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The joy of business July 16th, 2017 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

On the 29th of June in Cochabamba, I watched as 39 farmers’ associations met with 183 businesses, in a large, rented ballroom, where tables just big enough for four were covered in white tablecloths and arranged in a systematic grid pattern.

cacao y árbolesAll day long the farmers and entrepreneurs huddled together, in 25-minute meetings, scheduled one after the other, for as many as 15 meetings during the day, as the farmers explained the virtues of products like aged cheeses, shade-grown cacao, and bottled mango sweetened with yacón (an Andean tuber). Some businesses had come to buy these products, but others were there to sell the farmers two-wheeled tractors and other small machines.

mango en alímbar de yacónEach association or business had filled out a sheet listing their interests and products. The organizer used computerized software to match up groups by interest, and set a time for the meetings. The time was tracked by a large, computerized clock, projected onto the wall.

At the end of each of the 25 minute meetings, each table filled out a one-page form stating if they had agreed to meet for another business deal (yes, no, maybe), and if so when (within three months, or later), and the amount of the probable deal. By the end of the day, the farmers and the business people had agreed to do business worth 56 million bolivianos, equivalent to $8.2 million.

Business representatives came from five foreign countries: Belgium, Peru, the Netherlands, Spain, and Argentina, to buy peanuts and other commodities. But most of the buyers and sellers were from Bolivia and only 6% of the trade was for export.

The meeting was self-financed. Each farmer’s group paid $45 to attend and each entrepreneur paid $50. This is the ninth annual agro-business roundtable, so it looks like an institution that may last.

Business is a two-way street. For example, one innovative producer of fish sausages made deals to sell his fine products to hotels and supermarkets, but he also agreed to buy a machine to vacuum pack smoked fish, and another deal to buy trout from a farmers’ association.

la boletaWith over 400 people lost in happy conversation on the ballroom floor, I barely noticed the three staff-members on the side, sitting quietly at a table, typing up each sheet from each deal, using special software which allows the statistics to be compiled in real time. This will also help with follow-up. Two months after the roundtable, professionals from Fundaci√≥n Valles will ring up the group representatives with a friendly reminder: ‚ÄúYou are near the three month mark when you agreed to meet and buy or sell (a given product). How is that coming?‚ÄĚ

Miguel Florido, facilitator, explained that in previous years the roundtable brought in $14 million in business, but that was mostly with banks and insurance companies, signing big credit deals, or insurance policies. Now the money amount has dropped a bit, but people are buying and selling tangible, local products, which is what the farmers want. It can be difficult and time-consuming for smallholders and entrepreneurs to meet each other, but with imaginative solutions buyers and sellers can connect.

Acknowledgment: this roundtable was organized by Fundación Valles and Fundesnap.


El 29 de junio en Cochabamba, observ√© mientras 39 asociaciones de agricultores se reunieron con 183 empresas en un sal√≥n de eventos, lleno de mesas que eran el tama√Īo perfecto para cuatro personas.

cacao y √°rbolesTodo el d√≠a los agricultores y empresarios se juntaron, en reuniones de 25 minutos, hasta 15 reuniones durante el d√≠a, donde los productores explicaban las bondades de productos como quesos a√Īejos, cacao producido bajo sombra, y frascos de mango endulzados con yac√≥n (un tub√©rculo andino). Algunas empresas vinieron para comprar esos productos, mientras otros estaban en plan de vender motocultores y otras peque√Īas m√°quinas a los agricultores.

mango en al√≠mbar de yac√≥nCada asociaci√≥n o empresa hab√≠a llenado una hoja detallando sus intereses y sus productos. El organizador us√≥ software computarizado para juntar los grupos seg√ļn sus intereses y fijar una hora para sus reuniones. La hora se controlaba con un reloj grande y computarizado que se proyectaba a la pared.

Al final de cada una de las reuniones de 25 minutos, cada mesa llenaba un formulario indicando si habían quedado en volver a reunirse para hacer negocios (sí, no, tal vez), y cuándo (dentro de tres meses, o más tarde), y el monto probable del trato. Al fin del día, salió que los agricultores y las empresas habían fijado tratos por un valor de 56 millones bolivianos, equivalente a $8.2 millones.

Asistieron empresas de cinco pa√≠ses extranjeros: B√©lgica, Per√ļ, Holanda, Espa√Īa, y la Argentina, para comprar man√≠ y otros productos. Pero la mayor√≠a de los vendedores y compradores eran bolivianos y solo 6% de la venta era para exportar.

