You sell what? Microfinance and health foods

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

Sometimes context is everything. If you met someone making muesli, granola and other fibre products in San Francisco or Berlin, you might not be all that surprised. But if you take away the context of coffee culture, media types and brunch and replace it with Barranquilla, a port town with an image problem on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, things start looking different. Oh, he’s also a microfinance borrower. Not exactly what you’d expect.

A street scene in Me Quejo. An unlikely location for health foods.

Earlier in the week, I took a trip with a loan officer from FMSD to meet Gustavo in Me Quejo—incidentally I’d been looking forward to a trip to this barrio since I arrived as it means “I complain” which makes it my favourite barrio name in all Barranquilla (see here for more background). Gustavo is one of the most unique Colombians I’ve met in my months here: in a land of meat, rice and soup, he’s been a vegetarian for the past thirty years. He gave up selling products like shampoo seven years ago and used his understanding of vegetarian food to start a natural food business with little more than a casserole dish and a great idea. Years later, Gustavo’s business is still small and based in one room, and he’s found a market selling his products to vegetarian restaurants and natural food shops—I had no idea these existed in Barranquilla either. But what really set him apart for me were his ambitions to expand the brand he’s created to break into supermarket chains and to start selling his products in gyms in Barranquilla. I was struck that this was 1) an excellent idea and that it was 2) achievable if he has access to the capital required. If he achieves his dreams (and I hope he does) it would be yet another example of the interplay between formal and informal economies that characterizes so many developing countries and the juxtaposition of rich and poor that’s more marked in Latin America than other regions: it’s these differences that I find one of the most disorienting aspects of living in the developing world.

Gustavo in his kitchen.

Gustavo shows us where he makes his granola products.

As we left I took a moment to think about a bizarre intersect that I never thought I’d see: Whole Foods and microfinance. There was part of me that was stunned by the fact that a microfinance borrower was working in the health foods business, an industry often associated with overpriced snobbery. And then I realized that I was looking at things from my own cultural context and not seeing the bigger Colombian picture and realized that Gustavo was one of those microfinance entrepreneurs we all love to read about: someone with an innovative idea who only had the resources to get it off the ground with microcredit.

And at the end of the day, isn’t this what microfinance and Kiva is all about? It’s about giving these people the chance to grow their businesses.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

Election time

By Rob Packer

At the end of February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made what some said was the most important decision in its 20-year history: it said that the way that the circumstances surrounding a proposed referendum to allow re-election for President Álvaro Uribe Vélez were “substantial violations of democratic principles” of the constitution. For a country where the president wields an enormous amount of power—enough to issue decrees about the national healthcare system, for example—this was quite a spectacular result: at the start of my time in Colombia I doubt that most of the people I know in Colombia would have expected this turn of events and when I asked at work, the general consensus was that before the president and the court would have made a backroom deal. Suddenly it seemed Colombia had institutions and a system of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, one decision in the constitutional court does not change the system entirely as last Sunday’s Congressional elections showed. This is by no means a full rundown of the elections or of Colombian politics at the moment, but rather some observations from the weekend’s elections.

Sunday’s elections were the first real change since the parapolítica scandal (see an excellent four-part YouTube video from 2008 with political analyst, Claudia López and Wikipedia in English and Spanish) which began to make waves in 2006 when agreements between politicians of all parties and paramilitary groups first came to light. At times since then, around a third of senators have been in prison, either convicted or awaiting trial, leaving their seats empty and meaning that some departments of Colombia were left almost without lawmakers in the House of Deputies—the Senate does not have constituencies and is a single national list. Rather than the modernized face of New Colombia that Uribe’s government likes to show to the outside world, the parapolítica scandal revealed the deep roots of Old Colombia where links with paramilitary groups infiltrate the political system on all sides, including several people close to the president. One of the curiosities of the election is that two thirds of senators are new to the Senate, partly due to a lack of politicians available for re-election but also due to a large number of politicians who have moved from the Chamber of Deputies to the Senate. Unlike what you might expect, according to Semana, a news magazine, this doesn’t mean a change in direction. In fact, in a number of cases there will be very little change in direction where a relative of an incarcerated senator has taken their place, as often in Colombia, politicians are members of political dynasties with networks of interests and patronage. Evidence of this can be seen in the “handing over” of a Senate seat to Arleth Casado, wife of Juan Manuel López Cabrales, a former Liberal senator from Córdoba department on Colombia’s Caribbean coast who was sentenced to six years in prison for signing the Ralito Pact between politicians of various parties and paramilitary groups (see for more details). One of the most memorable parts of my short political education in Colombia happened in a puerta a puerta (a door-to-door minivan somewhere between a bus and a taxi) running between Montería, the capital of Córdoba and Barranquilla, which I picked up in San Juan, Bolívar: the consensus among the monterianas was that “Juancho” was the innocent victim of a corrupt judicial system. The wide-reach of parapolítica did not convince me that they were right.

