By Brian Ouyang (’16), Blake Nixon (’16), Katherine Haupert (’16), Roxana Ruvalcaba (’16) and Dominic Sumarli (’16)
Guatemala produces some of the most aromatic coffee in the world. Given the coffee’s excellent quality, one would think that coffee farmers would be able to sell the beans at a premium and make a decent living. Unfortunately, that is not the case for coffee farmers we visited in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala.
More than half of Guatemala’s population lives in rural areas, and, thanks to challenging geography and the lack of communication infrastructure, many rural communities are isolated from the rest of the country. The rural poor constitute more than 70 percent of Guatemala’s impoverished population. In fact, many rural Guatemalans live on less than $2.00 per day.
Over the last several months, our Applied Management Research team has been working with Strategies for International Development (SID), an NGO based in Washington, D.C. SID’s mission is to develop and promote better methods for eradicating rural poverty. This is actually not SID’s first project in Guatemala: In 2015 the organization “graduated” more than 1,500 coffee farming families out poverty in the Chimaltenango area of southwestern Guatemala. Given this success, SID expanded its reach to Alta Verapaz, and currently works with 28 coffee farming communities with approximately 60 families each. SID has commenced operations in Tamahú, a community of 6,000 mostly poor indigenous Guatemalans. SID has opened a local office and recruited and trained local staff (also called “promoters”) to provide technical assistance to coffee farmers with the objective of increasing income.
SID engaged our AMR team to gain an outsider’s view on the operations in their new Alta Verapaz project. The objective of our project is to recommend how SID can report its results more transparently, as well as suggest improvements to its current business practices. The ultimate goal, though, is to provide lasting economic benefits to the community that will increase overall quality of life. To achieve this, our AMR team broke the project into two modules:
- Benchmarking best practices with other NGOs working in international development;
- Understanding SID’s current business practices in Alta Verapaz.
The purpose of these modules is to help SID identify areas for improvement, based on other NGO and academic best practices, as well as tailor current practices to local contexts. These improvements to practices will ensure that SID and its promoters achieve their goal of providing long-term benefits to the community.
For the first module, Katherine attended the Global DCED Conference on Results Measurement. She was able to interact with the DCED (Donor Committee for Enterprise Development) staff, learn more about international development and, probably most important, find some very tangible ways to help our client. Her main goals were to:
- Learn more about attribution and help DCED staff find an attribution method that worked well for them;
- Speak with people on all sides of international development: consultants, donors and employees;
- Learn best practices within the field of agriculture development.
The conference was extremely well run and informative. Two sessions were dedicated to attribution, with one of them conducting case studies on agriculture. The other session took the participants through a flowchart to help them determine which attribution method would be best for them. This was a huge concern for our client, and we now believe we have a solid recommendation for which method is best for them.
To understand SID’s current business practices in Alta Verapaz, three members of our team (Brian, Roxana and Dominic) visited in-country for eight days to observe the workshops and work with the promoters daily to understand the intricacies of coffee farming. Our team was also able to speak with other stakeholders within the coffee value chain to understand the local environment and identify potential improvements/synergies. During our trip, we were able to achieve the following:
- Site visit to eight coffee farming communities to understand the unique challenges of each farming community (e.g., road access, demographics breakdown, literacy rate, languages spoken);
- Observation of workshops SID provides to the coffee farmers, divided into business practices (e.g., business plan development, productivity analysis) and technical assistance (e.g., demonstration of making organic fertilizer, planting shade trees);
- Trekking more than five kilometers up the mountain, which allowed the team to understand the specific challenges to getting product to market, and also delivering assistance to the farmers (e.g., getting promoters on site);
- Meeting the National Coffee Association (ANACAFE) in Coban to find out what kind of assistance is available to the farmers, as well as understand the relationship with exporters;
- Visiting a local coffee roaster and packager to understand how they buy their coffee beans and the specific characteristics they look for when buying coffee beans;
- Dinner with a premium-grade coffee producer, followed by a site visit to his farm to discuss how it can serve as a paragon to our farmers and as location for future technical assistance demonstrations.
We achieved the primary objective of understanding the client, the industry, the customers and the relationships between farmers, processors and exporters after being on site for a week. Aside from the project objectives, the ability to live and work closely with the promoters and villagers was an experience that was only available through the AMR project. Working and living within a community that suffers extreme poverty is a personal experience that many of us will remember for the rest of our lives. Traveling to Guatemala gave us some culture shock at first, but overall we were able to adapt and immerse ourselves quickly into the local culture and this will be a valuable experience as we enter a more globalized workforce. It also did not hurt that the Tamahú locals and promoters showed amazing hospitality and patience when working with foreigners.
The trip was busy — we worked 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. every day — but it was not all work and no leisure. The promoters and client made sure that we were immersed in the local culture, including us in making tortillas (albeit poorly), helping us practice Spanish and providing guided tours of the community. The prospects for success are promising. Farmers were really happy to see us, as they had had exposure to international NGOs previously but NGOs leave quickly. Having international staff (and students) on site provided credibility to the farmers that SID is invested in the community.
As a next step, even though our AMR team will not be returning on site, we will be working closely with SID’s staff to provide our recommendations based on our observations during our week in Alta Verapaz. As an AMR team, we are happy to make an impact and help SID achieve its goal of supporting the poorest Guatemalan coffee farmers.