From the Farm to the World, on a Plate : In Colombia, improving value for farmers, supply chains and the environment
It’s 5 a.m. and Nuris Caro has been up for a while coordinating transportation – a task at which she’s become an expert. Today, Nuris can’t wait to connect with four colleagues to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, where they will brainstorm new ways to take their products from their small farms to prominent restaurants’ tables in the city.
Thirteen years have passed since she fled San Juan Nepomuceno, her hometown, located in a region known as Montes de María, in Colombia. With her husband and two daughters, she ran away from a wave of violence resulting from an armed conflict in the nearby state of Magdalena. While the family was very frightened for their future, they hoped they could plant seeds for a better life in San Juan.
But once they were in San Juan, they encountered the ugly face of violence again and were forced to give up agriculture. Living in the town, they made rare visits to their piece of beloved farmland and prayed to one day be able to return for good. During that period, they eked out a living from the small construction jobs that Nuris’ husband could find every so often. By the time the violence in the area subsided and it was possible to work at the farm again, Nuris lost her husband to illness.
Nuris’ bright smile hides hard struggles: escaping from the conflict, burying her husband and her younger daughter, and running their farm, where they cultivate bell pepper, corn, eggplant, tomato, coriander, mango and cassava. Those experiences made her strong and tenacious – crucial qualities for a leader who hopes to represent families who are looking for alternative ways to earn a living from the activity they love: farming.
Nuris recently met with Jaime Rodriguez, who also has an interesting backstory. This chef first discovered his love of cooking as a child while following his mother around the kitchen in Boyacá, Colombia. That passion took him to restaurants in Bogotá and Panama. Months ago, the same passion brought him to Cartagena, where he became the executive chef at the prestigious El Gobernador by Rausch restaurant. Jaime is thrilled by the possibility of bringing together chefs, farmers and organizations around an idea: recognizing the value of Colombian food.
Jaime created a tasting menu for El Gobernador consisting of nine courses, a virtual culinary trip around Colombia through its flavors. He takes typical comfort food, such as seafood casserole from the Pacific coast, and reinterprets it with a modern flair using cutting-edge techniques.
Jaime and Nuris (pictured left and right above) connected at Crepes & Waffles restaurant in the San Martin neighborhood in Cartagena. They were there answering a call from Patrimonio Natural, the Conservation Landscapes Program funded byUSAID and developed by the Natural Heritage Fund (Fondo de Patrimonio Natural) in alliance with Minka-Dev, where I serve as community manager.
Within the Conservation Landscapes Program, Crepes & Waffles, a well-known Colombian restaurant chain, is developing a pilot project to connect agro-biodiversity products with companies from the gourmet food sector. This initiative is based on the premise that higher-value and higher demand for organic products with agricultural biodiversity will encourage farmers to cultivate these varieties and, thus, contribute to the preservation of native species in the process. For about four months, Nuris has been coordinating the delivery of fruits and vegetables cultivated by small farmers. These products are now being integrated into Crepes & Waffles’ supply chain.
The gathering Jaime and Nuris attended is part of a broad strategy session to scale this initiative. The idea is to involve more restaurants and to link them with farmers committed to using organic techniques and protecting the tropical dry forest, also known as “the thousand colors forest.” This initiative seeks to create incentives, through market-based solutions, to conserve agricultural biodiversity in the tropical dry forest, in addition to generating social impact.
The call for the meeting was answered by chefs, directors and owners of prominent Colombian restaurants, including El Bistro, Montesacro, María, Agua de Mar and El Santísimo, among many. Organizations like the Semana Foundation, the Colombian Department for Social Prosperity (DPS), Fenalco and the University of Nariño (Udenar) also are participating in the project.
Minka-Dev is facilitating the sessions and uses co-creation methodologies to host a conversation around the interests of restaurants and farmers. Together, the participants are finding creative solutions to overcome the barriers that big supply chains and economic isolation can sometimes create. That information becomes the raw material to develop an expansion plan for Crepes & Waffles’ pilot experience.
The initial meeting ended with multiple commitments and expectations. Representatives from DPS and Udenar expressed interest in merging this initiative with other programs in the region. Chefs and farmers established a direct relationship to explore ways to use native products in gourmet menus. The Natural Heritage Fund and Minka-Dev collected the information and we are integrating it into a model that will be implemented in the coming months.
We’re still in the early stages of truly scaling this project and achieving the shared goals of protecting a wide variety of native produce by collaboration between farmers, restaurants, public and private institutions.
Chefs and customers first need to be made aware of the value the native products. Farmers must develop better practices to harvest, pack and deliver the produce, in order to meet quality standards of the restaurants. The logistical and conservation challenges demand the involvement of public and private organizations, as well. This meeting was the first step to co-create a model that allows agro-biodiversity conservation and income generation for Nuris and hundreds of smallholder farmers.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Minka-Dev Blog.
Marcela Arango is community manager at Minka-Dev.