The level of vested interest can also be seen in the apparently widespread vote-buying, which was denounced by OAS observers, that seems to happen in Colombia: it seems to be taken as read that a vote is worth $50,000 (around US$ 25) or is payable in merchandise of some kind (cement is one of the more common things that I heard). In addition, friends told me about companies where employees are forced to vote for a politician with links to the family who owns the company. This tendency appears to be most developed on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, considered to be one of the more corrupt areas of the country, where there was a concurrent straw poll on whether to create an autonomous region in the Caribbean. On the one hand, this would mean that an often neglected region would have more power and money to make its own decisions, an opinion that most people I speak to in Barranquilla share; however, according to one commentator—and some friends—would also increase the amount of power that the same corrupt politicians and/or paramilitary groups already have. In the context of political caciques (chiefs), it’s easy to say that both sides are right.

In an article on the BBC News website, before the elections, Colombia was described as having “one of the most solid democracies in Latin America”. I am in a no position to judge Colombia against other Latin American countries where I haven’t lived: however, if true, there is a long way to go for democracy throughout Latin America, as there is more to democracy than holding elections and maintaining the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Along with the obvious need to resolve the armed conflict in the country and demobilize all parties (guerrilla, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and the army), an important part of developing democracy in Colombia is to build faith in the political system. Compared to accusations of parapolítica it can seem trivial, but as I write this, there are recriminations in large parts of the Colombian press that the results of the Conservative primary are still not known, that the elections for the Andean Parliament may be annulled due to a large number of blank ballot papers (shades of Saramago’s Seeing) or that the National Registrar may have been drunk on a (supposedly) dry weekend. But the roots of trust and the cure to the cynicism widespread among people here and parts of the press go a lot deeper than the electoral process: fixing the electoral process is only the start and faith in the politicians is most important. The fact that there has been little change to the legislature since the parapolítica scandal—and with the parties most linked to the scandal now the largest in Congress—makes me agree with these opinion columns (El Tiempo, El Espectador and Semana): that the Colombian electorate hasn’t learnt from the past.

El tuiteo

By Rob Packer

Anyone who’s had an eye on my Twitter feed over the past few weeks might have noticed a huge increase in the amount I’m tweeting. A lot of it has to do with slowly finding members of la comunidad tuitera (Twitter community) of Colombia, but my real epiphany came when I stumbled across an opinion article in El País by Jordi Soler, a Spanish writer defending his own tweeting habits and who mentioned Yoani Sánchez, probably the most famous Cuban blogger who tweets from the island. A place I spent a month in 2004 travelling around, meeting and talking to Cubans and realizing that the paradisiacal view that people in the West seem to have of a socialist island paradise is nothing but the same fraud that I was to see the aftermath of five years later while living in Kyrgyzstan. The injustice of the system in 2004 was overwhelming ranging from trivial bureaucracy in the casas particulares (private homes)system to register guests the moment they arrive  and to serve tourists chicken or pork only, to prohibiting foreigners from travelling in Cubans’ private cars: we did this once on a trip from Camagüey to the beach and were told by our Cuban hosts of the risks they were running—if they were caught by the police they could have their car confiscated (and impossible to replace), while the hapless tourists would have a taxi called for them and sent on our way.

Through Yoani Sánchez, I found a group of Cuban bloggers writing and tweeting out of Cuba and the single most inspiring thing I’ve found about Twitter is the fact that there are Cubans tweeting from their mobile phones without even having access to the internet. It’s hard to describe the enormous democratic power of this: it feels like an incredible opportunity for Cubans to communicate with the outside world. Yesterday, one of these Cubans from the east of the island, Rolando Lobaina, became the latest to start tweeting. His first tweet possessed something incredibly simple but yet full of sadness:

Mi primer twitter. Andando que va tumbando la dictadura castrista. Libertad para viajar a nestor. Adelante juventud cubana!

My first tweet. Moving so that the Castro dictatorship falls. Freedom to travel to Néstor. Forward, Cuban youth!

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