Wednesday, July 20, 2016

San Lucas Cheese Company (Or, As We Like to Call it, San Luqueso)

Blog 6: San Lucas Cheese Company (Or, As We Like to Call it, San Luqueso)
July 10th, 2016

Disclaimer: The following blog post contains cheese puns. Read at your own risk.
“Okay, so the first thing we need is directions.” Everyone broke out in laughter.
OKAY, SO. Queso. (Pun number one).

We presented to San Lucas Queso today. It was a Sunday filled with hiking, cheese, cows, and a healthy dose of sugar and cologne. Let’s start with our first time in San Lucas.
Forty-five minutes from Namarin, on the Pan American Highway, a small town by the name of San Lucas sits nestled in a beautiful valley. If I had closed my eyes for fifteen seconds in the bus, I would have missed the town completely. A river runs alongside the Highway andtiendas advertise for Pilsener Beer at nearly every corner. Occasionally, the smell of a panaderia or chancho asado wafts through the bus, but before I can turn to see the source, the bus has already whizzed past.
This is Week 5 and Team Oportunidad is now in southern Ecuador. Team Impacto worked with San Lucas Cheese during Week 2 and gave some consulting advice. The artisans of San Lucas Cheese acted on all of the recommendations given during the consulting session with Team Impacto, so my team was very excited to be working with such a gouda (ha!), receptive company.

When our bus stopped in front of the building, my team did not quite understand where we were supposed to look: an old, but well-maintained, building stood in front of us; beyond the building, a field of maize grew on a nearby hill; everywhere we looked, we were surrounded by beautiful green mountains, speckled with cows, and small, stone houses scattered few and far between; behind us, an old church, seemingly ready to collapse under the weight of itself, stood atop a very narrow and steep flight of stairs. This was surely San Lucas. Our appointment was scheduled, confirmed, and re-confirmed to be at 10:00 am. However, true to Ecuadorian time, the family did not show up until 11:30. After a round of welcomes, the most talkative member of the family, Lauro gave us updates: since TeamImpacto worked with them, approximately two weeks ago, the San Lucas Cheese Company had a community meeting where many of the contributing members decided to leave the Cheese Company. Their reasons for leaving were that the members were too old or were not personally invested in the company. After approximately forty members decided to separate, this family decided to take it upon themselves to continue working as the San Lucas Cheese Company.
During the course of our initial discussion session, Lauro mentioned that the family wanted San Lucas to become a tourist site. Then he mentioned it again. And again. And once more. He expanded: San Lucas was a unique area because the valley is beautiful, there are plenty of incredible hikes in the nearby area, Incan Ruins are only an hours walk away, and the San Lucas Cheese Company makes the best artisanal cheese in Ecuador. The San Lucas Cheese consulting crew received a lot of information that day, but for the sake of being (more) succinct, I will forgo the details that are irrelevant to the tourism consulting. The San Lucas cheese is unique because the family is (and the company has been) using a very traditional style of packaging: rather than plastic, they use toasted banana leaves and blackberry vines to preserve the flavor and prevent bugs and pests from contaminating the cheese. This method of packaging proves to be very effective, but is only seven cents more. The family wants to maintain this style of packaging because it adheres to the traditional process of cheese making in the region, a craft that began in 1911. The family owns a restaurant, “Parada de Abuela,” or, “Grandma’s Stop,” which is located on the Pan American Freeway. Travelers, journeying from Saraguro to Loja, are frequently on the road. From August 1st to September 15th, the restaurant is open full-time to accommodate the thousands of religious folks that take part in a walk to a certain church (sadly, we didn’t quite understand this part of the conversation).

The family was primarily intent on leveraging the popularity of the cheese to draw tourists (mainly foreigners) to their town. However, the San Lucas Cheese Company’s cheese is not popular at the moment because they are not present in many markets. Additionally, the cheese costs $2.09/lb to make. Competitors in the nearby area charge $2.00 and are actually losing money, but they don’t have the business knowledge to understand this (according to Lauro). Competitors believe they are making money, but they forget to take into account the transportation, packaging, and time costs associated with making cheese. As such, competitors are slowly losing money. But Lauro’s family cannot sell in San Lucas because their cheese is much more expensive, priced at $2.60. Lauro also hoped to have an online presence with stronger marketing.

