A caravan of SUVs meander their way relentlessly up a steep Andean slope, pushing forward with every curve and ploughing through pot-holes filled with mud. On both sides of this wet and unforgiving track are the verdant fields of the Cundinamarca highlands, caressed by calculated hours of sunlight and bathed by sufficient rain to make this one of the most productive regions on earth for planting crops.
Yet by the look of things, the valley of Une, is hardly prosperous. Times are hard and have been so for decades. One could refer to this patchwork of cracked cottages and slanting chimneys as Colombia’s equivalent of a Victorian landscape; and one immortalized by writers Thomas Hardy, Antony Trollope and the Brontë sisters.
Yet there is no Tess dancing around a Maypole on this misty April morning, nor a Downton Abbey at the end of the mud lane. Instead, there are rows of potatoes, children with rosy cheeks and rauna-clad campesinos hunched over bowls of steaming broth and wandering why a man in a Nehru jacket turned up in their vegetable patch.
Professor Muhammad Yunus has traveled far from his native Bangladesh to reach this “his Everest” and a few days after an earthquake devastated Nepal, the Himalayan nation not far from the town of Chittagong where the Nobel Laureate was born in 1940.
Professor Yunus was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition from the Stockholm-based organization for “creating economic and social development from below.” The Grameen Bank which was founded by Yunus in 1983 first captured the world’s attention when the economist developed a lending model to offer thousands of small business owners, who couldn’t access loans from established banks (and far too often had to borrow from the village loan shark), microcredit in order to help them fulfill their small economic miracles.
The Grameen Bank’s microcredit model of lending money to the poor to help them set up a profitable business set the established mindset that “the poor can’t run a successful business” on its head, and today, many of the world’s big financial entities have incorporated the microcredit model into their mainstream services. Of Grameen Bank’s borrowers, 97 percent are female.
Professor Yunus came to Colombia last month to show his support for the “social business” option, which unlike a charity, or an NGO, seeks to generate revenue, yet reinvests the funds back to a community, in order to motivate, inspire and prove that small scale investments can lead to greater economic development, especially in countries trying break out of a poverty cycle or overcome an internal conflict. Many of Yunus’ social business ventures have received backing and technical assistance by blue chip corporations such as food giant Danone, the global water group Veolia, Adidas, and software giant SAP. Most recently, Japan’s casual clothing brand Uniqlo teamed up with Yunus to create textiles in Bangladesh to help poor women gain financial independence.
In Colombia, the Yunus investment and philosophy has reached the countryside, more specifically, the agricultural sector, which continues to grapple with high transportation costs, social exclusion, and challenging access to growing markets. The discontent in the countryside has also manifested itself in prolonged strikes and the abandonment by a younger generation who feel that working the land is no longer profitable.
Large-scale migrations to the big cities by those who are either fleeing the 50 year-long conflict has drained the land of both human resources and the incentive to cultivate the food which every day turns up at our table. “Right now we are in the middle of on an energy crisis,” states Muhammad Yunus as he addresses the potato farmers affiliated with the Yunus’ social business venture in Colombia: Campo Vivo. “Soon we will all be living a global food crisis.”
Yunus’ affirmation may sound alarmist, but unless farmers are given access to social services and the possibility of owning a small savings account to run their household budgets, the countryside will continue to endure a shortage of campesinos, which in turn, will lower production levels of everyday staples. “The key is to help others be creative and contribute to society at large,” states Yunus. “Agriculture is not about crops. It’s about people.”
Campo Vivo’s 40 hectare project in the windswept altiplano is looking long term to restore the faith of farmers to cultivate the so-called R-12 potato and set an example to other communities, that by working side by side with a large corporation, the technical qualities of the produce will improve substantially and all campesinos could compete for better prices on agro industrial materials. In order to weave in the community and strengthen the workers’ cooperative, Campo Vivo teamed up with two key associates: the Canadian Cooperation Society for International Development (Socodevi) and the frozen food giant McCain Foods Ltd.
The New Brunswick based and family-owned company which sells potato products around the world contacted the Nobel Laureate to become involved in the Campo Vivo venture, and appreciating always a great French Fry, Yunus, took up the challenge and began to become involved in Colombia. “It’s an amazing thing that McCain, a leader in the world for agricultural activity, joined hands with Yunus Social Business to make a dream come true,” says the Laureate. “What we see here will transform the thinking about agriculture. Crops can change the lives of people. It’s about living with dignity.”
McCain’s high standards of quality in the field are a guiding principle be- hind Campo Vivo. The company with its extensive commercial network committed itself to place all the potatoes farmed in the Campo Vivo fields in leading supermarkets. The importance of McCain growing and promoting a 100% Colombian-grown potato is “transfor- mative,” especially in a day and age of transnational food imports, genetically modified grains and crops, and a hard to bridge divide (and one which exists in many regions), between the farmer and the corporate profit.
When a food supplier invests in the well being of farmers, it not only guarantees the food security of one generation, but many generations to come. It’s also good for business. While the Colombian average is 23 tonnes of potatoes harvested for every hectare, at Campo Vivo, farmers are pulling out of the ground close to 50 tonnes. That’s more than a 100 percent increase in a bi-yearly crop cycle.
More crops during a harvest means more resources for communities who have existed precariously for decades, and especially those, willing to embrace and thrive in a post-conflict scenario. Driving the investment in social pro- grammes which involve vulnerable peoples and having helped consolidate this “transformative” McCain – Yunus partnership has been the Canadian Embassy in Colombia. The Campo Vivo potato project is just one of many initiatives the Canadian government is engaged in with this predominantly rural country.
For peace to become a reality, it is essential to have prosperity in the countryside. It is also essential to have leadership. This is the Yunus mission and one which governments and socially-minded corporations have embraced since the microcredit pioneer first starting offering people a helping hand.
In Une, Cundinamarca, seeds were planted by McCain to give farmers a better crop, and one enjoyed by all. So next time you eat a French Fry, just think that some Canadian generosity, the vision of a Bangladeshi banker and the hard work of Colombian farmers is is making a difference. Maybe you won’t immediately taste the difference, but a 100% Colombian potato, grown on the now called “Yunus patch” does have the power to transform. And our food can be living proof that so many people deserve to live so much better. Or in the words of Yunus: “Food must be an agent of change.”