Thursday, August 28, 2014

Behind the scenes at UMF: numbers and news

At Unión MicroFinanza in La Unión, some of the employees spend much of their time outside of the office, traveling to coffee farms and villages. And others are more often in the office, providing just as necessary support on the administration and communication sides. Two of these employees, for whom access to Internet and a quality office environment are essential, are Charlie Heins and Heather Farrell.

Litos manages accounting and finances for UMF.
Finance Manager Charlie Heins (who in La Unión is simply known as Litos) manages all accounting, including the bank accounts, taxes, and all spending and receipts for the organization's La Unión office. This involves everything from paying employees, to approving supplies for the office (without Litos, the motorcycle would not get filled with gas to go to the villages!) He also manages the receipt of payments made at microloan meetings, and trains the Honduran employees on using the computer to record payments and interest for microloans.

During harvest season, Litos is in charge of the beneficio, on top of his usual daily responsibilities. Here, he makes sure that everything is ready for each day, coordinates employee schedules, and assures that the beneficio is a good working environment.

Litos also helps make it possible for our community partners to visit La Unión and to support development projects in the villages: he receives and manages payments and costs for these trips. Basically, he makes sure that everyone gets paid who needs to be paid! Considering the nearest bank is three hours away, this takes a lot of organization and planning, and it's critical to the continuation of our community partnership projects.

Besides his work with Unión MicroFinanza, Litos is known in La Unión as someone who can provide technical support for computers and cellphones, in a place where there isn’t a “Geek Squad” to call. He also enjoys playing guitar and chess with the bilingual school students.

Heather organizes partnership trips and works with
bilingual school students, who translate for groups.
Heather Farrell is the media director for Unión MicroFinanza, and is in charge of communication for the organization. This involves everything from social media, to newsletters, to Skype calls and emails with community partners. If you receive the monthly newsletter, or see photos on Facebook, chances are Heather was behind it.

Another big part of Heather’s job in La Unión is communication with partners, both in Honduras and in the United States. Heather works with Pedro as a link between communities in La Unión and the U.S. She and Pedro plan and manage group visits to La Unión, as well as make sure that community projects continually move forward. We put great importance on connecting communities, and communication is vital for maintaining and building relationships. Heather works to make sure that our partners receive these updates and news.

In addition to working with U.S. partners, Heather stays busy in the community of La Unión and builds on local partnerships as well. She is involved in the Vida Abundante church in town, and works closely with the Vida Abundante bilingual school. She enjoys giving music and English lessons to members of the community, and hopes that what they learn will provide them with opportunities in the future.

Your generous donations to the organization support community development projects, trainings and microloan programs, and they also support the people who make these happen. Find out more on our website about becoming a donor. Thank you for your partnership with Unión MicroFinanza and the people of Honduras!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Community Partnership Coordinator: Pedro Hernández

Pedro, center, joins members of the village of San Agustín and Life Church
of Colorado at the start of a community partnership project.
We’re wrapping up a meeting in the UMF office; Pedro has just given an update on a development project in one of the villages. He’d met with the community leaders and coordinated with the engineer to begin the next phase of the project. The village’s project committee had a few questions for Pedro as well, which we will discuss with the project partner in the U.S. Through Pedro, and other members of the UMF staff, the communities in La Unión and the U.S. stay connected on community projects and also on a personal level, even though they are not able to be physically in the same place.

Pedro, right, takes notes in
La Cuesta in preparation for
a community project.
Community development is by no means straight forward; promoting sustainability and positive growth requires planning, adaptability, and above all collaboration. As such, Uniόn MicroFinanza intentionally involves community members and community partners in every step of development projects. To coordinate this collaboration and communication is UMF employee José Pedro Hernández Tejada. Because of his rapport within the communities and experience with social promotion, Pedro, a 28-year-old La Uniόn native, has been irreplaceable since he was hired two years ago. The people in the communities know Pedro well, and the respect they hold for each other helps them reach agreements.

Without Pedro, community partnership projects would not run nearly as smooth. Coming from a background of small-business (his family owns a small store in La Unión), Pedro is extremely organized and attentive to detail. He plans and helps direct meetings among community leaders to move forward on community projects. He travels to the communities to see how projects are advancing and take note of any of the community’s concerns or ideas. He is truly the link that connects communities in the U.S. and in La Unión.