After consolidating our notes, the consulting team concluded that the San Lucas Cheese Company needed help with three things. First, they had to introduce their cheese to new markets; San Lucas is not a big enough market and it is saturated with cheaper cheese. Additionally, customers do not care to buy higher quality cheese. With the exception of one sale, individuals simply wanted cheaper cheese. Second, the family knew the area very well and were excellent guides (we actually spent a day making cheese with them) so San Lucas Cheese Company could easily diversify and become somewhat of a tourism company. Finally, their presence on social media was non-existent.
During my free day, I, along with five other guys from the group, traveled to Loja to do some work and explore the city. In our time there, we were able to find more than a dozen panaderias that were interested in selling the San Lucas cheese at around $2.50. Sometiendas were even willing to sell the cheese for more, assuming that the family would allow them to sample first. One store asked to sell it on consignment. We compiled a list of all the stores, their addresses, contact information, and interests. With these fifteen bakeries, Lauro’s family would be able to start selling in the Loja market.
The growth of the company into the tourism sector was a little bit more of a problem for us. The family hoped to build living quarters, similar to a bed and breakfast, for tourists that planned on extended stays. During their stay, Lauro hoped, the tourists could learn how to make cheese from beginning to end; from milking the cow and carrying the buckets to adding the final spices to the various cheeses. During the time it takes for the cheese to settle and culture, the tourists could participate in horseback riding against the winding trails of San Lucas’ mountains. Lauro, his two brothers, and his dad, took us on a (very strenuous) hike (on foot) through the jungle near their house (more details on that in a later blog post). At the top of the hike, near a waterfall, the family performed an indigenous ritual of cleansing. All in all, it was a surreal experience: ten interns, Lauro Sr., and his three sons, dwarfed by the size and sound of a crashing waterfall only feet away. It was an insight to their residency but also their culture. The reverence and respect they had for Pachi Mamawas astoundingly clear.

At the end of the hike, upon return to the residency, my consulting group was tasked with giving critiques of the day along with our recommendations for growing the tourism arm of the company. When it came to the hike, the interns were vastly underprepared. We recommended that San Lucas find two or three trails of varying difficulty, that way the tourists could pick the trail based on intensity. Second, “Grandma’s Stop” was located on the Pan American Highway, a heavy-traffic area. They could use the restaurant to publicize their cheese by offering free samples or using the cheese to make dishes. Finally, the endeavor to make San Lucas a tourist destination is difficult for one (fairly) young company to strive for independently. Thus, we recommended that they partner with other businesses and artisans in the area to better structure their tourism industry. For example, maybe someone who lives near the Incan Ruins can lead hikers there while those with horses can organize horseback riding.

Lauro Jr. emphasized that San Lucas Cheese Company really wanted a presence on social media, so we made a Facebook page and featured some of professional-grade pictures of the establishment and cheese (shout out to Hyun for an incredible job with the pictures). My group went one step further. Trip Advisor is always looking for additional hot spots as tourism sites, so we began the process to establish San Lucas Cheese Company as a Trip Advisor recommended spot.
Sadly, my group was not able to try any of the finely aged cheese of San Lucas Cheese; at the time, they did not have any ready to sell or sample. Nevertheless, after a wonderfully enjoyably productive day, I rediscovered my passion for cheese. Kraft American Singles just don’t cut it. 


Blog 5: Saraguro
July 9th, 2016

We have just a few days left in Saraguro, but it seems that we have bonded with the Namarin community more than any of us expected. Namarin is a small pueblo, located up the hill from the town of Saraguro. In contrast to the indigenous people of the north, the men of Namarin and Saraguro have long, braided hair and sport black pants that show off their muscular calves. Man buns may be popular in the U.S., but the indigenous men of the south are the OG man buns. The hats here, for both men and women, are predominantly black (though I have seen some blue) and the women express their creativity through intricate beaded jewelry and bright shawls. My homestay mom here, Maria, has over 300 necklaces and bracelets in a glass case in the living room. As with all women in Saraguro, Maria makes beautiful beaded jewelry, a tradition that has been passed down for generations.

My home in Namarin is incredible. I was used to the cold, dry climate of Pulingui but Namarin is the complete opposite. At a lower altitude, Namarin is warm(er) and it has rained five of the seven days we have been here. The house is beautifully furnished with wood that Marcello, my homestay dad, collected, cut, smoothed, and varnished himself. In fact, everything in their house, from the bed frames to the mirror, to the dining room table, was made by Marcello. Every morning, I wake up to the sound of an electric saw, cutting its way through another dozen planks, and the smell of various kinds of wood.

