DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

DAY 44 – What the quinoa women say

dona miguelena

Lluvica highlands quinoa farmer, Miguelina in her fields overlooking the salt flats.

After weeks of trekking through the high salt flat plains, volcanic perimeters and mountain corridors, visiting over a dozen remote quinoa communities – Puerto Lluvica, Lluvica, Santiago, Belle Vista, Otuyo, Quillacas, San Juan, Capura and more – I have captured the hopes, dream and fears of the women, and some men, of these communities.  “What is sustainability for a woman quinoa farmer?” is the question all were asked.  In 90 minute meetings in stark, crumbling adobe town meeting halls with creaky, oiled, wooden floors, we would mull over this – under the light of a few florescent bulbs tacked up to the ceilings made of sewn flour sacks.  Often at 8 or 9 at night, once the women had returned from the quinoa fields, cooked dinner, attended to their children and finally had a moment to spare to meet a foreigner from the US, who had actually travelled all the way to her community and was interested in learning about her well-being and listening to her voice.


Me, the author, interviewing a quinoa farmer from San Juan.

Most times, I would be introduced to the elected town authority by the woman member of a quinoa growers’ cooperative or association who took me under her wing, let me stay with her family, visit and work in her fields, cook and eat her food, ask a million questions and get to know the community better.

I would offer the community an interactive workshop and the elected town crier would ring the church bell in the community, letting the people know there was a meeting.  Women would arrive from the dark street wrapped in shawls and ponchos, long layered skirts and thick stockings.  Even though it was the Andean summer, nighttime temperatures would drop into the 50 and 40s and our drafty meeting houses did not have heat.

The meetings began with participants in a semi-circle facing the wall where I had a large sheet of paper tacked up with my name, cell phone number, e-mail and the title of the workshop.  Transparency was important and giving out one’s cell phone number is like offering a handshake here.  I would be presented to the group by the village official and would then further introduce myself as a US professor of Solidarity Economy, a concept well known in South America, that refers to an economy of working together in a mutually beneficial way for all.  (There are a handful of “solidarity economists” in the US, mostly lumped under the title of “radical economists” and teaching in areas such as environmental economics and political economy).

quinoa family

Felix and his family take a break from hand hoeing their highland quinoa fields in Lluvica.

In the Andean tradition, I would then invite the participants to a snack – this time it was a Kind bar, made by a New York company who prides themselves on using visible ingredients so participants could see the tiny puffed quinoas that were part of the chocolate-honey-oatmeal-millet bar.  It was interesting for them to experience how others use their quinoa and all loved the sweet, chewy bars.

We then launched into a group discussion of what was sustainability to them.  I would start by drawing a wiggly line on a piece of paper signifying the earth, to give them a starting point. Then little by little other details would be added: rain, money, quinoa, llamas, manure, people – usually in that order.  I would draw and label each item as they mentioned it – learning from my friend Tito Medrano from the Fair Trade NGO, that people responded better to drawings than written words which they were unaccustomed to using.  After about 20 minutes of open conversation, I would put a positive and a negative sign in a space I had left open on the paper, dividing that section in half, and introduce the Talking Stick – a native American way of inviting all people to speak equally about a topic.  In the Andean tradition, things are talked about in balance – there is always a positive and negative to each situation and this is valued in conversation.  The participants would take turns holding the stick (passed from left to right) and adding their own ideas or re-enforcing other ideas already presented, about what they saw as the positive and negative aspects of their own sustainability and quinoa production.  The talking stick helped to even out the opening conversation which was usually dominated by a few people, and bring out the more quiet people, often the oldest and youngest women, to talk.  As things were repeated, I would put a check next to the item.  As new things were mentioned, they were added to the picture and the -/+ part of the paper.  Often jokes would be made and there would be a serious, but also playful, tone to the meeting.  By the end of the workshop, we had a pretty good idea of the needs, fears, and hopes of the people in that community.  Participants reported they enjoyed that moment to reflect together over who they were and where they were in their own lives and that of the community.  I would leave the posters hung up for people to reference later, taking a photo for my own records.

temas comunas

What quinoa farmers need for sustainable living.

What emerged was something unique and universal at once.  While each community had their own interpretation of sustainability, after six meetings with almost 100 people, 60% who were women, common themes began to emerge with varying degrees of urgency and need. The following is a quantified presentation of the six most popular themes and the negative-positive aspects of them.  The numbers represent the number of times the theme was mentioned by meeting participants.

pos-neg temas

The negative-posititve contrasts to each theme.

