Category Archives: Colombia

Food Like never before

My first assignment in Colombia was six years ago.  I have now completed my second.  This time I am working in Arauca, a town of nearly 100,000 just across the Arauca River from Venezuela. Due to unrest in Venezuela and poor relations between Colombia and its neighbor, the border is officially closed. Occasionally, one can get special permission to cross a military-controlled bridge near the center of town. But for the most part, the border is closed. However, standing on the Colombian side of the river, I could watch dozens of canoes taking locals back and forth across the river.  The canoes carry traders and smugglers across the liquid border. A small bribe to officials on both sides will allow for these illicit crossings.

Illegal trading aside, about two million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia from their petro-klepto state since quasi-dictator Maduro came to power. Many of these two million have entered Colombia via Arauca.  And an influx of refugees and displaced people has led to security concerns in Arauca. Consequently, I see well-armed soldiers and policemen patrolling the town.  That said, I feel safe and comfortable here. Night and day I can walk around town needing only to be aware of speeding motorcycles…they are everywhere.

My assignment has nothing to do with refugees or speeding motorcycles. I am working with a non-profit team from Microfinanzas El Alcaravan. Our team consists of the director of communications, the customer service coordinator, and two loan officers. We are writing a marketing plan for their micro-finance institution.  Such micro-finance companies make loans to small businesses, farmers, and ranchers in town and in the surrounding rural areas.  In the very poor countries of Africa such loans may be around $200.  However, Colombia is a middle-income country and a micro loan from my client will range upwards to $5,000. The purpose of small loans to pocket-sized businesses is to increase opportunities for poor people to achieve financial inclusion.

Microfinanzas El Alcaravan has made micro-loans to around 4,000 customers. So that I could better understand the type of customers they serve and to learn their loan process, I visited three local customers: A dressmaker, a mini-market, and a poultry feed business. The latter was on his first loan, money needed to purchase more stock for his store. The dressmaker had borrowed twice to increase the selection of fabric she used to make her clothes. And the mini-market owner was a star customer.  Over several years she had borrowed from my client eight times and repaid every loan on time. Each business appeared to be thriving during my brief visit. All three raved about the service they had received from my client. I prompted them to make marketing suggestions for my client. Primarily, they said, “Lend us more money so we can grow our businesses even faster.”

After our team completed the marketing plan we were asked to assist an affiliated company, a startup chocolate factory, craft their own plan. This was truly a startup business: just two employees. They were seeking to launch their own brand, Alcaravan Chocolate, and to secure orders for private label manufacturing. We were able to tweak our original outline for the micro finance plan and apply it to the chocolate business. One substantial difference in my work with the two plans was that I got free chocolate from the latter client but did not get free microcredit from the former.

Four work colleagues and I took our lunch break at an open air restaurant serving local dishes. I ate capybara.  Capybara is the world’s largest rodent . Roughly the size of a pig (see photo) . The good news is that with a rodent that size, the five of us had plenty of lunch.  For those of you who want to try capybara, come to Colombia.  However, if you live in New York you can easily sample a large rat and save on the airfare to South America.

Another day they convinced me to try grilled armadillo.  It was quite tasty, but separating the meat from the armor was like working on an oversized lobster tail.  Later that day I had second thoughts about what I had eaten so I visited Mr. Google and learned the following: There are five species of armadillo in eastern Colombia.  Two of the species are threatened.  I just hope I was served one of the unthreatened species.  Nevertheless, I have vowed to never eat armadillo again just to be certain I am a good steward of the earth.

And if meals of capybara and armadillo weren’t a sufficient cultural immersion, I had one additional experience: Chimo. This is a tobacco derivative made from the best hand-selected tobacco leaves, boiled and mixed with wood ash from the tiger beard tree. The consistency is toothpaste.  The taste is not. A local guy will purchase chimo in a paper tube, squeeze a toothpaste sized dollop onto his tongue, and work this stimulant around his mouth for an hour or so. From time to time he will spit out a disgusting stream of deep red spit.  His teeth and gums will be colored crimson as well.  I touched the tip of my tongue to a micro-dot of chimo and vowed – – just as I had pledged previously with the armadillo – – never again.  This time the reason was taste not a threat to nature.

Playing with Gunpowder


Colombia is a middle income country and normally my NGOs send me only to poor countries. That is why I frequently work in Africa. Colombia is in the same income category as Brazil and Thailand and there are no programs in those two countries for my sort of business volunteer services.  Relatively speaking, too wealthy.  However, unlike Brazil and Thailand, Colombia has gone through a 30 year rough patch:  For much of the 80s, 90s, and 00s it became a dysfunctional and dangerous pariah state haunted by narcotics gangs, Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary death squads.

