Peru & Ecuador May 2014
Here is an update on the trip we took to Peru in May.
There were four of us (Randy, Mark, Iain and Julie)
La Grama’s avocado growers
Rodrigo Bedoya is one of the 3 founders of La Grama, and was kind enough to pick us up at our hotel in Lima at 6am Monday morning and drive us all the way to Moro to introduce us to some of the avocado growers he works with. It was a good 5 hour drive north, along the coast that gave us a chance to see some of Peru’s typical landscapes. We went through desert, desert, rice fields, desert, asparagus and cane sugar fields; and some more desert. At the end of a winding road in an arid valley where nothing but cactus grows Domingo Guzman’s and Jonan’s chakras (small farm) represent a pretty amazing avocado oasis.
Rodrigo introduced us to Domingo Guzman and to Jonan. They both gave us a tour and dedicated time to answer all our questions and to pose holding avocados for us to take way too many pictures. Not sure they had a fun time being shot like that but Peruvians can be even more polite than Canadians. Yes.
If you don’t know about La Grama – Randy has known Rodrigo since 2009 – at one point he interviewed Rodrigo to help us operate a Peru office – that was 4 or 5 years ago. At that time Discovery had started to work with BOS, and their commercial manager was Sheyla Chavesta – some of you met her very briefly a few years ago when she came to Vancouver. Sheyla left BOS in 2011 and Randy helped her get interviewed to work with La Grama, where she is now their senior commercial manager. For years, Sheyla has been available to help us with any logistics problems anywhere in Peru, and in turn Randy and Annie paid for her university courses in Lima so she could get her Masters in Commerce, so we sort of had an office. Unfortunately Sheyla was visiting her parents oustside Lima, so we didn’t get to meet her this time.
La Grama’s 3 founders started the company and developed their business model with small scale farmers in 2006. As former accredited inspectors and auditors for organic agriculture standards, good agricultural practices (Globalgap) and other private standards in several Latin American countries, they have a solid background as agronomists and know what environmental sustainability stands for and looks like.
They started their collaboration with Organic Ginger producers in the Amazon forest. Progressively, they developed relationships with other growers and offer today a much wider range of products from turmeric and passion fruits to avocados and granadillas, including star fruits and pomegranates. It is the first year that we are importing granadillas, star fruits and avocadoes from La Grama. None of the producers that work with La Grama are large enough to be their own exporters. They are not part of a coop, and are too wide-spread geographically, and too small to clean their own ginger, pack their avocados etc, so we need La Grama to do all this coordination work, and also to help the growers with production, composting, orchard management etc.
Rodrigo introduced us to Domingo Guzman and to Jonan. They both gave us a tour and dedicated time to answer all our questions and to pose holding avocados for us to take way too many pictures.
BOS is in Salitral, a town an hour and a half north of Piura.
Since Randy’s last visit, they moved to a brand new facility a few miles away from the former one. We had a very formal meeting (which is very normal for these visits) of an hour or so with the new BOS board of directors. We then went for a tour where Mark, Iain and I learned all about banana production and harvest.
APROMALPI diversifies – Unidos si podemos
Back in Piura, we met with Cleida Garcia, the general manager of the mango coop APROMALPI over a pisco sour and a very nice dinner. We found out from Cleida that a buyer in Toronto took a lot of fruit and hasn’t paid her – 7 months later, so we are working with her to pursue some legal channels to help them get paid. It is a lot of money and a lot of containers – but we will do our best and hopefully they will eventually get paid for their fruits
After that came much needed real night of sleep.
On Wednesday morning we were off to Chulucanas to visit the APROMALPI Mango Coop.
They now count 185 members. APROMALPI represents an excellent example of what the Fairtrade Certification stands for. Their motto is Unidos si podemos, or United we can. After giving us a tour of their mango packing facility, APROMALPI’s representatives were proud to show us their brand new facility dedicated to drying mangoes, their new activity.
Offering dried mangoes will allow them to reduce the amount of wasted fruits that cannot be sold as whole fresh fruits (generally for aesthetic or sizing reasons). In addition to ensuring a better return for their hard work, it will also be a way to create added value to their fruits and reach new markets.