La reunión era auto-financiada. Cada asociación de agricultores pagó $45 para asistir y cada empresa pagó $50. Esta es la novena rueda anual de agro-negocios, así que parece que es una institución duradera.

El negocio es una calle de dos sentidos. Por ejemplo, un productor innovador de chorizos de pescado quedó en vender sus finos productos a hoteles y supermercados, pero también compró una máquina para embalar su pescado ahumado al vacío, e hizo un acuerdo para comprar trucha de una asociación de productores.

la boletaCon m√°s de 400 personas felices, bien metidas en charlas en el sal√≥n, pasan desapercibidos tres miembros del equipo a un lado, sentados en una mesa, pasando a m√°quina las hojas escritas a mano en cada una de las reuniones. Las tres personas usan un software especial que permite compilar las estad√≠sticas ese rato. Los datos ayudar√°n con el seguimiento. Dos meses despu√©s de la rueda, profesionales de Fundaci√≥n Valles llamar√°n a los representantes de los grupos para hacerles recuerdo: ‚ÄúYa casi son tres meses desde que quedaron en volver a reunirse para comprar (o vender) su producto ¬Ņc√≥mo van con eso?‚ÄĚ

Miguel Florido, facilitador, explica que en los a√Īos previos, la rueda trajo hasta $14 millones en negocios, pero mayormente con bancos y aseguradoras, firmando contratos para cr√©ditos o seguros. Actualmente se mueve un poco menos de dinero, pero la gente vende y compra productos tangibles, locales, que es lo que los agricultores quieren.

Agradecimiento: La rueda de agro-negocios se organizó por Fundación Valles y Fundesnap.

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Donating food with style July 31st, 2016 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Producing food aid locally may take some work to organize, but the quality is better than shipping surplus grain from a big producer, such as the US or EU.

Last week I visited Yo Prefiero (I Prefer), a farmers’ association in Ibarra, Ecuador that has been contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries to provide food baskets every month to 200 impoverished mothers of small children. 300 other baskets go to other government programs. Giving food away is like anything else. You get better at it the longer you do it.

Food aid used to come in the form of surplus commodities. In Guatemala, years ago, I saw poor villagers receiving dried maize and beans, cooking oil and an unappetizing mix of ground soybeans and corn that looked like livestock feed.

The Yo Prefiero farmers are spread out over several municipalities and different agroecological zones. This means they produce a wide variety of food, such as round, moon-like, white cheeses, freshly harvested beans, cracked corn, fluffy quinoa bread, papaya, sweet potatoes, bananas and tree tomatoes. There are over 20 products and all are top class. Even the fussiest consumer would be delighted to get a large food basket from the Yo Prefiero farmers.

choclo llega tardeAnd they are large. The ‚Äúbasket‚ÄĚ (which is really a heavy, cloth sack) weighs over 20 kilos when full.

Yo Prefiero has 23 farmers: nine women and 14 men. Each farmer delivers a specific commodity to the warehouse on the morning the baskets are packed. The association members are obviously well experienced at this task. They organize the goods into neat stacks on two parallel rows tables, so that all of the products are within reach, and the packing goes quickly.

contents of one canastaOn basket day, the ladies from the association take a list, moving from pile to pile, snatching up an item and gathering into a blue cloth bag. The men lift the heavy bags of produce onto a rented truck, which takes the baskets to a local school or parish association, where representatives of the Provincial government give the moms short courses on child care and feeding. Sometimes other specialists come and teach courses on gender, gardening and there is even a cooking class taught by a chef. The mothers receive a food basket every month, when they attend one of these courses with their baby. During the month the moms also attend a local clinic, where doctors and nurses weigh the babies, to see that they are well nourished.

No one is paid to pack the baskets. The 23 members of the association do this work for free because they are able to earn more than if they sold their harvest on the open, wholesale market.

One of the farmers told how he was happy to sell his papayas through the association for a dollar each, around four times as much as he was paid before joining.

The farmers’ association provides its food baskets as part of a program with several ministries and UN agencies;  the farmers are paid for their goods with funds from the WFP (United Nations World Food Program), via the Provincial government. The baskets are so good that several hundred other people pay to receive one. These private subscribers fill in an order form once a month. A few days later they get a phone call telling them to pick up their produce. The subscriber goes to the Yo Prefiero warehouse, pays for her produce, and picks up her order.

