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30 Oct

I’ve been back in the U.S. for a few months now, time enough to re-acclimatize to the pleasures of being home yet not so long that nostalgia hasn’t already set in for many parts of my time abroad.  I recall realizing upon arrival that the jungle was a terrible place to be bug-phobic — those first nights I stared at things crawling on the walls and started every time something buzzed by me.  Yet only a month or so later, a huge spider dropped onto my head as I sleepily brushed my teeth one morning, and I simply brushed it away and carried on — realizing then that I had “made it”.  Similarly, I remember not being able to sleep in the stifling, humid nights without a fan on blast, and being unable to go jogging without being chased by street dogs — but I overcame those problems too.  By the time I left, Tarapoto was a real home to me, and I knew I would miss it and the people there.

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Mundo de Chocolate

10 Jul

Beautifully crafted bombons of Lima-based Roselen Chocolatier

Last week, I attended the 4th annual “Salon del Cacao y Chocolate” in Lima, a showcase for cocoa growers and chocolate makers from all over Perú to present their products to an audience of chocolate industry players, international dignitaries such as the U.S. and French ambassadors, culinary superstars such as Astrid Gutsche, and the general public.

With Cecilia Ortiz, owner of Chocolates D’Cecy

I was there, aside from personal motives of scarfing down diabetes-inducing quantities of free samples, to support three businesses that Technoserve works with in Tarapoto: Exotic Chocolatier (the first chocolate boutique in San Martin province, and producer of amazing bonbons); Nativos Chocolicores (a remarkable success story of a woman entrepreneur who sells chocolates filled with “aphrodisiac” liquor of the region, and who has in the time I have been in Tarapoto, gone from having nothing more than a business plan to making appearances on the national stage); and D’Cecy, a successful local manufacturer of chocolates and snack products such as plantain chips, potato straws, and popcorn.  Over the latter part of my time in Tarapoto, I have worked most closely with Cecy, the namesake owner of the business.

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Profesor de Negocios

10 May

Teaching business classes to agricultural workers and entrepreneurs in Juanjui

In another century in America, teachers received apples from their students on the first day of school.  A few weeks ago I began my first of a series of weekly workshops to provide business plan training to farmers and aspiring entrepreneurs in the rural town of Juanjui.  Instead of apples, I was greeted with a basket of several kilos of oranges and other citrus fruits, courtesy of a pair of middle-aged farmer women (one who lives in a village sans electricity) who are students in my class.  At the end of our first session, they led the class in a group toast with freshly squeezed orange juice, and I received the first of many invitations to visit their farms.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how I would take to this new component of my work, which involves traveling a couple hours out in the countryside via cramped colectivo taxis.  My trips always involve hoping there are enough other passengers with the same intended destination to fill a car, hoping that heavy rains don’t strand me somewhere inopportune, and hoping to avoid an accident on the dark, scary roads late at night.  (On my way home tonight, in fact, my taxi struck and killed a large dog that was in the middle of the road.  Damn sad.)

My students come from outlying areas which aren’t the most accessible either.  So it’s no wonder that during a conversation with a colectivo driver in Juanjui, he complimented my work with cocoa and coffee farmers, but countered “You must have also encountered la blanquita?”  Of course, the “white girl” he was referring to was not any foreign tourist (of which there are none out in Juanjui) but cocaine — and as the driver rattled off a list of places in the area where coca is grown, I was reminded that the region’s alternative development campaigns are not yet “Mission Accomplished!”

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Consultor de Negocios

21 Dec

For nearly three months now, I have been working in rural Peru as an economic development consultant promoting entrepreneurship.  I’m assigned to a specific component of a USAID-funded development project, the inaugural business case competition Idea Tu Empresa (“Your Business Idea”), which has the goal of identifying high-potential entrepreneurs for goods and services primarily related to cocoa and coffee.  From an initial pool of roughly 200 ideas submitted, a whittling-down process which included hundreds of hours of business training for participants ultimately led to ~20 finalists who are being assisted by Technoserve consultants such as myself with the implementation of their business plans.

Discussing inventory with Warmitech socios and business manager

By now I’ve become quite familiar with the many cultural quirks and attributes that are an impediment to the success of many would-be businesspeople here.  Chronic tardiness (“la hora Peruana“, as it’s joked about here); unresponsiveness to emails or phone calls (unless those calls are of a frivolous nature and interrupt a meeting, in which case, it is seen as mandatory to take said call without a hint of self-consciousness); not doing something that was promised; and a general passivity / lack of urgency which one would normally find surprising from people trying to create their own livelihoods.  Within my own organization in-country too, I’ve had to deal with inefficiency, muddled or missing oversight, interminable and unproductive staff meetings, and petty annoyances like a shortage of fans to get through these hot jungle days.  Luckily for me, I had heard beforehand about similar trying experiences from friends who have worked for NGOs in other countries, so I knew going in how to set my expectations.

The good news is that, on most days, all of those challenges are more than offset by my pleasure at being my own boss, trying to figure out for myself what initiatives to pursue and how best to help my clients, and feeling genuine pride when I’m able to achieve results and have a tangible impact here.  So yes, although it takes hard work mixed with occasional pushing and prodding, progress can be achieved!  To do so effectively, I’ve had to take to heart several lessons — and undoubtedly will continue to learn more in the months ahead.

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Jay at Work

23 Oct

Although this blog has largely focused on my early gastronomic and recreational experiences, I’ve also been hard at work these past few weeks in my capacity as an adviser to aspiring entrepreneurs in the region.  One aspect of my work I’ve particularly enjoyed is that my days aren’t all that typical.

I might spend a morning wandering through one of the local markets, studying the prices and packaging used by potential competitors to one of my clients.  An afternoon could be spent at the factory of a major coconut exporter, chatting with the owner while drinking straight out of a coconut that a machete-wielding laborer just opened for me.  On another day, I may be at a construction site to guide a client through the creation of a project plan, or touring the laboratory of a herbal medicines manufacturer to study their processes.

Randy Farmer Women

Then there was this past Friday, when I traveled a few hours south to meet with a group of a couple dozen cacao farmers.  The cool thing about them is that they are all women, and they have banded together collectively to sell chocolates and other cacao-related products.  On the day I visited them it happened to be the birthday of one of the women, and so I was invited to join in their celebration.

One of my more unforgettable experiences is seeing the birthday lady (who, like many of the others, is even older than my mom) unwrap her presents from the group.  The first was a musical stuffed animal — cute, innocuous.  The other?  A ridiculously tiny and bright blue thong, and a condom.  As soon as she opened it, this group of elderly women surrounded her, one of them taking the thong and stretching it over the birthday lady’s head.  Then, as the birthday lady mimed certain unprintable actions with the condom, the women all made several lewd and ribald jokes for which my own Spanish was too meager to completely understand.

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