.12 a pound and providing a living wage for farmers.

My UMass students conducted a market study of organic Bolivian Quinoa Real with the Mark of Original and found consumers willing to pay up to 25% more for a premium quinoa product that has higher nutritional values and cultural connections.  The Bolivian Quinoa Real is hand processed and 87% is blessed – both at planting and harvest – for the earth mother (Pachamama) to bring forth abundance, love and compassion for the farmers and the grain itself.

Being here in the Quinoa Real fields, I am noting that amongst the standard red, white and black varieties of Quinoa Real, there are many eco-types and sub-varieties with distinct properties and culinary uses which US consumers would value.  Some like the white Kaslala are great for bread making and baking while others like the white Toledo cook quickly.  Currently these are mixed and sold simply as “white quinoa” at low market prices.  From a marketing perspective, it appears there exists a unique, profitable, premium market for the rare, distinct varieties of Quinoa Real that Bolivian farmers carefully plant and harvest, but get mixed together in the general export sales of quinoa by color.  It seems that consumers are ready for the option – the challenge is to create the new market space and investment for this.

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 10: Capura – a model Fair Trade quinoa town.

DAY 10: Capura – a model Fair Trade quinoa town.

Spotless streets of Capura.

Spotless streets of Capura.

Legend has it that back in colonial times there was a tremendous rain storm.  In this storm, two brothers living in Salinas Garcia de Mendoza – the illustration town on the edge of the salt flats under the towering slopes of the Tunupa volcano – were suddenly washed away far across the salt flats and the sandy plains, carried miles away by the immense torrent of water.  The place where they finally landed became known as Capura, a tiny town dominated by “Garcias” (as a last name) and having distant ties back to Salinas.

Approaching Capura across the sandy windswept volcanic plains where Royal Quinoa reigns, we drive in a well-equipped private SUV (this time a Toyota Helix with leather sets that have video screens and phone chargers built into the backs of the headrests) along the now all too familiar bumpy dirt tracks, nameless as they zig zag for miles across the vast plains, blending into the horizon, tan upon tan.  The dull, flat taste of dust is in my mouth as we eagerly scan the endless horizon for signs of emus, a pest because they eat the quinoa but still rare enough to be of interest if they are seen.

Quinoa fields - only some plants are germinating due to extreme drought conditions.

Quinoa fields – only some plants are germinating due to extreme drought conditions.

Eric, our driver and the son of a quinoa farmer, is about to enter into a private college in Oruro to begin his studies in Economics.  Meanwhile, he helps his family with the quinoa when he can.  Like most folks of Capura, Erik lives an hour away in the large town of Challapata – where there are seven high schools.  Capura has none.

We are continuing our travels with agronomist, Tito Mendoza, Bolivia’s technical advisor for CLAC – the small farmers arm of the Fair Trade in Germany.  We are meeting with AIPROCA, a 4 year old Fair Trade, organic quinoa producing association, this year led by Gregorio Garcia.  With just 41 members, AIPROCA is certainly considered a small producer group.  Tito was in Capura to review the upcoming FLO audit which would determine whether or not the group could keep their Fair Trade status.  The three things they had to be the most astute about, explained Tito, were proving: democratic participation, transparency in all administrative costs and proper payment for goods.

The road from Challapata to Capura....

The road from Challapata to Capura….

Tito was also going over their use of the social development funds which come as a premium paid above the price for the quinoa produced.  Last year AIPROCA amassed $181,303 in social premium funds for the 697,000 tons of quinoa they had hand harvested and sold.  Tito seemed confused, he asked if the funds were in dollars or Bolivianos.  “Dollars,” the group assured.  He also repeated the amount of quinoa they said they had sold – they assured him that was correct.  That’s 17,000 tons of quinoa per family.  This seems strange since Capura families seemed to have an average of 20-15 hectacres planted in rotation each year.  Each hectare yields at best about 1.3 tons.  This totals to about 1,066 tons of quinoa total for the community.