I learned this when I spent a day visiting Yo Prefiero with colleagues from the Andes who all had a long experience of agricultural development. It was a sophisticated group, not one easily taken in by appearances. My colleagues asked how prices were set. The people from the Ministry said that they took into account all of the farmers’ costs, including store-bought supplies and unpaid contributions by the farm household, such as water and labor. (There are various philosophies regarding whether household labor and other unpaid costs should be accounted in the same way as cash expenses, but that is a topic for another story). The staff from the Ministry of Agriculture compares the farmers’ costs with the prices offered at the wholesale market, and decides on a fair price to pay the farmers.

This answer seemed a little fuzzy to my colleagues. It was not clear how much more the farmers made by selling for food aid than they could make on the open market. The contents of baskets vary, but one estimate was that farmers got $40 for produce worth $36 on the open market. But whatever the exact numbers, farmers were earning more by selling through the association.

Rosmery Menachu and lettuce seedLater in the day we visited one of the farmers, Rosmeri Menachu, who grows her own lettuce and broccoli seed which she uses to grow her own vegetables. She farms vegetables on a little over half a hectare, a small farm by any definition. Rosmeri is the carrot grower for Yo Prefiero. She plants carrots once a week so she always has fresh ones to sell.

It takes a certain amount of administration and training to keep this effort going. The communities have help from five extension agents from the Ministry, which is a lot. The scheme survives thanks to funding from the World Food Program and other donors.

It takes a lot of effort to create an alternative market. It might fail without outside help. But this model is an improvement on what went before. In Honduras in the 1980s, the US donated shiploads of wheat, which depressed grain markets, and discouraged local farmers. Food aid organizations are getting wiser. The World Food Program, for instance, now buys much of its food aid within the receiving country, which helps those who need the food, while stimulating local farmers to produce more.

Donaciones de comida, con estilo

El producir las donaciones de comida localmente puede costar algo de trabajo para organizarse, pero la calidad es mejor que enviar granos excedentarios de un productor grande, como los Estados Unidos o Europa.

La pasada semana visite a ‚ÄúYo Prefiero,‚ÄĚ una asociaci√≥n de agricultores en Ibarra, Ecuador que se ha contratado por el Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganader√≠a, Acuacultura y Pesca para proveer canastas de comida cada mes a 200 madres pobres, con hijos peque√Īos. 300 canastas m√°s se destinan a otros programas gubernamentales. El donar comida es como cualquier otra cosa. Uno se mejora con la pr√°ctica.

Antes, la ayuda alimentaria ven√≠a en forma de alimentos excedentarios. En Guatemala, hace unos a√Īos, vi a campesinos pobres que recib√≠an a ma√≠z y frijol seco, aceite vegetal, y una mezcla desagradable¬†de soya y ma√≠z molido que parec√≠a alimento de ganado.

Los agricultores de Yo Prefiero están dispersos por varios municipios en diferentes zonas agroecológicas. Por lo tanto producen una amplia variedad de comida: quesos blancos y redondos como la luna, frijoles recién cosechados, maíz quebrado, pan fresco de quinua, papaya, camotes, bananas y tomate de árbol. Hay más de 20 productos y todos son de primera. Hasta el consumidor más exigente estaría encantado de recibir una canasta grande de comida de los agricultores de Yo Prefiero.

choclo llega tardeY son grandes. La ‚Äúcanasta‚ÄĚ (que en realidad es una bolsa de tela gruesa) pesa m√°s de 20 kilos cuando est√° llena.

Yo Prefiero tiene 23 agricultores: nueve mujeres y 14 hombres. Cada agricultor entrega un producto específico al almacén el día que empacan las canastas. Los miembros de la asociación obviamente son bien experimentados con esta tarea. Organizan los productos en grupos ordenados sobre dos filas paralelas de mesas, para que todos los productos sean fácilmente alcanzados, y el empacar progresa rápidamente.

contents of one canastaEl d√≠a de las canastas, las socias de la asociaci√≥n toman un listado impreso, y pasan de alimento en alimento, agarrando una cosa a la vez, y junt√°ndolas en una bolsa de tela azul. Los hombres alzan las pesadas bolsas de productos, cargando un cami√≥n alquilado, el cual lleva las canastas a una escuela o junta parroquial, donde representantes del Patronato Provincial (que es parte del Gobierno Provincial) ¬†dan cursos cortos sobre el cuidado y la alimentaci√≥n de los ni√Īos. A veces llegan otros especialistas y les dan cursos de g√©nero, jardiner√≠a y hasta hay un curso de cocina impartida por un chef. Las madres reciben una canasta de comida cada mes, al asistir a uno de estos cursos con su beb√©. Durante el mes, las madres tambi√©n asisten a un¬†centro de salud local, donde los doctores y enfermeras pesan los ni√Īos (para ver si los beb√©s est√°n bien nutridos).