The Fairtrade premium and funds provided by the Japanese Development Agency financed this drying facility project.
APROMALPI now has the capacity to pack and export fresh, dried and pureed mangoes (Kent and Honeyblush), to North America and Europe. Needless to say that being part of the Fairtrade International system helped tremendously in achieving such empowerment.
AGROVIDA – the soccer game tradition lives on
After a memorable farm tour and photo shoot session, we left Chulucanas, still with Cleida on board. We drove for an hour through rural areas to Pedregal Alto, the home of the AGROVIDA mango coop.
Talking business is essentially what brings us to visit producers’association, but we have our own way of doing it apparently. At AGROVIDA particularly, Randy has established a tradition since 2010 that the meeting ends with a soccer game, with a fair-trade certified leather ball from Social Conscience, kept in a locked cabinet. Of course we are always outnumbered and they don’t dare play their real game, letting us score here and there. Peruvians may be short, they are incredibly fast players…this time the official score was Peru 4 Canada 3. The real score was closer to this recent Germany-Brazil game though…
A highlight for this trip was a new relationship. AGROVIDA is a much smaller and vulnerable coop than APROMALPI. They sell their fruits at a FARM GATE price and do not have the capacity to wash, pack or ship them. For the post-harvest stages, a broker (Fairtrasa) used to take care of that for them. As a result, we were buying AGROVIDA’s mangos labeled Fairtrasa.
One of the objectives of this trip was to find a way to buy direct from them, to ensure a better return to the growers. APROMALPI’s general manager agreed to take them under her wing to collect their fruits and pack and export them on behalf of AGROVIDA. They should also benefit from APROMALPI’s technical assistance if required. This was really a sweet thing for Cleida from APROMALPI to do for us – she even drove across to Pedregal to meet the growers and tell them in person she was going to help them sell to us directly. Most of them had never met her before.
With outstanding quality fruits, we are hoping to buy greater volumes next year and we offered to pre-finance all stages of harvest and packing.
It was exciting news for them and a great achievement for us. We are happy to help them lean towards direct trade and further empowerment. And they looked thrilled at the idea of finally having boxes with their coop name on them.
It is still Wednesday, it is extremely hot and we are very tired. We were back again in Piura for dinner then off to the airport and a fast flight to Lima. Randy really hurt his back trying to make a heroic save and keep our soccer game tied, which didn’t work, and could hardly walk to the plane. When we got to Lima, he continued on to fly back to Vancouver, while Mark Iain and I went back to our little funky hostel for the night.
CERRO AZUL – Ecuador
Cerro Azul means Blue Mountain. But you probably guessed already, the logo makes it quite obvious.
On Thursday morning, we flew north to Guayaquil, Ecuador – it is a little weird but all flights are through Lima, so it would be like flying from Calgary to Vancouver to get to Edmonton, but that’s just the way it is.
Guayaquil is to Ecuador what Toronto is to Canada: a busy city (and port) that plays a crucial role for the countries’ economy. From the airport we took a taxi and then a bus to Machala, “the world capital of bananas”, 3 hours south of Guayaquil. Cacao plantations was the main landscape surrounding the highway.
The next morning, someone from Cerro Azul picked us up at our very retro hotel. He stopped at the fruit market to make us try the variety of bananas they don’t export. Great fruit and vibrant marketplace.
Doing business in Ecuador is a lot more corporate than in Peru. Ecuador is the first exporter of bananas in the world and you can feel it. The size of Cerro Azul and the way it is run is a lot more advanced (for lack of a better word) than in Peru. A completely different feel.
It was Discovery’s second visit to Cerro Azul and they welcomed us with their typical “Executive” tour, breakfast and lunch included. After introducing us to everyone in every department, they drove us to meet 2 remote organic banana growers in the mountains, Felix and his nephew Ermel.
The main purpose of the visit was to improve our relationship with Cerro Azul so the last part of the visit was dedicated to a “negotiation” meeting with Noemi, the general manager, to discuss the new contract, the new price and the potential to diversify to other banana varieties.
A little explanation from Randy is required here.