The most important theme was the climate.  With climate change making farming more risky and unpredictable with early frosts, sudden hail, torrential downpours and long droughts, farmers no longer could predict harvests or calculate optimal planting times like before.  After years of drought, which just ended with abundant rains this January, landscapes had changed – there was not as much forage for the llamas and wild vicunas and delicate topsoils were being carried away in the winds.  The positive aspect of the climate was the rain which had arrived and the ability to grow quinoa though the negative was the unpredictable weather which could wipe out an entire crop of quinoa.

After climate came the people.  People were pleased to be working together as an entire family in the quinoa soil prep, planting and harvest.  Many children were home from college and visiting from Chile where families had migrated in search of better work – helping with the quinoa and llamas.  However there was a lot of recognition that the Bolivian quinoa was largely hand grown in small quantities with the utmost care and quality, the earth and seeds were blessed before planting and for the harvest.  This took a lot of work.  Weeks are spent in the acres of fields hand hoeing weeds and hilling up fallen quinoa stalks, hand picking off worms, turning over soils, cutting and drying the large seed heads – one head at a time, separating the seeds from the stalks, cleaning out stones, loosening the chafe.  Women had the extra work of cooking and child care on top of this.  For the Bolivian kitchen, there was also a lot of processing of the quinoa at home.  The seeds needed to be toasted and the chafe removed by sifting it in the wind, then the seed was washed several times – often toasted again for pisaga or hand ground into pito – where it was used to make a drink, dumplings, or eaten plain with a small amount of sugar.  The seed was a culture, a source of pride that the Bolivians themselves cultivated since ancient times.  There were legends, stories and a long shared memory of quinoa – the seed of gold, the plant that is central to the Andean culture and identity – much like corn is for native Americans in the north. However the people were dictated the price for their quinoa by the Peruvian market, which with government investment and mechanized, large scale farming, was outpricing the more artisanal Bolivian quinoa.  The price of 450Bs a quintal for top quality, organic Bolivian quinoa was not meeting the small scale Bolivian farmer’s costs.

Also needed for sustainability was the quinoa itself.  The positive aspects were the presence of the Quinoa Real, a type of quinoa that only grew in the mineral rich, sandy soils surrounding the Bolivian salt flats and the traditional organic style of farming.  The negative parts were the lack of organic pest control methods, the increasingly problematic worms eating the seed heads, a lack of investment for proper farm inputs – such as ample fertilizer (organic llama manure), and preventative pest control (such as moth traps) –the over tilling of the delicate land by tractors better suited for the deep soils of the valleys, the clearing of native grasses for more quinoa production – which led to increased desertification and loss of grazing lands, the thousands of acres of abandoned quinoa lands, now tilled and barren, the fact that Bolivians cannot compete with modern mechanized world production methods of quinoa – where there are 2 harvests, deep soils, rain and ample investment, and that there is no recognition of the quality and work that goes into their quinoa and its thousands of varieties that are known to the world only as white, red, black.

The earth itself (soils) are also mentioned many times in the theme of sustainability – with recognition of its microorganisms, organic nature, mineral content and that it is a respected, living organism, the Earth Mother (Pachamama) who supports all life.  There was recognition of its need to be respected, not exploited, and cared for carefully without massive production, but with high quality, small scale, organic artisanal farming.

The animals were also of importance to the people – largely the llamas, which were native to the altiplano and were raised in balance with the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is still the fertilizer of choice for the Bolivian quinoa.  The positive was the presence of the llama though the negative was the toll the drought and loss of forage for the animals due to excessive clearing and tilling of altiplano lands – herds were smaller, animals thin and some did not have the energy to nurse their babies. In addition, due to the extreme drop in quinoa prices, many people have left the quinoa regions in search of more steady work, and no longer maintain their own herds of alpaca – though they still return to plant and harvest the quinoa.  Alpaca dung is now at a premium, as there is less now than before for use in the quinoa fields and many families have to purchase dung since they no longer have their herds to provide this for them.