Pedro helps coordinate a water access
project in San Agustín.
As much as Uniόn MicroFinanza relies on the work and relationships established by Pedro, he also relies on UMF for his well-being and future plans. Recently engaged to be married, Pedro is looking forward to providing for his new family through his work with UMF. Your generous donations to the organization support important community development projects, and they also support the people who make these projects happen. Find out more on our website about becoming a donor. Thank you for your partnership with Unión MicroFinanza and the people of Honduras!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Summer in La Unión, sharing knowledge and experiences


If La Unión had a tourism industry, its high season would be June. Many visitors, new and returning, come to town as their school year ends, but they aren’t coming as tourists. Sure, the tropical green mountains and open views of the valleys are impossible to miss on the drive into town. But most of these visitors are coming to meet new friends (and possibly visit old ones), and continue building partnerships between their respective communities. And for three interns, these relationships will be formed over their 10 weeks in Honduras.

As with previous summers, Unión MicroFinanza hosts interns for the summer months to assist with and learn about community partnership projects (watch the blog to read about new projects!) and the microloan, training and coffee programs. These interns also provide the organization with valuable research on topics varying from coffee leaf rust to markets and savings.

Besides this, summer interns live in the town and spend time with the people who live here. They will take these experiences and new perspectives with them as they return to their universities and friends in the States. This year, four interns are joining UMF, with one arriving later in the summer. Aidan Baldwin, Andreas Vailakis, and Marcus Warner have different areas of study and interests, which allows them to work on a variety of projects with the organization.

AidanAidan comes from the University of Notre Dame, where he is studying finance and entrepreneurship. Along with the other interns, he is helping organize and carry out distribution of June microloans. Aidan has already noted that some of the needs and resources in these communities differ from those he has visited in other developing countries. He’ll be hearing more about market access for small farmers in La Unión, and more about Aldea Coffee, which sells La Unión coffee in the U.S. Besides this, Aidan hopes to improve his Spanish, aided by the Honduran UMF staff.


andreasAndreas is studying for his master’s degree in social enterprise from American University, concentrating on international development in Latin America and monitoring and evaluation. In addition to working on a monitoring and evaluation plan for UMF programs, Andreas is interested in learning more about the savings strategies of households in La Unión, including investing in and selling non-perishable goods. During his internship, Andreas is staying with a farmer in UMF’s coffee training program. In living with them, he has noticed that women in La Unión have just as much work to do as the men: “Although Martha, the mother, is nearly the same age as me, she feels like my Honduran mom. I’m impressed by how hard she works and how much she does in the day. She is typically the first one to wake up in the family and the last one to bed, and I almost never see her taking a break.”


marcus
Marcus Warner studies civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, focusing on hydrology and energy-water-environment sustainability. His knowledge will be valuable for the two water-focused community partnership projects that UMF is currently involved with. Marcus is excited to learn from UMF employees Gilberto, Martir, and Pedro, who creatively approach engineering challenges based on experience rather than formal training. “Perhaps the most valuable thing that this internship will leave me with is motivation. In all of my classes before this summer, the problems that needed solving seemed abstract, even if they were based on a real-world engineering project. However, working with villages through similar problems this summer has given me a powerful frame of reference for future schoolwork.”

Monday, February 24, 2014

Relationships renewed and begun

Written by Sally Wevers, who led a team from Calvary Church in Holland, Michigan, on a visit to La Unión from Feb. 11 to 18. 

An eight person team recently returned from La Unión, Honduras. Despite different ages, backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, the group bonded extremely well. The Unión MicroFinanza staff did an amazing job setting up the schedule, as we were able to spend time with farmers, families, students at Abundant Life school, and individuals in La Unión.

The trip was unique in that it took place during coffee harvest, and we were able to receive and process Marlon Carcamo's (Calvary's coffee provider) coffee cherries. We picked coffee, unloaded 150-pound bags of fresh coffee cherries, processed them through the beneficio, hand sorted, stirred beans in the solar dryer, smelled, tested and tasted coffee.

