TANIA VáZQUEZ VARGAS

Bolivia,

Tania Vázquez has created a business enterprise in which rural communities produce and market dehydrated fruits. The enterprise is organized to increase local income and improve nutrition, gender equity, and community participation.

This profile below was prepared when Tania Vázquez Vargas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.

INTRODUCTION

Tania Vázquez has created a business enterprise in which rural communities produce and market dehydrated fruits. The enterprise is organized to increase local income and improve nutrition, gender equity, and community participation.




THE NEW IDEA

Tania works with a team of technical advisors to manage a corporation of farmers, producing high quality, nutritious, natural dehydrated fruits. By building an association of poor organic farmers into a socially conscious business, she helps increase income while responding to ecologically unsound practices and gender inequality. Through technical assistance, training, and strategic planning, Bolivian farmers produce a better quality and more marketable product, yielding greater income and greater sustainability. Tania fosters a sense of cooperation and solidarity among the farmers with whom she works, effecting price stability, financial security, social responsibility, and self-reliance toward prosperity and corporate integrity in the formerly impractical industry of fruit production.




THE PROBLEM

Because of agrarian reform, Bolivian land, particularly in the Valle Alto region of Cochabamba, has been subject to excessive partitioning, causing a decline in the quantity of fruit production and much lower incomes for farmers. As a result, development organizations and the government have turned to chemical fertilizers and genetically enhanced seeds, which are dangerous to both producers' and consumers' health. Land degrading activities and non-demand driven production prevent sustainability in agriculture and drive down the value of products in the market. Moreover, neither the program directors nor the farmers claim responsibility for management of projects or maintenance of standards.

The situation is even graver for women producers, whose work provides them only half of what their male counterparts earn. In Bolivia, many companies are also reluctant to hire women because of prejudices against pregnancy or a perceived lack of physical strength. Moreover, many men have left their families to work in more economically sound regions of the country, leaving their wives as the sole providers for their children.

Additionally, school children in Bolivia's highlands lack access to nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables. Although schools are required to provide breakfasts to students, this obligation has generally been fulfilled with either cheap or donated food products, which nearly always lack nutritional value and become boring to students who eat the same food every day. The teachers who manage these programs do not have the background in nutrition to properly respond to the children's needs.




THE STRATEGY

Tania's organization, Ecología Vía Rancho (ECOVIR), fosters a fair trade partnership between technical specialists from the citizen sector and agricultural producers, by which all parties share equally in management and profit. While the agro-producers oversee crop production and ensure a consistent provision of high-quality primary materials, the technicians supervise marketing, development, and evaluation. The key, however, is interaction between the two sides, facilitating greater investment in the whole business cycle and more accountability for the product. In addition to establishing a practical model for team-oriented management and business development, Tania strictly enforces a policy of gender equity within the corporation by which all contributors earn equal amounts of money and take on equal levels of priority.

A new emphasis on market values led ECOVIR to launch a line of organic dehydrated fruits, based on a demand for nutritious foods in Bolivia's highlands and a growing market for export. The farmers and technical specialists collaborate to ensure sustainability of the agriculture and business sides of the process, involving critical investment in research, cultivation, packaging, marketing, management, and administration. The dried snacks industry, while previously untested in this region, meets all values standards of ecological safety, market demand, growth entrepreneurship, and social responsibility.

ECOVIR's product development caters to both the new international market for tropical fruit and organic products the implicit market demand for high quality, locally produced, inexpensive health foods accessible in great quantity. Drawing on its immediate success in local distribution through Cochabamba supermarkets, Tania worked with the technical specialists and producers to design a broader strategy to market their dehydrated fruit products to international buyers and public investors. She partnered with international associations of fruit producers to promote ECOVIR's fair trade goods abroad and has already been received by consumers in Europe and the rest of the Americas. She also contracted with Cochabamba's departmental (state) government to provide fruit for the area's public school breakfast program, a tremendously profitable endeavor with long-term security.

Since 1998, ECOVIR has fed eight thousand children per year, finally providing nutritious foods to students who previously lacked fresh fruit in their diets. Tania's approach is not only novel in the nutritional content of the product, but ECOVIR also provides logistical support for the school breakfast program, involving parents, teachers, and school authorities in public health planning and training.




THE PERSON

Since her early childhood, Tania has spent a significant amount of time in the countryside with her family, where she learned to speak Quechua and observed the mechanisms used by farmers to conserve products during the dry season. She also took note of the strategy of community cooperation and the resulting security provided to the community members, which she now sees as applicable to the current situation of Bolivia's farmers and their families. She also noticed the disappearance of traditional methods such as seed selection as a result of scarce resources and information.

Later, through her university studies in biochemistry, her work with self-management programs for farmers, and through her education studies, Tania reaffirmed her commitment to equitable division of and compensation for labor. Tania worked on the Solar Energy Development Project at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón, where she developed solar dehydrators for application in rural areas to conserve post-harvest crops. Tania joined several of her classmates in the application of this process to generate revenue for farmers, not just preserve their food for personal consumption, as had previously been the norm, through the organization, Energética.Through a farmer-business management project, Energética established a banana and kudzu flour processing plant in the Chapare region of Bolivia, which utilized solar technology. The plant closed, however, due to poor management. The work was disproportionate and irregular, often with no workers during harvest time and twice as many as necessary at other times. Observing which practices clearly did not work, Tania incorporated both the individual and the collective into a viable business through her organization, ECOVIR.




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