“Just to add context to Julie’s report – All our relationships in S. America have been fostered over many years. This was my 16th trip to Peru! These small producers have been ripped off by brokers, traders, coyotes and importers continuously, so the business relationships take time, and the coops have to be visited twice a year – otherwise they will think you don’t love them anymore. We started buying bananas from BOS in 2009 and three companies (Discovery, Brochenin in France and Organic Sur in Italy) worked together to take all the production. It was a big deal because these were the first exports from Peru that Dole didn’t have their fingerprint on. However, BOS over the years has gone back to selling some bananas to Dole. In early 2013 BOS ran into big money problems, and Dole helped them through their cash flow crunch, but BOS couldn’t meet their commitments to us, or Diego in France or Franco in Italy) – and we needed more bananas. At exactly the right time we were approached by Cerro Azul in Ecuador, but through a broker who is actually in Uruguay, to buy bananas, and being desperate we started buying right away. Last fall I went to meet them, four months after starting to buy from them, and took Ben, and also Diego, and a fruit buyer for Biocoop in France. Julie’s mission was to have meetings with them in Ecuador and change the relationship so we had good communication, which is so important, and to set up a new contract and begin buying direct after the brokers 1 year contract ended last month. Diego continues to buy the occasional container from BOS and now buys one or two a week from Cerro Azul.”
Not so fresh but equally yummy
On our way to Santa Elena, we had the opportunity to meet a cacao grower working in his field. Cacao trees are pretty fascinating and distinct from other fruit trees (assuming that a cacao pod is a fruit). Cacao pods do not grow in the foliar part of the tree but much lower, directly on the trunk.
Like banana, cacao is a year-round crop, with up to 4 harvests a year.
As a result, the trunk of a cacao tree bears cacao pods in different maturity stages, from blooming to ready to pick (yellow pods), as the pictures show below.
El Oro Region – From one cash crop to another
The region of El Oro is known for its heirloom cacao, called Cacao Nacional. You can however come across other varieties (of which, hybrid and higher yield ones) ones in a while.
Different shapes, different colors, all beautiful and fascinating.
But it takes 4 years for a cacao tree to be harvested and the processing steps after harvest are numerous. Although lucrative, it makes cacao growers more vulnerable to export market dynamics as well as climatic hazards.
As a result, more and more growers are transitioning from cacao to banana, a crop they consider more lucrative and less risky (despite the delicate handling/fresh produce/ripening pressure)
Such transition can also be perceived among banana growers who tend to increase the density of their banana plantation by replacing cacao trees by banana plants.
A bit more about Agro Forestry
Agro forestry is an ancestral agro-ecological farming method, feeding an average of one billion people in the tropical regions. It relies on a synergy between different varieties of trees and crops to optimize the use of essential natural resources such as water and nutrients.
Agro forestry is a major ally to fight against soil erosion and to contributing to auto-regenerated soil fertility too.
At the opposite end of monoculture farming, agro forestry is common practice among the growers we work with and we strongly support it. It just makes perfect sense and it looks beautiful.
The coops with whom we work can practice two different types of agroforestry:
-Crops under tree cover – where taller trees dominate crops below like passion fruits and granadillas climbers or an organic banana plantation surrounded by tall palm trees.
That’s how you spot an organic banana plantation!
-Agro forest gardens where producers combine different crops such as mango trees, cacao trees, citrus trees, star fruit trees:
Agro forestry stricto-sensus is an authentic cultivated forest, generally very diversified, whether it has been planted and resulting from the domestication of an existing one. Agro forestry doesn’t stem from a reforestation project but from the intention to grow differently, where synergies allow optimizing natural resources and promoting food sovereignty.
El Niño Threat – let’s keep our fingers crossed
This is caused by the El Nino effect, where the ocean temperatures off the coast of Peru are much warmer – for many reasons, and every few years we experience a global El Nino event.
At this point, no one knows if or when this will happen, but the warning signs are there, and even if there isn’t a major event, the warmer temperatures have really affected Peru for the last few months.
There was no rainfall during the normal February / March rainy season when they normally get 6cm, which doesn’t seem like more than a normal rainy weekend in Vancouver, but they need the rain to fill the reservoirs. We are still waiting to find out how the mango crop will be affected. Cleida told us that if the temperatures are too warm at night, the mango flowering process is affected.