We had times of reflection, devotions, and debriefing, sharing, and challenge. In order to share so many thoughts from the team, we are listing some observations, impacts, and responses. We hope you enjoy reading about what we have learned.

Observations:
- There is extreme poverty next to spectacular beauty, and the two extremes painfully clash.
- Calvary's coffee farmer, Marlon Carcamo, was thrilled and honored to have North Americans pick in his field and have lunch in his home with his family. But, the honor was ours.
- Our hearts hurt for the difficult physical labor and efforts placed on our farmer friends, so painfully affected by a leaf rust fungus that was no fault of their own. The fungus destroyed major portions of the coffee fields for many farmers. Knowing the families, having faces with names, brings authentic sadness and concern to the team. Our prayers will now be more intentional for them.
-"It is unfair that they work so hard and their provision for food is wiped out. The unfairness makes me mad!  I don't think I will complain when I get my Saturday chore list anymore," shared by the youngest member of our team.
- Physical provisions for families have been negatively affected, but there is more. Education for many has been taken away. We spent limited time in Nueva Paz -- this is where a team helped to build water collection systems called pilas two years ago. Eight children could be named from this one small community who had to quit their local school for lack of $15 per student for the semester!

Impacts:
- We are committed to purchasing the Aldea Coffee at church, and sharing our experience with others. The choices we make at home do dramatically impact others.
- We are partnering with an amazing organization in La Unión. The Unión Microfinanza (UMF) staff is committed to change. One of the staff members shared this with us, "Coffee is the thing we do to partner with and provide change. It could have been tea, or something else. The driving passion we have is the people, not the product."
- The UMF staff has the wisdom and the education to teach and replicate supplies needed to create smaller scale beneficios for area farmers. This training continues to have ripple affects in the community. We are grateful for Calvary's partnership with this organization.
- The team was challenged to attain more responsible personal stewardship, to consider what "living with less" might look like, to realize a growing appreciation for UMF's tremendous commitment to La Unión, and we experienced a greater appreciation for the education offered at Abundant Life school. The spiritual maturity of high school students was a powerful witness to us.

Most, if not all of us, have been asked,"Why go on a mission trip?" This is a summary of our answers. It is not about how much work that could be accomplished, but rather it is about relationships renewed, and others begun. It is not about what we could teach them, but what they had to teach us. When we now know names with faces, people matter. What they do and need matters, and responding to needs brings Christ-centered joy. Mission trips motivate personally and communally. Step out of your comfort zone. Mission trips are addictive!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Photos: What’s new at the UMF beneficio

The first coffees of the 2014 harvest are in at the beneficio! As we discussed in a previous post, we made some changes to how we are running things at the beneficio this year. But we couldn’t do this without making some changes to the beneficio itself.

First, and most importantly, we turned our four large fermentation tanks into eight smaller tanks. This is important because it allows each farmer to have two small tanks, meaning they can bring coffee more continually:


Second, we are building another two solar dryers. One will be a large solar dryer, totaling four, so that each farmer has access to their own dryer. The other will be a smaller dryer that we designed in the off-season. This dryer will be used mainly for experimentation, and will also serve as a model to farmers who produce small amounts of coffee and cannot afford to build a larger solar dryer:


Third, we have our custom-built coffee cherry size sorting machine up and running. This machine will sort out under-ripe and over-ripe cherries that would otherwise lower the quality of the coffee:


Fourth, we have installed a biodigester. This biodigester will use anaerobic fermentation to treat coffee wastewater and coffee pulp, ensuring that we are not contaminating the environment around us. Additionally, it will produce methane gas that can be used to run our processing equipment. More on this in another post.


We have also made several smaller changes including a newly designed valve in our upper tanks that will facilitate coffee flow, lowering our processing water usage, and check boxes in our wastewater tubing to prevent blockages:


All of these changes will help UMF to better achieve our goals of quality, training, and sustainability at the beneficio.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A new approach at the UMF beneficio


We’re firing up the depulping machine at the UMF beneficio in La Unión, ready for the 2014 coffee harvest! This year will look a little different at the beneficio – let us tell you what’s new and what we hope to accomplish through the changes we’ve made.

