The number sixty-six took on new meaning for me this summer. More specifically, sixty-six cents. That was the price of any taxi to anywhere in Tingo Maria, a small city isolated in the mountains of central Peru. An amount of money that I normally wouldn’t think twice about suddenly was my ticket to anywhere in the city. The price of these taxis reflects much of what you need to know about the economic conditions of the city I called my home in the summer of 2019.
With the help of a Tuck Gives grant, I had my first experience working in international development. This experience was a challenge, and that was exactly what I was looking for. Prior to Tuck I had only worked in private sector finance and consulting in the northeastern United States. I had never worked abroad. I had never done business in a foreign language. I did not know much at all about international development. Given my background, I was not confident I could make this pivot. However, with a lot of work and a little luck, I found myself in a meeting with a Tuck alum who connected me with an international NGO called TechnoServe. This NGO offers a pretty amazing opportunity for people in my shoes to bring their skills to the field and learn about an industry on the ground level. Grateful that they were willing to take a chance on me, I packed my bags and moved to Tingo Maria.
My work was focused on a product very near and dear to my heart – coffee. Tingo Maria is close to the mountains that are home to thousands of small-holder coffee farmers. Due to low productivity and plummeting global coffee prices, these small farmers are in a tough spot. Some are giving up on a business that has become increasingly difficult to do profitably. This is where TechnoServe steps in, and, where as a Summer Fellow, I was asked to bring my perspective as an MBA graduate to the coffee fields.
The goal was to generate a business plan to help a coffee cooperative that works with farmers to increase their productivity and profitability over time. Given my background in finance, I was responsible for constructing a dynamic model to understand the conditions required for coffee to be a profitable endeavor. Plant maintenance techniques, investments in new equipment, and fertilizer varieties are just a few of the variables we included. I used my skills from my Decision Science course at Tuck to build this model as a tool that the organization could use after my departure. I spoke with farmers, agronomists, café owners, and TechnoServe employees. I read research reports on coffee varietals and analyzed government data on farmer loan programs. I went in completely new to the world of coffee, and, by the end, I was presenting my work to USAID at the American embassy in Lima. My analysis and perspectives for the summer contributed to determining the allocation of millions in social impact funding to improve outcomes for these farmers.
There are too many lessons and insights from this experience to write in this blog post, but there are few I will mention for anyone thinking of taking the plunge into international development for the summer on a Tuck GIVES grant. Number one – the pace of the for-profit and non-profit sectors are different. This may seem obvious, but for me this was a major adjustment. The pace of life and the urgency of the work requires one to do something we rarely do in business school – that is, stop and breathe. I had time to slow down, reflect, relax, and engage with work in a way that was new for me. Learning about the culture of the surrounding area was a big part of the job. While I was occasionally frustrated with the feeling that I could be “doing more”, it was sometimes those days when I had time to do less that an unexpected conversation with a farmer changed my entire perspective.
Number two – safety is a relative concept. Answers to the question, “Is it safe here in Tingo Maria?” included, “definitely”, “probably”, and “for you…definitely a little different.” As a tall, skinny, white man with long blondish hair, I stood out. I felt eyes on me every time I went outside. Walking down the street, I was always met with the same gaze, a combination of curiosity and suspicion that asked, “What are you doing here?” In my moments of doubt, I sometimes asked myself the same question. That’s when I knew I had stepped out of my comfort zone, and that was one of my goals. TechnoServe provided resources to deal with any real problems that might have arisen, so there was no real cause for concern. Being the only Fellow in such a small homogenous city, it became very apparent that standing out was something I would have to get used to quickly.
Number three – what appears chaotic is rarely truly chaos. When I first arrived, I saw hundreds of wild dogs roaming the city, unattended children playing in the middle of the streets, public buildings with entire stories crumbling, and entire families balancing on a single motorcycle. At night, a combination of fireworks, engines, animals, music, chanting, and unidentified yelling simmered down around 3 AM. However, over time, I started to understand that the city really was not all that chaotic. I started to see that the city operates the way it does because of the constraints. It is not chaotic. It is under-resourced. People make do with what they have, and over time, my culture shock was replaced with an appreciation for what they have done to make the city work.
I eventually became part of the community, and I was proud to be a resource for one small part of it – that is, for the farmers that produce the coffee I sip today as I slow down to reflect on the incredible opportunity I had this summer.