The food I eat in Namarin is different than elsewhere, for several reasons. First off, my Namarin family is entirely vegan. Second, families grow, harvest, and store their own crops; it’s entirely natural! Finally, my family is a clash of cultures. Maria makes standard Ecuadorian food, but with a vegan twist. The food is healthy, fresh, and a beautiful combination of flavors. The “coffee” is actually café de cereales, a unique concoction of Maria’s making. It’s not really coffee. It tastes more like an earthy, dark tea with a strong aftertaste, but the consistency is that of milk. It is sweetened with panella, a type of sugar from sugar cane, and is usually served with a plate of bread. Café de cereales does not have any caffeine, but the flavor is uniquely strong so I end up feeling rather energized. Additionally, thesopas here are different than Pulingui and Cuenca. For one, the soups are all grain-based, have an alternative source of protein (lentils or beans), and come with moté. I like moté but it is bland if not mixed with anything else. Usually, we used moté as a staple, like rice, but my Namarin mother would give it to me as a snack.

A favorite pastime of Team Oportunidad (during our off time, of course) was buying mora popsicles and hiking to nearby waterfalls or streams and basking in the sun. At night, we would grab our sweaters and find a secluded field to watch the stars. Albuquerque has a great night sky, but Namarin’s was out of this world: The Milky Way spilled across the sky and the only “significant” light source was the occasional flash of a lightning bug. In an odd way, it made me nostalgic of the summer nights I read about in books. My week inNamarin reminded me, on several occasions, that the simplest moments can sometimes be the most memorable.

Fundacion Hogar and the Ridiculously Frustrating Time When I was the Least Experienced Spanish Speaker in the Room

Blog 4: Fundacion Hogar and the Ridiculously Frustrating Time When I was the Least Experienced Spanish Speaker in the Room

Why did the XM radio go to the hospital?
Because it was Sirius-ly injured.

We were told our next client would be a radio station. Imagine our confusion when we walked into a low-income hospital, but that is exactly where Radio Familia 96.9 is located. Fundacion Hogar is a trifecta organization consisting of a hospital, church, and radio station. The Verbos Church raises funds for the hospital and the radio station through soliciting donations and pledges. In turn, the hospital has an open-door policy, accepting everyone regardless of their financial situation or citizenry status. Medical procedures that typically cost $120 - $300 are administered at the fractional cost of $9. If the patient is not able to pay $9, the hospital is willing to accept any amount. This also includes repeat visitors, such as when checkups and reevaluations are necessary. On several occasions, the hospital treats patients entirely free of charge. One individual comes to the hospital once a month, and has been for over two years, and pays $2 each visit.

Radio Familia 96.9 is a Christian-based radio station that offers preventative treatment over FM, the only such radio channel in Ecuador. As the 8th most popular radio station in Cuenca, listeners call in with questions regarding health and hygiene to have them answered by medical professionals. Currently, Radio Familia 96.9 has 8,000 regular listeners with an average of 19,000 listeners per month. The Verbos Church is the only source of funds for the radio station. In the past, the church has raised funds for the radio station through “Time to Give,” a campaign to enlist churchgoers to pledge $1-5 per month. Unfortunately, Radio Familia has not raised funds on their own because they are not allowed to sell ads or commercials over the radio, out of fear of compromising their Christian values. Radio Familia can receive donations through individuals, whether it is domestically or internationally. The Ecuadorian government currently does not provide funding for Radio Familia because the government has more pressing concerns (understandably…the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador destroyed parts of the coast). Additionally, if one radio station in Cuenca solicits subsidies or funds from the Ecuadorian government, then government must also fund other similar radio stations. As such, at this time, Radio Familia does not believe that government support is feasible.
Annually, Radio Familia has costs of $60,000. Though we asked several times (in several different ways and languages), it was not clear where this $60,000 went; all of the equipment, such as the mics, soundboard, mufflers, and more, were donated by Peace Corps volunteers or USAID and the station employed five people. In 2015, Radio Familia spent $60,000 but was approximately $11,000 in debt (they received $49,000 from the church and related funds). For the future, Radio Familia hopes to build a fully equipped radio station in a church (Verbos Church) so that they can have complete autonomy over the material they broadcast and access to priests, sound technicians, and specialized talkshow hosts. Pablo estimates that this project would cost $300,000 in total.
Fundacion Hogar asked for help with fundraising. First off, how can they raise $11,000 to clear themselves of the 2015 debt? And second, how can they consistently raise $60,000 per year to sustain their operation costs? Finally, how can they move into a church of their own?

