Thursday, June 23, 2011

Moving Forward: Paso a Paso.

After three weeks of being in La Unión I’ve grown accustomed to the lifestyle. From the amenities (or lack thereof) to the daily overdose of Coca-Cola, Honduras has really grown on me. But beyond daily life, nothing has impressed me more than the people, and last Friday put it over the top. We (Daniel, the other two wisecracking interns, and myself) went out to one of the local “aldeas” that UMF serves, and we had our first opportunity to speak to local farmers personally. I would start by saying it was insightful, informative, and even touching, but one must have been there to see the emotions in the eyes of the producers as they described their experiences with UMF: grateful simply does not do it justice.

The aldea we visited is called San Agustín and it’s about a two-hour walk to get there. To give you an idea of how secluded and removed it actually is, there is no running water, nor electricity, and the local school teaches up to third grade. The producers we talked to are named Domingo and Marcos. Before we went, Daniel asked us to prepare some questions in case the conversation came to a lull—they were not really necessary as these gentlemen were full of excitement and ready to share.

We started the conversation off casually by asking about their families and how long they have lived in San Agustín, but they first responded by welcoming us to their homes and thanking us for coming out to visit them—see what I mean about the hospitality? We talked about the program and how they like it, what kinds of differences they see in their personal lives, and asked them about suggestions for possibly making the program better. Marcos was very responsive and typically answered the questions we had prepared before we even got around to asking them. Personally, the best part of the conversation was when I asked Marcos if he had a dream he hoped to accomplish within the next couple of years and what UMF is doing or can do to help. Without hesitation, his response was that he wanted the next generation of the Adalid family to have it better than he did: to send his daughter to school. He wants to produce enough to afford a good education for her, and with the help of UMF, Marco’s dream is completely possible.

I came down here knowing Honduras had problems. I knew the government was incapable of providing social services and poverty trapped people by the millions. I also knew that I would not be able to accomplish everything I wanted to (pretty much everything just short of curing cancer) but rather that I would have to go home knowing I made some kind of difference, however small it was. But after this conversation, I feel enormous. It’s apparent that I am making a difference, even when I’m filing loan documents in the office. In nine weeks when I go home, I will know that I did my part to send Rosa Adalid to school—to help her get the education that her father was deprived of.

By Josh Hall

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Powerful Dream

On Friday we took a hike to San Agustín. San Agustín is one of the poorest aldeas (villages) surrounding La Unión and that is saying a lot. Most everyone in the village is either a corn or a bean farmer; there are no coffee farmers, which is the region’s only cash crop. Housing is humble, water is sparse, and electricity is non-existent. After an hour-long hike, we descended into San Agustín and I had my first view of an aldea. In a detached, tourist kind of way it is a really beautiful scene. Huts of mud, stone, and branches are nestled in a lush jungle with mountain peaks above and a river flowing below. We could have been walking through a Planet Earth DVD if only David Attenborough had been narrating.

But even if I had wanted to, it would have been impossible to stay detached for long. The idea of the trip was to interview a couple of UMF clients. I use the term 'interview' loosely. We were not trying to extract information so much as we were hoping to get a sense of their lives by just asking some questions, hearing their stories and letting the conversation flow. One of the men we spoke to was Domingo Paz. Domingo was a quiet character, but when he spoke his voice carried a weight and a passion so that everyone in the room felt every word.

The first thing Domingo told us was how grateful he was for what UMF is doing. It could not have felt more sincere. It is a hard thing to explain, the power of an earnest speech, but one could tell he meant everything he said and his eyes punctuated each point. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the loan he had gotten had helped him feed his family.

For me, the most powerful thing Domingo told us was his dream for the future. When we asked the question, his first response was to own some good land so he could grow coffee. The land around San Agustín is too low in elevation to produce coffee well, accounting for much of the aldea's poverty, even relative to other villages in the region, so this was likely a dream shared by many in town. But then we pushed him to think bigger. In an ideal world, if anything were possible, what would he wish for? After some deep thought, his answer was water. This might not come as a surprise to most people because water is the greatest need in much of the developing world, but the way Domingo said it struck a chord with me. When he explained what bringing water to the community would mean to him, his family, and everyone in San Agustín, Domingo--a solid farmer with a thick beard and strong face-- was on the brink of tears. In his wildest dreams, in his ideal world, what Domingo wanted was water. Both a simple request and a grand wish at once. Sitting across from Domingo, watching him hold back tears, it was impossible not to look at myself and think about everything I take for granted. At no point in this trip have I been more grateful to be here, paying my debt to society and making a difference in the lives of people who truly deserve it.

By Alexander L. Persky-Stern

Monday, June 20, 2011

Not your Normal Business School Internship - A Cup of Excellence

Hello, my name is Kyle Barkett and I am from Muskegon, MI. I study Business/Economics at Wheaton College outside of Chicago. I came down to Honduras because I am very interested in finance, development work as well as helping to relieve poverty.