Tito took some time to explain the difference between a small producer and a small enterprise.  Buying quinoa from others for export sale, he explained was a business (small enterprise) which was not covered under Fair Trade rules.  This was largely because there was no guarantee that the quinoa bought from others was actually organic or produced under Fair Trade guidelines which also included protection of the natural environment, equal gender representation and a commitment to minimal child labor.  Growing one’s own quinoa, assured Tito, was Fair Trade – assuming guidelines were followed.


Cream of quinoa soup – delicious!

Capura has about 30 residents – people who live there full time.  The rest, like Erik were weekend visitors or less.  Many lived in Challapata though others lived in Cochabamba, 12 hours away or Oruro – a bit closer.  They grew quinoa for export sale, though before the quinoa boom, they just grew it for themselves.  They raised llamas for their own consumption and local meat sales, owning herds of 30-40 animals each which wandered freely across the vast plains, coming in at night at the sound of a whistle. And they grew potatoes – another favorite food in the Andes – for their own use.

One young woman, Sonia, has just returned from Colombia the day before.  Her high school woman’s soccer team in Challapata was #1 in the country.  They were invited to fly to Colombia to represent Bolivia in the South American women’s high school soccer play offs.  She said she was one the smallest women there – never-the-less, the team played well but lost anyway.

The community was well organized with their funds usage and had excel spreadsheets documenting purchases and investments. Some of these, over time, included the building of a basic quinoa processing and sorting plant, (not for professional export, but for adequate cleanliness to be accepted as export quality grain for wholesale purchase), the building of tiny 2-room homes, public bathrooms and water systems, the placement of tanks and cisterns for water storage, the creation of a garbage collection and recycling system, building of a basketball court, and the distribution of large food baskets to all association members for the holidays.  For certification, all community members had to know the projects, their approximate costs and the outcome of them (well made, well used, etc.).

While some community members were professionals and professors, others were not.  Tito gave a basic accounting lesson and broke the group up into 3 teams to review the total projects done for the year.  The groups made a chart for each line item assigned to them and determined the costs, investment and outcome.  These were then shared with the larger group and saved to be hung on the walls of the main assembly building for future reference.  The AIPROCA administration was charged with putting the new data into a spread sheet to provide to the auditors.

Not everything was peachy keen at AIPROCA.  The women whispered to me that they had no say in the projects developed and the men, they said, spent too much money on what they did.  The one woman who was part of the five-member directorship at AIPROCA was in the kitchen cooking for most of the meeting, missing all that was gone over.  I publically noted this and though some men ducked out from the meeting upon hearing this, perhaps to invite her back to the meting – she still did not appear in the meeting.  I was looking forward to delving deeper into this in the women’s meeting on sustainability coming up next.


Women of Capura

Women of Capura

However to my surprise, the 20+ women I worked with in the women’s meeting, had nothing more to say about this incident or their lack of representation in AIPROCA decisions.  Instead they focused on the current drought and its impact on their quinoa production, which was slated to be at about 50% of last year’s production.


I regretted having such a short time in the town – a few hours and none else.  And was thankful that my research going forward was for the customary 5-7 day long visits which really enabled me to more deeply connect with the women and better understand their world.

DAY 8: The cost of Fair Trade

DAY 8: The cost of Fair Trade

Tia - quinoa farmer from Bella Vista.

Tia – quinoa farmer from Bella Vista.

There are a few requirements for a quinoa producer group to become a Fair Trade group – they need to be organized, registered, have a leader and regular meetings.    According to Tito, to apply there is a refundable $538 processing fee that covers a site visit, and determination if the group meets the Fair Trade criteria.  If not, the funds are returned.  If they pass the review than they are now part of the Fairtrade CLAC international network – with headquarters in Germany.  This now gives them greater market access and more transparency and price protection.

Belle Vista farmers learn about how they can join Fair Trade and what the cost, earnings and benefits are.

Belle Vista farmers learn about how they can join Fair Trade and what the cost, earnings and benefits are.

The FOB Fairtrade price for conventional quinoa is $2,250a ton (or $247.50 per quintal).  The FOB Fairtrade price for conventional quinoa is $2,600a ton (or $286 per quintal).    In addition there is a $260 per ton Fair Trade premium of which producers receive 30% or $78.

