Beans for Change

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Over the past few posts I recounted the story of Brenda, the young girl from the remote village of Albellanas, and her life-changing encounter with practical hope. Practical hope can take different forms in different situations, even the form of a bean.

A plant and hope have a lot in common. They both typically start from something seemingly small and insignificant. However, over time, that small “seed” can become a giant tree, a tomato plant, or a changed life. El Cañon, a community on the outskirts of Managua, does not have much, but it does have great soil, sun, and people in need of an opportunity. In other words, it is a great place to plant a seed.

The “seed” was really first planted in Veracruz, where NicaWorks! had been working on various agriculture projects, including the development of a papaya farm. That “seed” germinated an idea in the mind of Maria Jose, the Director of the Puente de Amistad Orphanage in El Cañon.  “We can grow our own produce,” Maria Jose thought. The led her to ask for literal seeds from Katie Adams, the Executive Director of NicaWorks!. This small orphanage garden led to bigger gardens and eventually to a vocational gardening and agriculture class for the kids at the orphanage.

Realizing the potential, this led to an idea in the minds of Tim Adams, Katie’s husband and co-founder of NicaWorks!, and the rest of the NicaWorks! team- What if we gave the same opportunity to the entire community of El Cañon?

Agriculture is not new to Nicaragua. In fact, agriculture makes up 18% of Nicaragua’s economy and 31% of the labor force according to CIA World Fact. From coffee to bananas to beef, Nicaragua has long been known for its agricultural production. Despite its poverty, Nicaragua is rich in arable land.

With great soil and an existing market, why don’t impoverished Nicaraguans grow and sell crops to sustain themselves economically? This is a very complicated question. The reality is that many Nicaraguans try this approach with varying levels of success. However, the problem is that they do not have access to, or the funds necessary to acquire, what is needed to begin the process. For example, while arable land is plentiful in Nicaragua, it is often inaccessible for the average Nicaraguan living in poverty as they do not have the funds necessary to purchase or rent it. When access to property is not the issue, purchase of the seeds, inputs such as fertilizer, and farming equipment often are.

In the event that a Nicaraguan living in a community such as El Cañon has all of this, different issues often arise when it comes time to care for and sell the crops. For example, the poor farmer may generally know how to care for his crops, but he may not have the knowledge to maximize his production due to limited education. Another potential issue is access to water, one of the key environmental factors in farming. As a country with a dry and a rainy season, Nicaraguan farmers count on a good rainy season as they cannot afford to dig a well or install irrigation. If the rainy season is bad, they tend to lose their crops.

Selling their crops can also be a problem for poor Nicaraguan farmers. This might be because they do not have access to a local market due to limited transportation or poor infrastructure. Additionally, the farmer may not be an expert in marketing his or her product, leading to limited sales and low selling prices. Another market issue common in countries such as Nicaragua is the monopolization of markets by wealthy farmers and middlemen. This can lead to artificially low selling prices for small farmers or the need to sell to a middleman that takes advantage of all of the other complicating factors. This middleman purchases the product for sometimes less than it took the farmer to grow it. While it does not make sense for farmers to sell their products at such low prices, they do not have much of a choice as it is often a life or death proposition for them and their families.

When all of these tangible barriers are overcome, another issue exists. Money management is a real problem in all corners of the globe. However, in places with rampant poverty, budgeting and saving are very foreign concepts for obvious reasons. To say it another way, if you are not sure where your next meal is coming from, why would you worry about the next day, or month, or year. When this is introduced into a business environment such as such as small farms there are dire consequences. Without budgeting and saving for the next crop, it is almost impossible for a small farmer to build a sustainable business for the long term. This is even more true when an unexpected event occurs such as an illness in the family. If budgeting and saving are not being employed, this unexpected event can easily put a small farmer, or any other small business for that matter, out of business in poverty stricken areas. Unfortunately, this is a common story in places like Nicaragua.

What does this have to do with hope producing beans? Check back next time to find out.

– James Belt


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