Nadie gana un salario por empacar las canastas. Los 23 miembros de la asociación contribuyen este trabajo gratis porque les permite ganar más que si vendieron su cosecha en el mercado mayorista.

Uno de los agricultores dijo que él está feliz vendiendo sus papayas a través de la asociación por un dólar cada una, más o menos cuatro veces más de lo que ganaba antes de ser socio.

La asociación de agricultores vende sus bienes a un programa que incluye varios ministerios y agencias de la ONU. Los agricultores son pagados por sus bienes con fondos del PMA (Programa Mundial de Alimentos de las Naciones Unidas) a través del Gobierno Provincial.  Las canastas son tan buenas que cientos de otras personas pagan por recibir una. Estos abonados particulares llenan formulario una vez al mes. Unos días después reciben una llamada informándoles que ya pueden recoger su producto. La abonada va al almacén de Yo Prefiero, paga por sus alimentos, y recoge su orden.

Aprend√≠ todo eso cuando pas√© un d√≠a visitando a Yo Prefiero con algunos colegas de los Andes, todos con una amplia experiencia en el desarrollo agr√≠cola. Era un grupo sofisticado, no uno que se deja enga√Īar por las apariencias. Mis colegas preguntaron c√≥mo se fijaban los precios. Los del Ministerio dijeron que tomaban en cuenta todos los costos de los agricultores, incluso los suministros que se compran en la tienda y los insumos no monetarios de la familia campesina, como el agua y su mano de obra. (Hay varias filosof√≠as, si la mano de obra familiar y otros gastos no pagados deben ser contabilizados en la misma forma que los gastos en efectivo, pero eso es tema para otra historia). La gente del Ministerio de Agricultura compara los costos del productor con los precios ofrecidos en el mercado mayorista, y decide en un precio justo para pagar a los agricultores.

Tal respuesta pareci√≥ un poco vaga a mis colegas. No era claro cu√°nto m√°s ganaban los agricultores al vender para las donaciones versus cu√°nto ganar√≠an en el mercado libre. Los contenidos de las canastas var√≠an, pero un estimado era que se pagaba a los productores $40 por productos que valdr√≠an $36 en el mercado libre. Pero sean lo que sean los n√ļmeros exactos, los agricultores ganaban m√°s al vender a trav√©s de la asociaci√≥n.

Rosmery Menachu and lettuce seedM√°s tarde en el d√≠a, visitamos a una de las agricultoras, Rosmeri Menachu, quien produce su propia semilla de lechuga y br√≥coli que ella usa para producir sus propias hortalizas. Ella cultiva verduras en poco m√°s de media hect√°rea, una finca peque√Īa seg√ļn cualquier definici√≥n. Rosmeri produce las zanahorias para Yo Prefiero. Ella siembra zanahorias una vez a la semana para siempre tener hortalizas frescas para vender.

Cuesta algo de administración y capacitación el sacar adelante este esfuerzo. Las comunidades reciben ayuda de unos cinco extensionistas del Ministerio, lo cual es bastante. El programa sobrevive gracias a financiamiento del Programa Mundial de Alimentos y otros donantes.

Se requiere de mucho esfuerzo crear un mercado alternativo. Podría colapsar sin ayuda externa. Pero este modelo es mejor que los anteriores. En Honduras en los 1980, Los Estados Unidos donaba embarcaciones de trigo, las cuales deprimían los precios de los granos, y desanimaban a los agricultores locales. Las organizaciones de ayuda alimentaria se están volviendo más sabios. Actualmente, el Programa Mundial de Alimentos, por ejemplo, compra muchos de sus alimentos para donar dentro del país que los recibe, lo cual ayuda a los que necesitan la comida, mientras estimula a los agricultores locales a producir más.

