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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.

LA ALEGR√ćA DEL NEGOCIO

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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Wilson Popenoe: plant explorer and educator June 4th, 2017 by

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) is the only agricultural scientist to ever win a Nobel Prize (for peace, in 1970). Borlaug developed short-stem (dwarf) wheat varieties that were high yielding and disease resistant, a hugely significant scientific advance for the world’s leading staple crop. But the award was as much for his dogged efforts to distribute improved wheat seeds to India and Pakistan at a time when millions were at risk from famine, and both countries were at war.

Popenoe 2Borlaug’s Noble Prize ensured global recognition of his achievements and continues to be a role model for many researchers. However, there have been many others in agriculture who have inspired students and made important scientific advances and who should be better known. One such example is the American plant explorer and educator Wilson Popenoe (1892-1975).

I first came across Wilson Popenoe’s name during a visit to the Pan-American School of Agriculture in Zamorano, Honduras, in the early 1990s. An impressive campus and bustling student population exuded a real sense of zeal for agriculture. Here was a thriving centre for producing graduates who would return to their homes from Mexico to Peru and beyond, where they would start their own agricultural enterprises or strengthen existing ones with new ideas.

“El Zamorano”, as the school is commonly known, was the creation of Popenoe in many ways, although it was first proposed by Samuel Zemurray, the president of the United Fruit Company, who wanted to give something back to the countries of Central America, whose soils and climate were the foundation for the company‚Äôs wealth. El Zamorano was established in the central highlands of Honduras, far away from the profitable banana plantations on the north coast. The idea was that the school could work on other important crops such as maize and coffee and avoid becoming a place to train banana agronomists.

Popenoe 7When Popenoe became the first director of El Zamorano in 1941 (the school did not officially open until 1943), he had already worked for the United Fruit Company for many years. He retired in 1957, having made a lasting contribution to the training of thousands of students and establishing a first class educational facility that was much admired throughout Central and South America. Popenoe’s early career, before he joined the United Fruit Company in 1925, is less well known, though arguably led to equally important achievements.

His first job was as a plant explorer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Popenoe was a protégé of David Fairchild, the first director of the Office of Seed and Plant Introductions, and himself a seasoned plant explorer. Popenoe left the USDA in 1925, having become fed up with the bureaucracy that kept him from the field work he loved. He relished hunting down new crop varieties and spent months carefully documenting the botanical and food characteristics of specimens on lengthy travels, often on horseback.

Popenoe worked sympathetically with local farmers to learn what they knew about different crops. An intriguing quote in Frederic Rosengarten‚Äôs biography of Popenoe reveals a keen awareness of farmers‚Äô ingenuity: ‚ÄúImportant food crops will be found as a rule,‚ÄĚ said Popenoe, ‚Äúfrom a region where their value (has already been) realized.‚ÄĚ Popenoe recognized that farmers experimented, testing, selecting and propagating the best varieties.

Popenoe2Popenoe is best known for his work on avocados, meticulously recording new varieties in Central America. He also prospected for cinchona (the tree that produces quinine), citrus and many other tropical fruits during his extensive career. The most impressive thing about Popenoe was his dedication and persistence, coupled with a restless curiosity. He was largely self-taught, having rejected a scholarship to Cornell in favour of becoming a plant explorer.

There have been many plant explorers over the years, but relatively few who have focused on plants of economic importance and dedicated their whole life to them. Before he became a USDA plant explorer Popenoe had already been to Iraq and North Africa, aged 20, to collect date palms, dodging bullets as warring tribes fought over land and overcoming the loss of plants that perished before they could be shipped to the US. He suffered from malaria and dysentery many times yet still he persisted in his hunt for new crop varieties. He spoke five languages fluently and worked hard all his life for a better agriculture, through science and education.

Popenoe was hugely influenced in his early years by the endeavours of plant explorers such as Spruce and thrilled ‚Äúat the tale of Lieutenant Bligh and his voyage in the Bounty, to bring the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the West Indies.‚ÄĚ Popenoe would doubtless be pleased to learn that his own remarkable endeavours were¬†an inspiration for future agricultural scientists.

Reference

Rosengarten F (1991). Wilson Popenoe: agricultural explorer, educator, and friend of Latin America. National Tropical Botanic Garden, Hawaii. (photos that appear above have been scanned from this book)

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