Chickens are used by the farm as a source of income and as sustenance for the farming community. The UW students donated $2,900 to help the farm increase its chicken-growing capacity and, in turn, its profit.
The farmers grow several types of crops, including corn, bananas, oranges, star fruit and yucca. The pond contains tilapia and is used as sustenance for the community.
Twenty-nine students from Global Business Brigades take the 30-minute hike to a farm in Machuca, Panama. The farm is several miles from the community, so farmers must carry the day’s farming supplies back and forth.
This past spring break, sophomore Blake Strickland used some of the information from his business and marketing classes to figure out how to appropriately market a few dozen chickens and some goats.
Strickland was the coordinator of a trip down to Panama a few weeks ago through Global Business Brigades (GBB), a student-led organization that travels to developing nations to aid rural communities. Along with 29 other students, they traveled to a farmer’s cooperative for a five-day venture.
Through the Global Brigades organization, campus groups are given a community to work with and develop during a short amount of time. Sometimes these communities have a history with brigades, and others are a clean slate to work with.
In 2008, 19 UW students went on their first business brigade to a coffee farm in Panama, including Strickland.
“There was sort of an ‘aha’ moment when we were investing in this farm,” Strickland said. “We increased their revenue by 400 percent just in the time that we were there, the price of a unit rising from $9 to $15.”
It was this long-term impact that intrigued Strickland and spurred him to become more involved with GBB and travel to Panama again this year. The UW chapter traveled to Machuca village, a small community of 800 a few hours outside of Panama City that had never worked with GBB before.
Machuca was an area that raised chickens and goats primarily as a self-sustainable industry, selling some of their excess product to grocery stores and middlemen for a small profit. GBB went to the area with the intent to help expand their industry and make the chickens and goats profitable.
“We invested enough in their chicken sector that they were able to triple their capacity, to build their infrastructure enough so they can cut out the middleman,” Strickland said.
As part of the program fee, each student had a portion set aside to invest in the community and create a structure that will have a long-lasting impact.
“Everyone brings with them $100 to give towards the community,” Strickland said. “We call that the community investment; we had $2,900 to use in the best way possible to increase their income and increase their standard of living.”
Junior Peter Fantham was a participant in GBB’s most recent brigade to Machuca. He noticed that rather than pressing all of the group’s ideas upon the community, the investment and buildup of their infrastructure needed to be a cooperative effort.
“We had to consider the motivation and passion that the community had there, and we had to go along with that and support that,” Fantham said. “If the motivation’s not there, it won’t work.”
The community was adamant about developing their chicken industry, which was only selling about 50 chickens every six weeks. Using $2000 of their community-investment funds, GBB was able to expand the industry to 150 chickens sold every two weeks, along with building a new coop that is better suited to the rainy season.
“We invested in what we thought we should to help them grow their own, sustainable business,” Fantham said.
Helping develop this community was a rewarding experience for its participants as well, due to the eye-opening opportunity. Business students were able to combine their classroom knowledge with real, rural development.
“We take a lot of things for granted,” Fantham said after the trip. “I think it takes going to a place like Panama or Mexico and actually seeing how two-thirds of the world lives. Being immersed in that is a humbling and necessary experience.”
The rest of the investment funds were used to develop the goat industry in the village. More of a long-term investment, the group ended up purchasing one male goat for the village to help jump-start the production.
Even though the community was very impoverished and operated on a self-sustainable industry, Fantham said he believed the conditions didn’t negatively impact the culture.
“When you interact with people down there, they actually seem happier at the core than we are,” Fantham said. “I think because it’s the simple things for them that makes them happy.”
Freshman Zea Collentine was also among the brigadiers, but without the usual Foster School affiliation. She said the opportunity isn’t about the major you are associated with, but more about the personal gain.
“It doesn’t really matter if you’re a business major; the experience is great for anyone,” Collentine said. “Age or major doesn’t matter in the situation. Just the experience of doing something cultural is great for anyone to get involved.”
Collentine feels one of the most appealing things about the program was the ability for follow-up year after year.
After they left Panama, an organization called Patronato de Nutricion, a non-profit run by local Panamanians, helps ensure the community investments are used to their maximum potential.
“You have people doing follow-up to make sure some of the ideas and stuff we talk about with the community actually happens,” Collentine said.
The UW’s GBB chapter has the opportunity to continue its project a year from now after observing what impact their previous efforts have.
“We were the first one to come to that community, and there were a lot of different ideas on how to help that community, but you can’t do it all at once,” Collentine said. “Next year, a group can come down and keep working on what we started, but improve it.”
Volunteering a continent away may seem like a futile effort in the grand scheme of things, but Business Brigades has a system that allows the imbued effort to blossom and grow long after the participants leave.
During spring break, 29 students changed a community in just five days. Even if they are only helping with a few-dozen chickens and a goat, the Machuca village will never be the same.
Reach reporter Nick Visser at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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