Finally the economy itself was problematic.  There was nothing good to be said about this.  The current market price of quinoa – including fair trade and organic – simply did not cover the costs of production.  Dictated from Peru and pushed by foreign competition, the Bolivian quinoa farmers had no control on pricing of their product.  They had the choice to accept the market price which ranged from 550Bs (7Bs is $1US) for a quintal of quinoa to 250Bs for common market uncertified quinoa – or not sell the product at all, and save it for their own use.  Quinoa farmers however, were just that.  In the cold, arid altiplano, very few other crops grew – some produced a few pounds of potatoes, fava beans and onions for their own use, but not in quantities for market sales.  The llama meat fetched a fair market price, but the market for alpaca meat was largely limited to national sales in the highlands where there was a tradition of consuming llama.  So while largely self-sufficient farmers, quinoa growers also had a need for cash – to pay for electricity, to buy cooking oil, clothes, school supplies, and to grow the quinoa – pay for the tractor to till the soil, manure, pest control and labor.  Current prices are at half of what the farmers need for a dignified living and the is no sign of the prices changing any time in the near future.  As a result, less land is being planted, leading to less income as well, and increased migration out of the quinoa zone. Most communities only have 25% of the families living there full time – the rest are in other cities such as Oruro, Potosi, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and La Paz and countries such as Chile, working in urban jobs.

Overall, there were 13 different themes mentioned with three being outliers (for example – the wild animals of the mountains, or the abundant crops and recipes of the valleys) which were specific to a particular community and did not represent the ideas of all quinoa growers.  Additional themes mentioned with less frequency included culture, wisdom, policy and tourism.

quinoa and gladys

Galdys shows off her community quinoa in Chuvica.

My thanks go out to Gladys Caral, Monica Cayo, Florinda Consales, and Ester Mamani for helping to make this study happen, and for bringing me into their lives.  We will continue to work together via the internet and WhatsApp until I return again in 2018 – keeping the connection open between the remote quinoa lands, US markets, and academic classrooms.

DAYS 16-18 – X-Mas Break – a question to mull over.

DAYS 16-18 – X-Mas Break – a question to mull over.

Dry fields in summer drought.

Bolivia’s dry fields in summer drought.

What’s the difference between suitability and maintenance?  As I’m here in the dry quinoa fields, seeing the dust fill the carefully plowed rows, hearing farmers tell me how they did not plant the regular crops this year – fava beans, wheat, potatoes, onions – or if they did, it was a very much reduced amount – because of the drought and unpredictable weather.  Though it has rained a bit, it is too late in the growing season to really plant anything now.  The harvest and frost comes in June.

I ask them how they will eat and live in the coming months, without a harvest to sell.  As always the Bolivians are thrifty and resourceful.  Some show me their quinoa storerooms, full with unsold grains – they are waiting for the prices to raise again.  Which, if the drought has reached Peru, we might actually see if less quinoa comes to market in May 2017.

Others, I observe, choose to return to the mines and work there, or turn back to smuggling unregistered cars from Japan across the Chilean border and through the Atacama desert, some become taxi drivers in the city with their newly purchased vehicles, others had already invested their quinoa earnings into large 18 wheel trucks and switch to becoming long distance truck drivers hauling loads of rice, wood and other cargo from the hot tropics of Santa Cruz to the high mountains of La Paz.  All are in cooperatives, working together to share the administrative work of dispatch, marketing and earnings.

I ask the wholesale market buyers what they think about the future food security for Bolivia.  Prices right now are staying steady, there are early harvests of corn and tropical fruits such the red mango which are plentiful.  In addition, there seems to be no limit to the bananas, oranges, papayas which are regular producers in the tropics as well as plenty of potatoes, wheat and barley from the 2016 harvest.  It seems the full impact of the drought will hit Bolivia in May 2017.  The market buyers think that they prices will go up and they will be buying more food from Chile and Peru.  I ask them if they know if Chile and Peru are facing the same drought challenges as Bolivia – they look at me blankly – they have no idea.

I ask the agronomists and engineers I work with what the government is doing to prepare for this apparent upcoming food shortage, the response is nothing.  Apparently the multitude of government ministries, though they overlap in their work, are not coordinated or working together.  In addition, explained the engineers, it is not in the government’s habit to think ahead, they simply react to what is currently happening.

So I turn to the indigenous leaders, the elected officials from the local communities who wield total power over the rural lands, what their ideas are on this.  They also are not sure.  It is not something they have worked with before, but they are sure it will pass, it always had before, if not, then they will worry about it as it comes and once they know what it is.

I’m starting to feel like Chicken Little, her asking about food insecurity while the country is rife with restaurants, markets filled with fresh foods, and fully stocked grocery chains growing in all the cities.  Never-the-less, I’m still perplexed.  Isn’t the anyone who is interested in studying what is happening, thinking about solutions, and preparing for a more secure food future?

