Fermin Torrejon is taking advantage of a historical moment in Peru to recast citizens as active players in local economic and infrastructure planning. Fermin uses information technology to integrate community- and citizen-level activities with the government planning and funding processes where they currently separate.
La nuova idea
Fermin is transforming rural Peru’s planning and development process into a dynamic, citizen-driven catalyst of economic development. He envisions economic development and local planning processes which are integrated across communities, time, and diverse stakeholders. Local level economic development initiatives, traditionally separate from government planning work, are now linked through a flow of data. Under Fermin’s design, local cash-crop production becomes much more than another community-based development scheme; it becomes a community-based development scheme with a road. Governments receive the information they need to build roads to connect cash-crops with markets and plan watershed management around new irrigation infrastructure.
But Fermin also knows that computers alone do not make a better world. At its core, information technology, and the ability to use it, provide a platform to improve local productivity and bridge dramatic gaps in information and coordination. He teaches youth to access technology to connect on-the-ground activity and government. “Telecenters” and accompanying training, positions young people to feed information on local activities to regional governments and access the federal government’s substantial resources on export markets and regulations. Fermin also teaches them to access simple planning technologies that have the power to show immediate, concrete improvements in agricultural productivity.
Fermin’s timing is no coincidence: He is leveraging a series of political events that magnify the power of his work. A newly decentralized planning and spending process redirected millions of federal dollars to the discretion of local and state governments. Mining companies have pledged millions for local development, and a recent election replaced entrenched politicos with enlightened locals. Fermin has begun to implement his work with a regional governor, and has attracted strong interest from several regional leaders who need a way to manage this influx of cash. Fermin is establishing the conditions to spur a more citizen-led approach to development at a critical time of change.
Rural development in Peru has suffered from a lack of coherent planning, coordination, and efficiency. Development plans tend to be top-down, developed for the political purpose of the moment with no connection to the changing needs and activities of citizens. Resources are wasted when roads are built in areas that do not need them and agricultural areas are disconnected from the markets that sustain them. Strategic plans become mere documents, filed away until they are forgotten and a new round of planning begins with little attention to the plans and mistakes of the past.
Recent decentralization of federal funds to allocate and spend at the state and local level, combined with a recent influx of funding for social projects from mining companies, have the potential to give new power and importance to local planning. Today, these local governments are ill-prepared to deal effectively with these new funds.
Fermin is introducing a planning and implementation process that integrates community and citizen level activities with the government planning and funding processes. Through simple information technology, community members feed relevant information on economic activity—from land use to productivity statistics—to government planners who, for the first time, have the information they need to make informed funding and development decisions. Similarly, local government information is aggregated at the regional level. As such, community-based activities cease to occur in complete isolation from top-down development initiatives: A new government road can strategically pass productive areas so that produce doesn’t spoil on its way to market and watershed management can account for new irrigation developments, even when the irrigation and new planting initiatives are led by private citizens.
Technology is therefore a bridge between communities and government planners—but the information it provides is also a powerful tool for local community members to improve their economic situation. In several test cases, Fermin has introduced a small set of key technology tools to allow producers to track the timing of their inputs and outputs so as to dramatically increase their output. In one test initiative, simple electronic tools allowed a guinea pig farm to increase productivity by a factor of ten simply by accurately tracking breeding patterns of female animals. In another test run, farmers diversified their traditional potato crop to plant and sell higher value artichokes for export. In an effort to increase exports, the central government in Lima invests significant resources to identify and facilitate export market opportunities. But until now, local communities didn’t have the tools or know-how to tap into this valuable information. In the case of local small-farmers collaborating to export artichokes, Fermin successfully changed this situation by giving them access to information.
Young people are central to the power of technology in Fermin’s work. With their excitement in new technologies and willingness to learn, the young connect their families to technology. To leverage this energy, Fermin created an elaborate set of telecenters with computer access. Each “Telecenter” has ten computers connected to satellite Internet and is accompanied by educational methodology involving families, teachers, students, principals, and community authorities. Students attend two to three-hour weekly sessions to learn Office programs, develop websites about their region and conduct research about issues—such as export markets—that have the power to impact their communities. By seeing the concrete impact of their work, students become more engaged and perform better in school. Molinas, where Fermin piloted his program, became the only school where performance indicators improved.
Fermin has developed his work and ideas for five years, but recognizes that recent political and policy changes provide the platform he needs to leverage his work. Recent changes in law increased regional authority over funding and planning decisions, and mining companies have committed millions to local development. In a majority of regional governments, the historically entrenched power-brokers have been replaced by a new generation of forward thinking locals who are competent and dedicated to change. Fermin’s work is ideally positioned to give government the tools it needs to effectively connect with its constituency and manage the increased federal funds. In the first region where his plan is being implemented, government funds will not only cover implementation, but will allow for close monitoring of the information and outcomes that flow to the regional level. This has allowed the planning process, to date entirely static, to become iterative as problems are identified and plans are retooled. With promising results, two other regional governments are eagerly discussing expanding Fermin’s work to their districts.
Fermin lives in rural Junin, Peru, in the same rural region where he grew up. The journey that took him away from his home and brought him back thirty-seven years later also prepared him for his life’s work.
Born to a small business owner, Fermin began working at a young age in the clothes manufacturing business. He hoped to go to college, but wasn’t accepted, so instead applied to and attended an IBM training program where he excelled and, with only a break to get married, found himself in the U.S. Over twenty years, he worked on Wall Street in the insurance industry and as director of data processing for the pharmaceutical giant Norton Lilly and then found himself back in Latin America, working for Merck from their Bogota base. He introduced several important innovations including decentralizing the support group for Latin America and pioneering the first electronic interconnection between offices in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1980 he developed the online CRM system connecting pharmacists to Merck. The experiment was so successful in Latin America he was entrusted to oversee its implementation as Technology Director for Europe, Western Europe, India, and Pakistan.
Through his travels, Fermin maintained a desire to return with his wife and children to Peru and eventually did. In Peru Fermin began to observe problems that seemed time and again, to be rooted in government ineptitude at planning and implementation and began to ask what might happen if he applied the business methodologies he learned to the development needs of his homeland. He traveled extensively within Peru, eventually settling thirty-seven years after having gone, near his hometown of Molinas. The feeling of returning home was powerful and Fermin has never looked back; despite quips from family and friends who cannot believe he returned to live in a small village after traveling the world.