It is interesting to note, that according to their December 18, 2016 Alibaba listing, Auster Foods, a small, non-fair trade company specializing in gluten free ingredients, is selling Royal Quinoa from the US at these same prices ($2,200 – $2,300).

FOB means “free on board” which means it is the price of the product the moment it gets onto the ship to be delivered to its final destination.  In this case for quinoa it would be the combined price paid to the farmer, the transportation to the processing plant – often 10 hours away in La Paz, processing and packaging fees, documentation and transportation to the port of departure – usually Arica, Chile a full day’s drive.  These prices vary depending on who the producers are working with and how much of the work they are doing themselves.  Currently the price most certified Fair Trade organic producers are earning, according to Jose Santacruz of Jacha Inti, is 400Bs a quintal ($57.14), or $571.40 a ton or 26% of the FOB Fair Trade price.

Quino cookies made in Challpatata for the holiday season.

Quinoa cookies made in Challpatata for the holiday season.

Though it seems little of the Fairtrade price gets to the farmers, they are still earning 22% more than the non-fairtrade market prices (310Bs or $44).

Once accepted in as a Fair Trade group, there is a $1,356 annual audit fee which is based on the number of people in the organization, in the case of APROGUILGA, there are 30 members.

To understand the scale of commercial export quinoa production, farmer groups work with 20 ton lots – of which they ship 22 tons of product to the processing plant (about 10% is lost in sorting).  The total value of these lots to the farmers is $11,428 (with a FOB of $44,000).  These quantities are stored and shipped throughout the year.  The farmers at Belle Vista, the 1,500 member community we visited today with 30 members in their producer group – store about 60 quintals each of quinoa in their homes – just enough for a lot.

Capura farmers review their Fair trade costa, investments and earnings.

Capura farmers review their Fair trade costs, investments and earnings.

So the questions the community has to answer is if it is worth it to invest all of their quinoa into the FairTrade program to earn $11,428 (approximately $380 each – enough to sustain rural family for about three months) plus the FairTrade premium which is worth about $1,560 – minus their $1,356 audit fee – leaving them with $204 for a community project.  The other option would be to keep their quinoa as a “savings account” slowly selling it as cash as needed in the common market of Challapata – a potential loss of $88* per family plus no community funds.

Though Fairtrade is certainly bringing some advantage to farmers, there is the difference in cost of production and earned income to take into account.  Farmers estimate their productions costs to be 750Bs per quintal ($107).  This means there is a $50 loss for every quintal sold and a FOB ton of fair trade quinoa still represents a $500 loss for farmers.  For farmers to make a 6% earnings on their quinoa, an amount they consider to be dignified wage for themselves – they need to make 800Bs per quintal ($114).

So for Fairtrade quinoa to really be fair at current prices, the FOB price needs to be around $2,800 a ton, an 18% increase, to be fully fair.

*formula: ($11,428 – $8,800)/30

Day 22 – Meet APQUISA – A Fair Trade, organic, producer-run association.

Day 22 – Meet APQUISA – A Fair Trade, organic, producer-run association.

APQUISA main offices and processing plant in Salinas with the Tunupa volcano and salt flats in the background.

APQUISA main offices and processing plant in Salinas with the Tunupa volcano and salt flats in the background.

The Association of Producers of Salinas Quinoa (APQUISA), was founded in 2007 under the new laws of Bolivia that encouraged producer-formed groups and grass roots development. As a legally recognized association, APQUISA was able to access technical assistance from agronomists at state universities, organic certification from Bolicert, a state-run organic certifier whose certification is internationally recognized, and solicit the Federal government to build a quinoa processing plant in the town of Salinas. This gave the now 372 members just enough support to successfully enter into the export quinoa market and independently develop their own international markets.

APQUISA is run by a five-member board of directors made up of association members; a president, vice president, communicator, secretary and treasurer. The board is democratically elected by closed ballot system every three years. A secondary Vigilance Committee is made up of an elected president and secretary. They work independent from the Board and oversee all the board does providing full transparency for Association members. Each year an Assembly is held where all members attend and at least an entire day is spent going over all accounts: sales, expenses, buying prices, sales prices, marketing, promotions, information systems, equipment, salaries and also procedures, needs and successes.