To wrap up the end of my first week in Honduras as a UMF intern, Patrick Hughes and I woke up at 4 am to travel to San Pedro. The purpose of our long journey was to attend the Honduran National Cup of Excellence Competition. This is an annual coffee competition where coffee farmers compete nationally to have their coffee bought at higher prices. Coffees that place in the national competition get auctioned off, and as a coffee farmer’s place in the competition rises so does the sales price of his coffee. Coffee farmers qualify by producing at least 4,000 lbs. of a single coffee and entering it to be judged by international coffee buyers. Last year’s winner sold for $22 a pound and others that placed were auctioned at prices from $6-13 per pound. Even though I personally do not drink much coffee, attending this event was fascinating. Humble rural farmers from all over the country gathered in an urban setting for their coffees to be judged. These farmers are able to meet international buyers and be recognized for the quality of their coffee. While I sat back and watched all this unfold, Patrick was able to do some awesome networking, meeting the best coffee farmers in the nation, international coffee buyers, IHCAFE engineers, and other Hondurans involved the specialty coffee.

The awards ceremony was held in a very lavish conference center where one of the Vice Presidents of Honduras, the President of the National Coffee Fund and other important people in Honduran coffee handed out the awards. At this important event one would expect wealthy businessman with thousands of acres of coffee to compete, but in reality the farmers were rural farmers with small amounts of land. These farmers from very rural parts of Honduras have traveled a very long way to come to the competition. It was truly amazing to see these farmers come up on stage and be acknowledged and applauded by some of the most high-end and important people in the nation. This could be the only time in these farmers’ lives they are regarded with such high esteem. It took many farmers a while to adjust to the acclaim because they are not used to any acknowledgement. These farmers have toiled over their land in extremely high altitudes in order to produce this quality coffee, and I hope they continue to be recognized in this fashion for their accomplishments.

This competition shows the importance of trying to produce quality coffee and not just quantity. Most coffee farmers are not concerned about the quality of their coffee because local intermediaries buy all coffees at the same price no matter what. These intermediaries just mix all the coffee together and in this process all quality is lost. If quality is encouraged, Honduran farmers and driers will improve their practices to preserve and improve quality, and Honduran coffee will be associated with quality.

Kyle Barkett

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not your Normal Business School Internship - Loan Day

It's quite a sight to watch a pickup, loaded to the brim with bags of fertilizer and seeds and topped off with Honduran farmers, rumble its way up the dirt road, away from the warehouse. The vibrant colors in the valley where our microloan operations take place make for an eye-catching snapshot, but the big picture is what makes the view really magnificent. Understanding the effort that went in to make the whole operation possible and more importantly, what the load in the back of that truck can mean to the men, women and children taking it home, gives a profound and even touching significance to the scene, that an image alone cannot capture. This is "loan day."

But before we get too caught up in the moment, let's backtrack a bit and take a brief look at the trail that led to today. It's hard to pick out the true origin of that road. You could start seven days ago, when 100,000 pounds of fertilizer rolled up by the truckload and we unloaded it bag by bag until it was too dark to see, and then started again when the sun crept over the mountains the next morning. Or you could trace the path back a few weeks to the days spent assessing ­250 loan applications and approving 150 farmers for microloans ranging from a single bag to 1400 pounds of fertilizer. Or a month earlier when Gilberto and Martir visited 24 aldeas (villages) surrounding La Unión to spread the word about UMF and hand out the applications. Or even to the summer of 2008 when the very concept of UMF began to take shape. It's all come to a head today, when the farmers come by truck, horse and donkey to haul away their loans of fertilizer and seeds.

But don't get me wrong. This is not the climax. There's no doubt it's a peak for the organization, but this loan cycle was twice as big as the last and the next could easily be twice as big again. Also, for the clients, the farmers receiving the loans, this is certainly not the high point -- it's the very beginning. The hope is that the freedom from intermediaries, who have monopolized these types of loans in the past, will lead to a long-term change in the lives of our clients. Between increased savings through better rates, increased production through technical training, and increased selling prices through access to international markets, we can begin to break the cycle of poverty that's been spinning in this region for decades. The men and women riding away in the beds of their pickups might not have such grand schemes in mind, but we can hope that in the years to come they'll start to see the impact that I'm imagining as I watch them go.

By Alexander Persky-Stern

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Not your Normal Business School Internship - Moving 20 Tons of Coffee

When I began searching for an internship last fall, I was not sure exactly what I was looking for. I started with the typical ideas of a position within a banking or accounting firm. I always had an interest in numbers and finance, but after talking to people in the industry and attending countless forums, I realized it was not for me. The idea of manipulating spreadsheets for hours on end simply did not appeal to me like I hoped it would have. (Well, okay... to be honest, I never really hoped that spreadsheets would appeal to me.) After hearing stories from speakers at forums and classmates pursuing these careers, it became clear that I would not be happy in such an environment. So I went back to the drawing board, starting with my biggest passion--travel. The moment I discovered the internship program offered by Unión MicroFinanza, something clicked. I began having conversations with Daniel, UMF’s internship coordinator, about the program, the organization, and what it all entailed. It quickly became apparent that I had finally found an internship opportunity that fit.