I ask the university professors, if this would be a class project or area of research they are interested in.  No, I’m told, the education here is different than the US.  Here it’s theory and classroom practice.  There is no applied learning – unless a student took it upon themselves to study the impending drought and food crisis as a thesis project.  Since most of the students are focused on getting good jobs in the city, few have interest to look at the rural countryside, especially after the president kicked out all of the foreign development organizations in the 2014 and essentially banned non profit organizations of any kind.  He claimed there were undermining the government and being manipulated by foreign interests.

The women in my focus group speak of Suma Qamana, the Bolivian philosophy of “Living Well” where leadership and resources are managed and shared by all, as a matter of fact – the way that things have become.  Now, instead of corrupt, government appointed cronies, community members themselves work together to make community based regional decisions, that have a conservation perspective to them (ie preserving the land, not overusing natural resources, recycling, composting) and include an even distribution of resources.  Mayors buy local foods for school snacks, indigenous traditions are taught in the classroom, local associations donate gifts and food to the community and its membership.  While this is all well and good – and there has been a noticeable change in the quality of life in the rural areas – literacy rates climbed from 60% to 98% and electricity, potable water and food seem plentiful, it does not seem to be enough.

What is lacking is the innovation – the drive to do something more, to make a change, to find a solution before there is a huge problem, to be curious, proactive and inventive – is not there.  I have always equated the Sumaj Qamana philosophy to sustainability, looking at how it carefully includes all and places the earth’s rights first, its longevity in its indigenous roots, expending back thousands of years, ad meeting the needs of today’s complex world.  But is it?

I think back to neo-liberalism and capitalism – the kingpin of these dominate ideologies being the drive for competition – to be better, do more.  And efficiency, to do it faster, smarter – much at the cost of human welfare and the natural environment.  However through the chaos and ruckus of the winner-loser game that these two philosophies play, comes the innovation and invention that drives us forward.

So how can there be both?  George Monboit in his April 15, 2016 article, Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems?, in The Guaradian calls for, “ A coherent alternative… an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.”

Me from my rocky, dusty outpost in Bolivia feel I may be calling for the same.   Is the Suma Qamana sustainability really simply maintenance? The stirring of the ingredients in the same old pot, just mixing it up, but not making anything new?  What happens as the stew evaporates and the ingredients begin sticking to the bottom?  What happens when there is no more to stir?  Is sustainability simply maintenance or is it something more – does it need to maintain while also evolving, innovating – like nature systems, adapting… but at what rate?  In what why?  The Iroquois always spoke of the seven generations – planning ahead for 150 years.  Where is the balance here?

Shared Leadership in the Andes

Shared Leadership in the Andes

royal-quinoaMy passport is brushed off, visa updated, flights confirmed, bags are getting packed, visits scheduled and in 10 short days, I’m off again – to the Bolivian Andes.  The theme of this Fulbright Scholar visit is: Shared Leadership in Action (or not).  Here I will be exploring a working case study of the development of the Royal Quinoa Mark of Denomination of Origin (DO) – amongst Bolivia NGOs, private industry, producer cooperatives, government agencies, and international institutions.

This is based on work my University of Massachusetts Isenberg School of Management students have been doing in my upper-level Social Entrepreneurship class.  We use the Sustainability Lens – an exciting new tool I created that is featured in my new book, Social Entrepreneurship as Sustainable Development, and works with the  Business Model Canvas – to build sustainability in any organization (through supply chain management, customer and employee relations, community development and more).

Day 9: A Writing Respite

Day 9: A Writing Respite


A Sustainability Circle from my summer Fulbright research of quinoa growers and local sustainability in agricultural communities (scroll back to the previous blog series to learn more).

With KUSIKUY, the new budget is in. Team is forming. Mentors are looped in and networks reached out to.  On the academic front the MHC syllabus is done, guests invited, projects confirmed, notices sent out, and calendar arranged (classes start Tuesday…).

Now I can take a respite from the busy beaver planning, organizing, coordinating… and sink into some deep thinking, letting my spirit wander though the ether, gather up ideas, thoughts fleeting images and forms and shape them into something palatable and important – calling to soul and spirit.  And so starts day 1 of writing a new academic text, a short philosophical pivot book on how social entrepreneurship builds sustainability in today’s world.  