APQUISA supports members by providing the infrastructure needed for successful export sales. They keep track of how much land each member has in production, their member codes, registration, the variety and quantity of quinoa produced, their location and maintain both Fair Trade and organic certification records. There are on average once monthly workshops where Franz Quispe, the APQUISA staff agronomic travels to the 54 neighboring communities providing technical assistance to the promoters, elected members of the association who live in each community and in charge of sharing the information or organic growing techniques that Franz provides. Themes often covered in these workshops include the initial cleaning of the grain, washing, drying, classifying, final cleaning techniques, packaging and pricing, plus soil management and organic pest control. Members produce mostly white quinoa but also black and red quinoa.

Salinas`quinoa fields waiting to be tilled next month.

Salinas`quinoa fields waiting to be tilled next month.

APQUISA covers two zones, the south that mostly works with quinoa production and the north which works mainly with llama production. The two compliment each other as the llama manure is a key element for soil management and fertilization for the organic farmers. During the day llamas run free range on the altiplano plains and mountainsides and at night are corralled so their dung can be collected and they are protected from the cold and predators. Llamas always use the same space to defecate so it is easy to collect. Their manure sells for $200 a metric ton and their meat, promoted by the Bolivian government for its high protein, low fat content, has a large market appeal too. (price of llama meat). Franz explains, the average quinoa farmer will purchase 40 tons of llama manure a year, a value of $8,000 and a good income source for llama farmers. This market for llama dung new and arrived with the national organic certification program and law of organic production.

A truck of organic llama manure. The producer wanted 2000Bs for the manure ($285) which local farmers said was too high. They said they would pay about 1500Bs or less ($214).

A truck of organic llama manure. The producer wanted 2000Bs for the manure ($285) which local farmers said was too high. They said they would pay about 1500Bs or less ($214).

APQUISA also maintains a Fair trade Certification form the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) a European based, internationally recognized Fair Trade certifier. To qualify as a Fair Trade producer, there needs to be a democratic process, a formed association, representation from all members, transparency in payments all the way to the level of the peones, and proper care of the land and communities. On their part, FLO helps to provide steady market access through direct sales to end buyer, a secure market price and gives producers a Social Premium Fund which amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. At the annual Assembly, members vote on how these funds will be used, usually opting to invest them into equipment, and to offset costs of technical assistance, administration, and materials.

APQUISPA is growing at an average rate of 12% a year with about 40 new members entering the organization and three to four leaving. To become a member one has to write a letter of request to the Directors noting their capabilities, good work and qualifications to be in he organization. The Directors then vote on who will be permitted to enter.. If the person has a good reputation, is a good community member, honest and careful farmer, then at the cost of a quintal of quinoa, paid in quinoa, they are elected into the organization.

Farmers leave APQUISA because they want to sell in other markets or they do not agree with the methods or decisions of APQUISA. Once someone is an APQUISA member, they promise to deliver a certain amount of quinoa to the association each year. These promised amounts are what the association uses to secure markets and contracts for its production each year. It is expected that they keep that promise and do not sell to other organizations instead. Most farmers do not commit all of their quinoa harvest to AQPUISA, instead keeping a smaller percentage for themselves and occasionally, for sale in local markets.

The APQUISA buying price today is 900Bs a quintal while the local market price is just 500Bs a quintal and private organic export buyers, such as Quinoa Foods Company, are paying 650 a quintal. In Bolivia the Boliviano, local currency, is equivalent in local buying power to the value of 1 US$ dollar. So its’ really in the grower’s own interest to sell as much quinoa as they can to APQUISA.

While APQUISA buys quinoa at $285 a ton, they sell it at $1,400 a ton. The costs in this mark-up includes transportation, salaries, taxes (which are sometimes as high as 25% of all export value), water, energy, infrastructure, administration, and a minimal amount of savings. All of this is reviewed and approved by members at the annual Assembly. (Note: find out annual export amounts, sales, social premium, etc. and who the markets are, and how they are contacted.)