But now it is a vigorous and largely peaceful land that attracts growing numbers of foreign investors and around 2 million international tourists a year.  My ultimate funder, USAID, wishes to solidify these recent gains, so they are funding volunteer assistance, the type that I provide.

I was asked to work on a project directed jointly by a Colombian agricultural university, Unillanos, and a group of poor farmers.  My colleagues at Unillanos are collaborating with 30 small holder farmers to help them connect directly with consumers in the regional capital of Villavicencio. The business idea behind this effort is to link farmers and organic foodies directly to each other without an intermediary. Crop producers meeting strict quality and crop sustainability requirements will be selected to participate.  Customers will place orders and make payments online with the producers of their choice. The producers will deliver the ordered products to customers once each week.  My client wants to create a food culture that will provide fresher products at a fair price to consumers as well as at a better price to the producers.

To get their concept off the ground, the group will need funding.  And to successfully secure funding, they need a business plan.  I spent two weeks in and around Villavicencio meeting with farmers, university staff, prospective customers, and competitors.  Ultimately, my clients and I jointly produced a tightly honed, well crafted, thoroughly compelling, rationally explained, totally captivating business plan…along with the requisite financial back-up.  Now that I have returned home, my clients have the task of approaching potential funders to convince them of the benefit of backing this new venture.

One of the side benefits of this assignment was that I could gorge myself on tasty tropical fruits and not gain a pound.  That’s why fruits are better that deep fried onion rings. (Even though onion rings are still pretty delicious.)  I devoured many of my favorites – – mango, papaya, passion fruit, guava – – and several new favorites that I had never heard of before: lulo, badea, tomate de arbol, and guanabana.  The first two don’t have an English translation.  The latter two, even when translated, were unfamiliar to me. Tomate de arbol = tamarillo . Guanabana = soursop.

Fruit aside, let’s return to the Marxist rebel problem. FARC started as a Marxist-inspired army to defend landless peasants. Perhaps initially admirable (except for the Marxist part.) They later evolved into drug running, hostage taking, indiscriminant terrorists.  Somewhat less admirable.

My work area, Meta Province, has many forested areas; all the better to offer FARC hiding places from which to conduct their hit and run revolutionary war against the Colombian government.  Fortunately for the local residents, FARC and the government have been conducting peace talks in Havana for the past three years. While a peace treaty has not yet been concluded, a ceasefire has been in place for much of those three years. Prior to the ceasefire, FARC and the government fought a seemingly never ending war with 220,000 killed. Millions displaced.

Throughout my travels I saw signs of, and heard stories about, the former conflict.  In some town squares, the police still maintain fully sandbagged bunkers as protection against FARC raiders. In San Juan de Arama I was shown the site of a former police headquarters – – the building was blown up several years back by the rebels.  Some of the farmers I spoke with had been required by rebels to pay “revolutionary” taxes.  Extortion might be a more accurate term. One farmer in our group had a story about the kidnapping of his brother by FARC rebels.  The brother had serious health problems at the time, so the farmer passed word to FARC that he, the farmer, would like to exchange himself as hostage for his captured brother.  FARC refused, believing that the farmer was too poor to command sufficient ransom.  The unhealthy brother continued to be held captive.  Some months later, the government was able to negotiate a hostage release that included the farmer’s brother.  So, I guess this story has a happy ending.  A formal peace treaty would make for a happier ending.

I learned a new game, TEJO, a singularly Colombian game.  Tejo is similar to a bean bag toss combined with beer drinking.  From some distance away one tosses a heavy object sort of like a shot put cut in half.  So not totally like a bean bag toss.  And instead of tossing this object through a hole on a slanted board, one tosses this heavy object (called the tejo) onto a slanted board covered with clay.  Instead of a hole, there is a circular bull’s eye drawn into the clay.  So even less like a bean bag toss.  And surrounding the bull’s eye, are several gunpowder charges.  One scores by hitting the bull’s eye with the tejo or by crushing an adjacent gunpowder charge.  Crushing the gunpowder will result in a loud explosion. Quite a thrill actually.  Throwing a half shot put at explosive charges embedded in clay while drinking beer is officially recognized by the Colombian Senate as a national sport.  And not at all like a bean bag toss.

For the record, I never hit the bull’s eye.  Nor did I explode the gunpowder.  I must return to Colombia for more Tejo practice.  And to eat my new favorite fruits.