Shae Ford '11, March 4th, 2010
In Rio Oeste, Panama, the air is hot and thick even in January. A group of 18 students from Mays trek for an hour across the tropical terrain, batting away bird-sized mosquitoes. When their guides finally signal them to stop, they are in a grove of trees laden with what appear to be huge yellow pecans. They join the locals as the harvest begins, pulling the oversized nuts from the trees and breaking them open to expose their spongy white interior. They’re after a cluster of small beans incased inside the spongeâ€”cocoa beans, the fruit of life for the villagers.
The students made this trip not only to help harvest. They bring knowledge of management, accounting, supply chain and other business concepts. Their mission is that as they improve the villagers’ business and make it more profitable, they will also improve their lives.
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When Katheryn Hoerster ’11 started looking for an organization to join at Mays, she had a difficult time finding one she could really be passionate about. Then a friend introduced her to the Global Business Brigades, an organization focused on using its members’ educations to help small businesses around the world reach their full potential. “There wasn’t a branch at Mays, but my friend put me in touch with the national advisor for GBB and we got things rolling,” says Hoerster. She had no problem finding other students who were passionate about using their talents to serve others, and a year later, over the winter break, the Mays GBB went on its very first brigade.
Before they arrived in Panama, the brigadiers had no idea what to expect or how to prepare. “We had a very small amount of information to go on, so we focused on team building. That was pretty much the only thing we had any control over,” says Hoerster, president of Mays’ GBB. What they lacked in strategic preparation, the group made up for in enthusiasm and desire to do good.
When their vans stopped in Rio Oeste, Panama, the students stepped into a hidden, tropical world. “It was absolutely gorgeous,” recalls Jennifer Dureel ’10. The countryside was lush, green, and largely untouched by modernity. The tranquility and the slower pace of life granted them reprieve from the break-neck speed of college, says Dureel. The rustic experience also included sleeping under mosquito netting to keep off the creepy-crawlies; finding snakes in the kitchen; and bathing in a waterfall.
The students knew their mission was to help teach the villagers about how to run a successful business operation, but they received no guidelines detailing how to do that. “We had a point A, and we had a point B, but we had no directions in between,” Hoerster says. Employing their Aggie work ethic, the brigadiers had devised a teaching strategy divided into workshops. “We let each group (management, marketing, and accounting) tackle their own areas of expertise. All of us focused on our specialties, and between the three groups we were able to give these farmers a basic education,” Hoerster says.
The brigadiers worked closely with the community of cocoa farmers while they taught basic business principles and helped the farmers set goals. Teaching the community proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Sure, there was the language barrier, but their translators (sponsors from the GBB national office, as well as PeaceCorps volunteers) easily surmounted that. The real hurdle in was starting from scratch. “It was definitely a challenge,” says Hoerster. “These people knew very little about business, so we had to begin by teaching them how to think about business.” The people of Rio Oeste were willing students, however, and by the end of the trip the community had a workable business plan.
The goal was sustainability: the GBB wanted to give the community the tools they needed to sustain their business long after the brigadiers headed back to College Station. “[The Global Business Brigades] don’t want to just go down and help a community for a week and then go back. They really want to make sure that there’s [continuous] economic growth,” says Dureel.
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The local farmers also had something to teach the GBB students. “We harvested cocoa with them one day, and that was really a neat experience,” recalls Dureel. The students trekked for an hour to the farmers’ cocoa grove and helped crack open pods that resembled yellow-orange Nerf footballs. They removed the beans by hand and then hiked back to the village with the precious bounty.
Harvesting is one step in a very long refining process, and the students gained a new respect for doing things the old-fashioned way. The rustic conditions in which the farmers worked surprised many of the students, who were used to assembly-line speed and robotic precision. “They had very little machinery,” notes Dureel. “They did every step of the process by hand.” Even the toasting of the beans was done without modern technology: a small pot containing a single layer of cocoa beans was placed in the center of a bed of embers; someone would stand over the pot with a stirring stick, turning the beans to make sure they toasted evenly. Experiencing the harvesting and refining process made the brigadiers appreciate and understand the village’s cocoa business more deeply, and impressed on them the importance of giving the farmers tools and vision to advance the business.
The students say they felt the trip was a success: the villagers were left with a business plan, as well as tools and goals to help turn the farmers’ hard work into greater revenue for the whole village. The organization is looking forward to a return trip to Rio Oeste this August. “[The villagers] were such gracious hosts, and so grateful for our help. It was just a very rewarding experience,” says Dureel.
For more information about the Global Business Brigades, check out their website at gbb.tamu.edu.