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

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

Entel in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quinoa testing at Jacha Inti

Quinoa testing at Jacha Inti

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

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

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

Day 25 – Making decisions within a Bolivia Association

Day 25 – Making decisions within a Bolivia Association

When I met with Juan Pablo of Quinoa Foods Company, in La Paz, one of the things he mentioned was his amazement that there were so many fully functioning, export quality, quinoa processing plants in the countryside that were a gift to the people from President Evo Morales almost nine years ago, and almost none are functioning.

PPQS processing plant, closed and no longer functioning.  WIll it re-open or be sold?

PPQS processing plant, closed and no longer functioning. WIll it re-open or be sold?

One of these non-functioning plants is in Salinas, on the outskirts of this tiny town. Once it was a fully functioning plant with its own generator (there was no electricity in Salinas at the time), four machines to remove the outer seed cover (trilladora), an industrial washing and drying machine, plenty of water, even a seed popper to make quinoa puffs, clean dry storage and a truck to transport the product in. Run by the 120+ members of the Quinoa Processing Plant of Salinas (PPQS), operations came to a grinding halt five or six years ago after a series of mismanagement, lost funds, poor book keeping and possible corruption.

            Today members of PPQS, all of whom are quinoa farmers and most now members of APQUISA, met to once again try to get an agreement as to the future of the plant. They sat in plastic lawn chairs assembled in rows in the storeroom of the APISQA quinoa association they were also members of. Coca was distributed to all. Some people wanted APQUISA to take over the older plant, others wanted to re-open it themselves. The problem was that the years left unattended caused the machinery to rust, disintegrate, rubber to dry out, and some machines to become unusable. There was also a buyer who wanted to pay $3,500 each for two of the trilladoras.   The people needed to make a decision: liquidate or re-open.

            The meeting originally scheduled for 10am in the middle of the four-day-long town festival, had to be re-scheduled until 12:30 so members could wake-up and be ready enough to attend. A majority plus one was needed to make a decision. In the careful manner of Bolivian democracy, the bylaws were often referenced in determining which step to take when. First PPQS president, Jaime Charcas went into a long history of past taxes that were due on he plant dating back to 2007 and amounting to about 5,500Bs (remember, 1Bs is the equivalent buying power of $1 in the US so this was quite a substantial amount of money due.) Then it seemed 592Bs of overtaxes had been returned another year but there was no record of it. Charcas had traveled several times to the city of Oruro, four hours away, to resolve this but with no luck. The paperwork was a mess, forms incomplete, data missing, and no one could figure out what to do about it, neither lawyers, nor accountants, nor the tax collectors. Over the years, said Charcas, it seems a total of 20,000Bs had been spent in one way or another to get a clear audit, history and assessment of the plant, all to no avail. (I think this might have been an exaggeration but the people did not protest the amount so maybe it was accurate). Chacas estimated it would take at least 100,000Bs to open the plant again, if that was even possible. Liquidating the plant now while there was a buyer and before the machinery got even worse, seemed like a good idea.

            However decisions in Bolivia take time to make, and what seems like a simple, straight forward solution usually is not. Older men made long speeches about the glory days of the operating of the plant, the money that flowed through it and the richness that it brought to all. They blamed the farmers for not staying with the plant and bringing their grain elsewhere for processing; for not working their required hours as a member; and for finally, without any quinoa to sell anymore, causing the plant to be abandoned. Or was it? The old timers wanted the members to raise up and open the plant up again.

            “You can do it!” they said. The response was silence.

            Several other members remembered a large cache of processed quinoa being left in the plant unsold. Four hundred bags. “Where was it now?” they asked. Their quinoa was theirs and they had never been paid for it. $100 a bag was owed to them and they had many bags there. However there was no paperwork of this, no receipts and no books acknowledging it. But there was a memory of it.

            Then there was the issue of the $25,000 loan that might have been received and paid back, or not. And might have been distributed amongst many members, some of whom had paid part of their amount owed and others who did not, however the paperwork on that was missing too. No one really knew.

            “Forget abut the past, think of the future,” said one member. “Lets start fresh and do this right. Sell what’s left, split the earnings and move ahead.” Most folks seemed to like this idea.     

            Whew, after an hour of discussion it seems the members came to a good decision. I picked up my things preparing to leave.

            “Where are you going?” Leonida Mamani, a PPQS member whispered to me.

            “I’m leaving,” I said, “they made their decision.”

            “Wait,” she said. “This is just the beginning, we still need to have a vote. People are not done talking yet.”

            I asked her how long she thought the meeting would run and she said at least another three or four more hours. Oh. My heart sank. But then I remembered I was doing important ethnographic research and was glad to be present to witness Bolivian democracy and decision making and settled back down.

            Sure enough more people wanted to speak. Some said it would cost $350,000 to get the plant running again, others reiterated the wrongs of the past naming people who were suspect in taking money or computers from the project, others talked of next steps to take to operate the plant well in the future, others bemoaned that the group did not recognize the good fortune of having a buyer for the machines now, others felt that selling the machines would create new competition for the group, and on and on it went. Some folks left to get fresh air and warm up, it was cold sitting in the storeroom for hours on end. Others dozed. Though the women tended to gather around the back of the room and outside the door where it was warmer in the sun, they stayed engaged in the meeting and spoke up when they felt it was necessary. The men seemed to accept their ideas, which were mostly about the lost quinoa or being in support of the liquidation and sale of the plant.

            Three hours passed. Just when it seemed things were coming to a vote, paperwork was suddenly presented by members who had been in the meeting since the start. An audit from 2007-2010 was produced with a recommendation by the auditor that the plant get liquefied because the books were a mess, it was completely inoperable and irresolvable. Then an inventory from an unknown period of time appeared. And finally, a written account from the first president’s son – documents he said his bedridden father gave him in La Paz 12 hours away to bring to the meeting and clear his name. Exasperated, the president asked why these documents were not presented before the meeting.

            The bylaws were consulted again and it was decided that a new meeting would have to be scheduled so members would have time to go over the documents. The buyer would have to wait. In a few weeks the people would meet again and hopefully come to a vote. All seemed satisfied with the outcome, though the next day I heard quite a bit of mumbling, name calling, and finger pointing from different people. In my surveys, a lot of people said they did not trust their neighbors. This behind-the-back name calling seems to confirm why.

            And thus is the participatory democracy of Bolivia and a partial answer to Juan Pablo’s question as to why the plants were no longer operating.