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Myth of the coyote November 15th, 2015 by

Agronomists have myths, just like everybody else. Ask any agricultural researcher, bureaucrat or extensionist in Central America and they will tell you that the people who buy corn and beans are exploiting the peasants, charging any price that pops into their head. Most Central Americans call the buyers ‚Äúcoyotes‚ÄĚ, a trickster figure of myths since pre-Colombian time, moving in and out of human society, up to no good. The grain buyers have been demonized.

visita de campoIn the rugged hills where Guatemala meets El Salvador and Honduras, several NGOs have supported bean-buying cooperatives. One day we heard several farmers say that they had tried to sell beans to the coops, but the coops offered a lot less than the regular buyers: 280 Quetzales (about $40) instead of 310 ($44) per hundred-pound bag. So the farmers took their beans to the nearest market.

At one of the coops the managers complained that the regular buyers paid farmers more than the coop could, while the commercial processers in the market sold their products for less than the coop. The cooperative folks had no idea how this was done, but the truth is that a wild, open market is highly competitive.

I was in Guatemala teaching field methods to agricultural researchers, so I asked them do some practical social research. We went to downtown Ipala, a municipality in Guatemala’s bean country, and walked into a wholesale grain shop.

Marvin Calderón muestra frijolThe place was a small warehouse with a truck parked on one end, some dusty granaries, and bags of beans. In the sunlight of the open doorways, men were hard at work opening the bags, polishing the beans with a cloth, screening them and picking out the stones and bad bits. The workers were adding value.

We met Marvin, the owner, who soon overcame his suspicion of us and answered our nosey questions.

How do you set the bean price?

‚ÄúWe call the central market in Guatemala City and ask what they are paying for a hundred pounds (about 44 kg). If they are paying 110 Quetzales, we pay 100.‚ÄĚ

This means that for a little over a dollar, Marvin is able to collect a 100 pound bag of beans at the farm gate, clean it, and deliver the beans to Guatemala city, a half-day’s drive away. He is working on slim margins.

We asked Marvin if he set prices with the other buyers in town.

He laughed and said that they don’t all get along, and that even if they did set a price, they would still try to out-compete each other.

Do you reward the good farmers with better prices?

No. Marvin said that if he trusted farmers he would sell them fertilizer on credit. This increased the bean harvest, and the grateful family was sure to sell to Marvin, who also picked the beans up at their house, an additional service.

zarandeando frijolTwo blocks away, we strolled into another storefront, just an old-fashioned living room, cleared of all furniture except for a desk, some pallets for piling beans, and the metal screens for cleaning them. We introduced ourselves to the owner, don Rigoberto. With his grey hair slicked neatly in place, he had more the air of a kindly grandfather than of a sneaky coyote.

He grew up in the grain business. When he finished the third grade, his father told Rigoberto to quit school to become his right hand man, buying and selling beans, maize and sorghum.

Rigoberto and other buyers knew that prices fell first with the local harvest in December, and further with the later harvest in the northern Petén, not to rise again until July.

But prices could simply collapse at any time if Guatemala received a big shipment of beans from China or Mexico, so small-town buyers avoid storing beans and sell their whole stock every week. A guy selling beans from his front room can sell 2000 sacks (8.8 tons) in a good week.

Don Rigoberto spoke fondly of the farmers. He knew they had bad years because of drought or disease. With almost ethnographic sensitivity he went on to explain ‚ÄúThe farmers store the beans and sell them a few at a time, between five and ten sacks, when they need the money. If they sold all their beans at once the money would get spent. The farmers make the grain scarce by storing it and waiting for the price to rise. And they are right to do this. They must do it that way.‚ÄĚ

It slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t the farmers who speak ill of grain buyers, but the extensionists and agricultural researchers.

The buyers in Ipala work with slim margins. They compete with each other and cannot influence prices, which are set in the central market in Guatemala City. A dealer can sell in a month what a coop can sell in a year (and there may be a dozen buyers in a town, but only one coop). In fairness to the cooperatives, they probably cannot compete with the open market, because the coops also perform other services, such as organizing farmers and offering them training, which has helped farmers double their yields and vastly increase their sales. But the grain buyers only buy and sell, working hard and managing high volumes.

Donors should see how the market works, before trying to distort it with cooperatives. Movies need bad guys, but development discourse does not. Speaking ill of grain buyers one has never met is simply lazy thinking.

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Big potatoes: when too much is better than none at all November 8th, 2015 by

Big, expensive and abandoned development structures dot Latin America like monuments to failure. Built by local dictators and generous donors, maize storage centers, cooperative processing plants and other disused facilities have become part of the archaeology of development.