Pablo, the “chief” of Radio Familia, met with us twice to try and answer all of the questions we had. His teeth are as shiny as his bald head and his positivity is contagious. He is receptive to any of the concerns or feedback that he receives on the spot and is always offering himself as a resource for the interns. After leaving Fundacion Hogar for the second time, we (the interns) agreed that working with Pablo is incredible because it is clear that he is passionate about Fundacion Hogar and Radio Familia. We walked away intent on providing them with as much help as possible.

Our methods of tackling this are still in development as we speak. Josh, a soccer player from UConn with a love for international development, and I decided spearhead this initiative. We met together earlier to consolidate our ideas; we intend on presenting a strategic framework of sustainability for Fundacion Hogar. The rest of the team decided to hone in on one of the short term recommendations so that Pablo actually had a tangible plan of action that he could implement as soon as possible. (Later, we decided to make Fundacion Hogar a Priority Two project, one that we worked on throughout our time in Saraguro).

The basic outline for Fundacion Hogar is as follows. Short term solutions for Fundacion Hogar and Radio Familia are centered on raising funds as quickly as possible to eliminate their $11,000 debt from 2015. As such, the team decided to create a 5k run (which are apparently very popular among those in Cuenca, especially expats) and a GoFundMe page. Similar pages exist in Ecuador (Pablo’s assistant mentioned something called “Hay A King?”) but Fundacion Hogar has never tried using such resources. After talking to some Cuenca locals, I found out that many expats in the region try to find worthy causes to donate their time and money. GoFundMe has a large viewership and Fundacion Hogar would benefit, regardless of the amount of money raised.

Medium term recommendations were about creating partnerships in Cuenca. Cuenca is known for having an abundance of churches of various religions and denominations. Many of the churches in Cuenca have such a strong attendance that they are able to donate to several charities each year and still have an excess of funds. We recommend that Fundacion Hogar and, more specifically, Radio Familia  partner with other churches for events, such as “Time to Make a Difference,” so that church attendees are made aware of Radio Familia, their message, and their need for funds. If a member of their staff can dedicate their time to establishing such relationships with churches, fitness clubs, and philanthropic foundations, Radio Familia will have an abundance of events and individuals rally to their cause.

Long term ideas for Radio Familia were focused on two legs. First, Fundacion Hogar had to expand their network of reach. As of now, Radio Familia only receives donations from The Verbos Church, but Pablo, and the staff of the station, know several churches internationally that would be able to provide much larger sums of money for initiatives that are similar to Fundacion Hogar. One such way of expanding their reach is by creating a network of hospitals that operate similarly to Fundacion Hogar. That way, international campaigns and philanthropic initiatives can see that the hypothetical network is established, legitimate, and serves a large number of people. This incentivizes those large donors to consider Fundacion Hogar as a legitimate contender for those funds. Second, Radio Familia needs to appeal to the Ecuadorian government for funding. Many of the hospitals in Ecuador accept everyone and the Ecuadorian government ends up paying a lot for those individuals unable to pay for the medical procedures. Radio Familia provides a public service by offering preventative health care, for free, to listeners in Cuenca. If Radio Familia was able to quantify the approximate amount of money that they are saving the Ecuadorian government through their radio service, then the government is more likely to support the radio station (given, of course that the amount saved is more than the amount spent to support Radio Familia; otherwise, this would not be in the best interest of the government). Pablo mentioned that he could provide an approximate figure, but he would need a few more months of data to accurately make a claim.

We will be presenting to Pablo, Fundacion Hogar, the employees of Radio Familia, and some church members in our final week in Cuenca. I sincerely hope that these ideas will help them move forward to continuing their incredible work.

In the title, I mention (rather subtly, if you couldn’t tell) that speaking with Fundacion Hogar and Radio Familia was frustrating. My Spanish is nowhere near perfect, but I am usually able to understand most of the conversation that takes place around me. This time however, the technical words used went completely over my head. I obviously could not do my best job as a problem-solver if I could not accurately understand the issue. I felt that I was committing a disservice to myself and Pablo. After several minutes, I finally spoke up, asked for translations, and had a better gauge of the conversation. Was this the first time this happened? Absolutely not. Will it be the last? I hope not. If I am in a room where I do not understand the conversation, be it due to linguistic differences or thinking differences, that means I am in a very uncomfortable situation; I do not have mastery over the subject material and thus have a lot to learn. I am okay with that.