The argument is we are all social entrepreneurs on a micro level of running a household and making choices on the life we choose to live, job, management of personal economy, etc…  and we have power with these choices and they have impact.  Should be out in May-Aug (it’s a Palgrave Pivot Book).  First chapter will be read by my students on Tuesday and the book will unfold over the course of the semester…  


Tamara at her stand-up desk at her home office in VT. All of Tamara’s work is done standing up. There are many good reasons for this – but Tamara’s is that it’s better for her back!

Spring is certainly the time for new beginnings!  

Day 2: A note to my mentors: More, bigger, faster is not always better…

Day 2: A note to my mentors: More, bigger, faster is not always better…

As part of our KUSIKUY re-launch I am working with volunteer mentors from Valley Venture Mentors – a venture capitalist founded NGO that supports entrepreneurship development in the pioneer valley and beyond.  Here’s a note I sent to my mentors a month ago when I was first strategizing this re-launch  It was largely authored by NYC eco-fashion designer, Caroline Priebe, a long time client of ours (KUSIKUY) for production, and the Head Designer selected for this re-launch.  It brought up interesting ways in which to envision a re-launch, goals, and measurements of success.  We will be working together, meeting monthly for 4 months…

To give a clear understanding what KUSIKUY does and stands for, my designer and long term production client, Caroline Priebe, put it very well.  We are also in need of funding and are thinking of ways to reach out to folks for investment.  Let me know what you think…

“The value of my resources are my time, energy, money, the knitters, the yarn and access to designers that work in the market I would like to get in to. Just to clarify, there is no eco-market, there is market where good design in produced in different ways. Good design is the key.

I need a mentor/investor who gets that. More, bigger, faster is not always better. The investor must understand that mass and larger is not the trend or ultimately a sustainable business model. Companies like Gap, J Crew and Barneys (due to the new owners’ Wall Street model) are hurting and not the future.  This does not mean that KUSKUY will not grow and be profitable, it will.  It means that growth is part of the model and needs to be balanced with thoughtful development.  This KUSIKUY does well.

Niche design companies like Rachel Comey, Mara Hoffman, Ulla Johnson, Lauren Manoogian have been around, sustained recessions and are on the rise. 

Companies like Alabama Chanin,, Kaufmann Mercantile, Not Just a Label and Hackwith Design are the business model pioneers to name a few.

My designer’s friend Emma who owns Fait La force out of Haiti, has an investor who said, “I like what you are doing in Haiti, you are teaching people skills and providing jobs, you have good taste, you are professional, how can I help you?” 

For investors, this is not charity, it’s using money to support a business whose work they believe in without traditional growth expectations and demands. Traditional capitalism (with quarterly growth demands) discriminates against the artisan/craftsperson and rewards mediocrity.  

KUSIKUY is not mediocre.  We provide the best fashion, highest quality functional design, and create sustainable, meaningful change for hundreds of Andean artisans and herders.

The image above are the concept boards for our new re-launch.  Please respect the (c) on our ideas.  

Day 15 – Who will take my survey?

Day 15 – Who will take my survey?


Sample model from South Africa.

As I get ready to travel to the salt flats to begin my quinoa study, I continue to modify the Circles of Sustainability model I will be using. This model was developed by support from the United Nations. It is a qualitative, place-based model that measures one’s experiences in the areas of economic, cultural, political and environmental well-being. Until now, the models have been used in urban settings in Melbourne, Australia, Sao Paolo Brazil and Cape Town, South Africa. This will be the first time the model will be used to measure sustainability in a rural environment.

Ideally the survey takes 15 minutes to complete. It has 10 demographic questions that include cultural identity, languages used, political and business affiliations; all-important distinctions for people living in the Bolivia countryside. It also has 33 questions that pertain to the four areas mentioned earlier: economic, cultural, political and environmental well-being. These address concerns about education, the natural environment, wildlife, education, clean water, gas and electricity access, different ways earnings are made: mining, livestock, vegetables, the access to goods, and cultural participation in festivals, dress, and customs. The last thing I ask about is indigenous knowledge. What is known or shared that comes from the past?

As quinoa farming becomes more mechanized and mass-produced, what will happen to these original ways of thinking and being? Indigenous knowledge systems are often low input, low output. They are slow, adaptable and sustainable over time. Today’s “modern” methods are high input, high output producing large benefits in the short term, but not very adaptable or viable in the long term. In the theme of sustainability, the dynamic between indigenous knowledge and modern methods is one I am most curious about…