Wherever donors fund buildings or facilities, the tendency is to make the thing too big and elaborate.

vendedores y compradoresSo when I rolled into a large, newish potato wholesale purchasing complex in Concepción de Chiquirichapa in highland Guatemala, I was expecting to see a disaster. Built with money from European donors, the complex is built around a central market area, with covered parking spaces big enough to accommodate trucks. The complex that surrounds the markets includes a two-story building for shops and restaurants, 11 warehouses, a potato washing factory and another, three-story building with an empty conference room, and unused offices. Just to top it all off there is a decorative stone water fountain, burbling away in the lobby.

But that’s where my mockery ends, because at 10 in the morning they threw open the gates, and Mayan potato farmers in their muddy, Toyota pickup trucks roared into the central market area. The farmers beamed self-confidence as eager buyers trotting after them shouting the prices they would pay for the two tons of potatoes on the over-loaded pickups.

cargando arpía de papasThe pickups were soon unloaded, by independent, but organized laborers who received 75 centavos per bag (about 10 cents of a dollar). Loading was made easier because the potatoes were all packed in standard-sized net bags (from the hardware store) that carried about 100 pounds (45 kg) each. The net bags made the product clearly visible to the buyers, and the standard size meant that there was no need to weigh or repack the produce, which saves on transaction costs.

Most of these potatoes were bound for the massive market of neighboring El Salvador. Second-hand trucks from the USA, once used for moving furniture, were soon filled with Guatemalan potatoes and on their way to the border. The farmers folded up their money and drove home.

It wasn’t always so, explains the young manager, Arturo Cabrera. The potatoes used to be bought and sold on the main streets of the little town of Chiquirichapa, blocking traffic until neither buyer nor seller nor passing motorist could get in or out.

So the municipal government used their own money to buy a patch of land just outside town and made it the designated potato market. The space was big enough for the trucks, and the local authorities cajoled the buyers and sellers to move there.

At first the farmers and wholesalers simply traded in the mud by the road side. Other people soon followed, offering goods like prepared food, to tempt the farmers to spend some of their cash.

The new market favored uniform prices. Everyone could overhear what their competitors were offering, so buyers matched prices. Farmers phoned ahead to learn of prices and delayed selling if they were low, smoothing supply and avoiding gluts.

We sat in one of the little restaurants, Los Antojitos, sipping hot mugs of atol de pl√°tano, a sweet porridge made from bananas, just the thing for cold, rainy weather. At over 2000 meters, these are perfect conditions for potatoes, which have been grown in highland Central America since colonial times.

Some of the warehouses were rented to local people who bought small potatoes and conditioned them for seed, which they then sold on Saturdays and Sundays to potato farmers. The market is busy almost all year, as people now come from distant municipalities to buy or sell in such pleasant, well-ordered and busy surroundings.

The municipality pays for the staff to run the center, and the municipal council acts as the board of directors. If the local economy prospers, and people are happy, they will continue to re-elect the municipal officials. So as a result, this small town ships out about 42,000 tons of fresh potatoes a year to El Salvador and throughout Guatemala.

The wholesale complex cost $3 million, and could have become another ruin. It’s too big and fancy but it is benefitting farmers and improving trade. Arturo the manager is eager to expand into the empty offices. He wants an agronomist to come and advise the farmers, and he invited my colleagues, Guatemalan agricultural researchers, to give talks to the farmers.

The donors were not completely wrong to fund such a large complex; two loaves are better than none at all. The main thing is not size, but getting the topic right, and having creative, local people who want to make it work.

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Bolivian peanuts September 13th, 2015 by

When you think of Bolivia, peanuts are not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet peanuts are a native crop, domesticated and grown in lowland South America (east of the Andes) for at least 7000 years. The ancient Moche people of Peru even honored the peanut by making gold and silver jewelry of it.

man√≠ chiclayoAlthough peanuts are an oil crop in many countries, in Bolivia the peanut is grown more for food. South Americans have many delightful local dishes based on the peanut, such as peanut soup, peanut drinks, and anticuchos‚ÄĒgrilled beef heart covered in a thick peanut sauce.

Despite its popularity in Bolivia, the peanut was neglected by researchers. Now the crop is getting the attention it deserves, although this love comes with its own risks, as I learned recently at the First National Congress and Forum on Peanuts in Bolivia.