Each year, we learn more about coffee processing and how to better achieve our goals of quality, training, and environmental sustainability. The 2013 harvest season saw successes in all three of these areas, but we want to improve on it by making changes for the 2014 harvest.

The biggest change we’ve made is that only four different farmers will process their coffee at the UMF beneficio this year. These farmers were pre-selected based on their participation in previous years at the beneficio and in our microloan program. The main idea for having only four farmers each year is to ensure that we are able to provide the best training experience possible, so that they will be able to replicate and continue processing high quality coffee on their own in future years.

The fermentation tanks get tiling after being split in half.
In addition, we (UMF) and the farmers will be better able to manage how much coffee is coming to the beneficio for processing, and when. Each of the four farmers will be assigned an entire solar dryer and two fermentation tanks (we modified our previous tanks to divide them in half and create eight tanks in total). Farmers will be in charge of managing this equipment, so they will know before they pick coffee if they have room at the UMF beneficio to process, ferment, and dry it. Through this experience, farmers will learn about managing the coffee processing at their own beneficios in the future.


By working in-depth with four farmers during this harvest, we will also be able to visit coffee farms on the day of picking and offer on-site advice on picking quality coffee. High quality picking is one of the areas that we have identified as having the greatest impact on final quality, so this will benefit the farmers (who will get a higher price for better quality) as well as consumers, who will get even better coffee at the end of the day.

Also, we’ll require farmers to spend at least 20 hours at the UMF beneficio to learn about the different processing stages that their coffee is going through, including receiving, fermentation and drying. This in-depth training is important to enable farmers to process their own coffee in the future. Since we also want to make sure that other farmers have the opportunity to receive this training in the future, we’re limiting the number of years that a farmer can process at the UMF beneficio.

All of these changes will continue to transform the beneficio into a stepping stone to farmers achieving their own coffee processing capabilities. Within the next few years, we are excited to see farmers graduate from the UMF beneficio and implement high quality, environmentally sustainable beneficios of their own. We will be posting updates throughout the harvest!

Monday, December 16, 2013

In coffee leaf rust experiment, a surprise discovery


We're just over three months into UMF’s experiment comparing chemical and organic treatments for coffee leaf rust. The experiment is going well, but full details on how the treatments are working will come later, as we are still analyzing the most recent sampling. Apart from the treatment results, we have observed something interesting and unexpected. We first saw it a little over a month ago, and we confirmed it with formal sampling this past week: branches that don’t have any leaves start to die, but branches with even one leaf remaining, stay alive.

In our analysis, we found that 91% of branches that have no leaves showed signs of dying (dieback): blackened ends and softening of the branch. However, only 16% of branches with a single leaf showed signs of dieback. And 0% of branches that had two or more leaves showed signs of dieback.

These results are interesting for two reasons. First, it suggests that keeping a single leaf on a branch will prevent most long-term damage that will affect future harvests. Having two leaves on a branch ensures that no long-term damage will occur to the branch.


For farmers dealing with leaf rust, this observation has important potential implications. Throughout the course of the harvest year, a coffee plant grows new leaves, although this growth is concentrated during the rainy season. Farmers may be able to prevent long-term damage to a plant simply by using proper preventative measures to protect new leaves, even when older leaves of a plant are highly infected by leaf rust.

Second, our observation suggests that the long-term effects of leaf rust are branch-based, rather than plant-based. If a branch losing all of its leaves had a negative effect on the rest of the plant, we would expect to see a larger number of branches that show dieback but still have leaves. This means that proper treatment of leaf rust on one branch will not necessarily prevent long-term damage to other branches on that same tree. But, conversely, damage to one branch will not necessarily cause damage to another branch.

Furthermore, it appears that the effects of leaf rust are not transferred between primary branches and the secondary branches that grow off of them. Even though they are part of the same branch, we are seeing that secondary branches can lose all of their leaves and start to die while the primary branch continues to be healthy, and vice versa.


These numbers are not yet conclusive, and further experiments will need to be run in the future to be certain that leaf loss is causing, not just associated, with the dying of branches. There is still much to be done in terms of understanding how to take these new results and convert them into practical leaf rust prevention advice to farmers. However, they are certainly suggestive that the last few leaves are vital to the survival of coffee plants. We will continue to keep you informed as the experiment progresses.