I have been in Honduras for two weeks now, and to say my excitement has grown since I arrived would be an understatement and for good reason--my work with UMF is already in full swing, and words do not justify how much I am learning every day. Besides everything I have learned about microfinance, agriculture, and the people of La Unión, I’ve gained an incredible insight into the nuances of international business and how world markets affect small communities like La Unión.

The crew at Unión MicroFinanza wasted no time getting me involved. On my third day after arrival, I went on a day trip with Michael De Wit, UMF's Director of Honduran Operations, to the UMF coffee exporter in the city of Santa Rosa. We began by weighing the coffee to be sold, then loaded tons--literally 20 tons of coffee!-- into the trucks and hauled the coffee off to be sorted. Of course, this is a third-world nation, and not everything goes according to plan—which is a critical lesson to learn here. After one of the trucks broke down, I realized this was no longer going to be a simple day trip. With plenty of time to kill as I waited for Michael to return with the other truck, I went off and met a few locals who were ecstatic to meet me and hear about the objectives set out by Unión MicroFinanza. Just another reason the culture is so appealing to me. We eventually completed our mission and made it back to La Unión around dinnertime the next day. All in all, it was quite the voyage.

As exciting as this whole venture was, it is only a small portion of the process. Of course, exporting the coffee for sales in the States is a critical step, but there is so much more to it. This last weekend tied it all together. From processing loan approvals to receiving truckloads of fertilizer to finally distributing the loans to all of the producers, the process came full circle and I now understand what UMF does and how the people of Honduras are actually benefiting from the services provided—and what I am doing to help.

With ten more weeks to go, undoubtedly there will be many more adventures to come, people to meet, and stimulating work to carry out. With everything that I’m learning and all the friendships that I am forming, I am sure I will look back on this internship one day and be sad it ever ended. Yet I am equally sure that I will be proud of the goals and accomplishments I realized.

By Josh Hall

-Josh is a student at UC Berkley-

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Not your Normal Business School Internship - Zero Times Shaving

I'm Alex Persky-Stern. Josh Hall, Kyle Barkett and I make up the three-man team that arrived in Honduras on May 24th to work as interns with Unión MicroFinanza (UMF). I'm a Pisces, so as you probably know I'm kind, mysterious, endearing, tend towards dramatic life partners, and enjoy offering micro-financial services to rural farmers (Woolfolk 1992). So that's why I was thrilled when I was offered the chance to come down to Honduras and work with the UMF team for three months, addressing poverty through microfinance and social services in the La Unión region. To give you a sense of the ten days since I first showed my wide-eyed, gringo face around these parts, let's have a quick rundown by the numbers:

12: Fresh mangoes I've eaten. 10 lempira (50¢) a piece, and scrumptious.

0: Times I've shaven. My face is somewhere near the intersection of manly, ugly and lazy, but I've had a great time just not caring.

102: Spanish words we've taught to French-student Kyle. Almuerzo (lunch), licuado (smoothie), and the first hundred numbers.

4: Things I've done that I was completely unqualified for ten days ago. From impact analysis to farming, I've been learning at an exponential rate with no sign of slowing.

1: Attempt at running. Up a rocky, muddy mountain in 90° heat and 1000m elevation.

17: Times I've heard "Cada Día" by Jesús Adrian Romero. After 4 or 5 plays on repeat at Alicia's (our daily dinner spot, music choice courtesy of Alicia's ~7-year old daughter), I put on a monumental display of patience and persistence to download it myself. I can already tell you it's going to be the theme song of my trip.

2: Mornings working a milpa.

Now you might not know what a milpa is. Neither did Josh, so don't worry you're in good company. It means various things throughout Mexico and Central America, but here in La Unión it just refers to a cornfield. Milpas tend to be small with crops going to feed the family rather than for a profit. Gilberto Barrientos is a UMF employee, a La Unión native, and a great guy, so in an effort to help him out and get some personal experience with the life of a Honduran farmer, I and the other interns spent two mornings working on Gilberto's milpa. We hit the fields at 6:30 with piochas (pickaxes) and a big metal pole (see picture), and got to work tilling. The milpa was in a picturesque spot, surrounded by miles of mountains and emerald green foliage. But it was early. And it was hot. And it was hard. Ten minutes in I was sweating bullets and grunting like a caveman. Blisters were growing and getting ripped off faster than you can save money with Geico and my back was breaking. The point is, after just eight hours over two days we were exhausted. I don't know if it's fair to say I gained an understanding of the Honduran farmer's life, because I honestly can't imagine working like that all day every day. However, I certainly did come out with a new appreciation for the work that I'll be doing over the next three months and what it can mean to the people of La Unión.

By Alex Persky-Stern