There were few peanut specialists when research began in 2004 and no dedicated institution. So Bolivian researchers got together, formed a network, and began building links to specialists in other countries, where peanut research was well established.

In 2007, Bolivia had one of the world’s lowest peanut yields, barely a ton per hectare. R&D paid off, and now yields are up to 1.6 tons per ha, a remarkable increase in such a short time.

The peanut was first domesticated in the Chaco, the dry lowlands where Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina meet. Peanuts are well adapted to the short rains followed by a blistering hot dry season. A remarkable genetic diversity emerged from these challenging conditions. Today there are around 100 land races (locally adapted varieties) of peanuts still grown in and near the Bolivian Chaco. The genetic diversity is important for plant breeders around the world who seek improved disease resistance or drought tolerance.

Twelve thousand families grow almost all the peanuts in Bolivia, about 21,000 tons, and perhaps 60% is exported, mostly to Peru. Accounts vary, but only eight to 18 peanut varieties are grown commercially in Bolivia. The other 80 or 90 land races are grown in very small amounts, by isolated people in marginal areas, so most of these land races are at risk of extinction.

1283 Eleuterio, maní y maíz2Some of this rich genetic diversity is represented in the two major, international peanut gene banks which breeders rely on. The largest collection, of 14,968 accessions, is held by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Patancheru, India. Most of their accessions are from local land races that arose in Asia. The USDA gene bank in Griffin Georgia, has 9027 accessions, based in part on collections made in Bolivia in the 1990s.

It was encouraging to learn that the Bolivians have their own gene bank with 1050 accessions, potentially representing a greater genetic diversity than the other two gene banks combined. In their typically generous fashion, the Bolivians have placed the data on the internet, in English and Spanish, for public inspection, and possibly for sharing seed www.iniaf.gob.bo and

Gene banks are an invaluable resource but storing seeds is not the same as growing a crop on a farm. Seeds in gene banks don’t last forever and peanuts (and many other crops) need to be planted and harvested every few years to get fresh stock. Over generations of this artificial selection, the seeds are selected for life in the gene bank, not for life on the farm, where it really matters. It‚Äôs crucial to keep any crop growing, in as many varieties as possible, especially in its native homeland.

Research may be improving in Bolivia, but farmers’ concerns are still rooted in profitability. At the Bolivian Peanut Congress, when we split up to attend sessions, almost all of the farmers attended the one on peanut marketing and repeatedly asked for help finding new markets. The sessions on genetics were attended largely by researchers with interests in conservation and breeding.

Farmers who maintain land races are performing a public service that’s taken for granted. Many land races have limited commercial value and could be displaced and lost as higher yielding varieties take over. Commercial growing can really improve rural livelihoods, but only a handful of varieties will become commercial. What will happen to the other 90 varieties grown in very small amounts? There is a real risk is that land races could disappear, causing an irreplaceable loss of genetic diversity.

There is a contradiction here. Agricultural researchers, especially the plant breeders, would like farmers to maintain traditional land races of crops, for future research and development. Yet researchers can offer farmers little or no support to do that. As farmers in remote parts of tropical countries begin to sell more of their crop, these growers are less inclined to grow non-commercial land races.

I began to imagine a system that could preserve endangered crop varieties. Bolivia’s INIAF has already listed the peanut varieties on-line. Through the Internet, and personal contacts, different people could be persuaded to adopt a variety, or a few. They wouldn’t need to grow very many, a few plants each. They could include farmers, hobbyists, gardeners, peri-urban farmers: anyone who loves plants and who wants to share them. This network could share the seeds, and one person would be enough to monitor the flow and population of these precious plants. A moderator could keep track of where each variety was being grown.

There are some precedents for such an idea. For example, in Britain, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) maintains a ‚Äúseed scheme‚ÄĚ; members write in, and request packets of seed from the botanical gardens. The members only pay for the postage, and excess seed from the gardens is distributed to people who will raise the plants.

Acknowledgements. The Congress (El Primer Congreso y Foro del Maní Boliviano) was moderated by Edwin Mariscal and Juan Arévalo. It was sponsored by the Fundación Valles, INIAF (Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal) and by the Collaborative Crops Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Holbrook, C.C. 2001 ‚ÄúStatus of the Arachis Germplasm Collection in the United States‚ÄĚ Peanut Science 28:84-89

Williams, D.E. 2001 ‚ÄúNew Directions for Collecting and Conserving Peanut Genetic Diversity.‚ÄĚ Peanut Science 28:135-140.

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