Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Half step forward, Full step back.

Greenhouses.  Tomatoes.  Selling!  Profit!

I have been hearing about these things as a project for my site since before I arrived. The women in the womens group that invited me here had tried growing tomatoes and peppers with previous volunteers, but they just didn't thrive. Not terribly surprising, given that we're at over 8,000 feet in elevation. Somewhere around the middle of 2010, someone suggested to them that maybe if they built greenhouses they could get some real growth going. Keep the heat in, help the sun loving nightshade cousins toast their toes a little and hopefully they could produce some tasty crops to eat and sell.

When I arrived in November, we had a meeting to introduce me to the women. I asked for patience as I got to know them all, and also for input on what projects they might like to work on. The only thing any of them volunteered was growing tomatoes in greenhouses.

Through November and December I went to a few houses to help people plant radishes and carrots, and learn my way around. Mostly, though, there wasn't any work to do because of holidays, and the fact that my counterpart was on vacation from her work at school (and wanted to be on vacation from work with the women, too).

In mid January things got rolling at school, so we started having a few meetings with the women about greenhouses. I went to the city to check out prices on materials. We tried to get a sense of who was committed to the project so we could get going on a trial run.

Throughout all the meetings we played a game of telephone through my counterpart, who shuttled the information from K'iche' to Spanish and back again so I could communicate with the women. Well, somewhere in the game (as often happens) part of the message got lost.

Initially we had over 15 women who wanted to sign on to the project. They each thought they could pony up the Q50 (about $6.25) required to purchase a shared roll of the UV resistant plastic that would hold up for at least a few years on their greenhouse. In mid February we had a meeting to select which greenhouse size and design they wanted to use. I walked them through the costs of production I'd found based on the material prices and quantities I'd found for six different size and shaped greenhouses, ranging from Q200 to over Q500.  The women were quiet.

I had thought I had been very clear about the fact that the plastic was just one of many costs in making the greenhouse. However, they hadn't considered that purchasing materials to build a frame, to make supports for the tomatoes, and to buy the tomato seedlings would add up to much more than the Q50 they'd discussed with their husbands to cover the plastic. Although I had emphasized how much more cost effective it is to team up to make one or several larger greenhouse rather than build many, many smaller ones, that alternative doesn't appeal to them. My suggestion of making very small shelter pegged to the side of their houses to try growing just for consumption and not for sale this first year wasn't popular either.

Every woman chose to withdraw from the project. Perhaps in the future when they can save up, they said. It seems more likely to me that we would need to find some source of outside funding for them to be able to build much.

If they are unable to commit more than Q50 to the project, their household budgets are even tighter than I imagined.  My host family spends Q300 a week on groceries.  They are better off than many of the women in the group, but even so, Q50 is not a huge sum of money in Guatemala. Whether from lack of motivation or lack of means, the greenhouses aren't going forward any time soon.

Honestly, I was both disappointed and relieved. Working on such a tangible project is rewarding because you can see your progress as you build the structures.  On the other hand, I was nervous about making our first project together something that was making them stretch financially, when we didn't know each other well. Building 15 or more greenhouses and planting tomatoes in all of them was asking for trouble as far as I was concerned. Tomatoes are disease prone, for one thing. For another, I don't know how much these women are willing or able to commit to caring for their crops. They wanted to sell them for income, but this is a small town. If they each had a successful crop coming ripe at the same time they likely would have flooded the local market and not made as much profit as they dreamed.

So, four months into site we had spent a lot of time winding up, only to decide not to throw our pitch after all. To mix my metaphors, we're going back to square one. Time to shelve this idea and check out others. Maybe we'll come back around to this one down the road. Maybe not.

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