The Power of Food Processing

Peace Corps Nicaragua has a Volunteer magazine, Va Pué. An article I wrote was published in the latest edition, and I have copied it here for anyone outside of the Volunteer sphere who wants to read it:

Nicaragua abounds with food, fresh from the Earth (or the sea, as will be the case for this article). Coffee, vegetables, pelibüey, citrus, ginger, basil, poultry, and innumerable varieties of bananas and plaintains, to name a few. Coconuts, pineapples, jicaro, sesame, sugar cane, beans, and of course maiz, to name a few more. And using these fruits of the Earth, Nicaraguans make a variety of foods, including my personal favorites, pollo a la plancha, arroz aguada, and chancho con yucca (basically, if it is marinated in naranja agria, I am a fan).

However, for the most part, Nicaraguans do not process their primary edible goods and sell them nationally or internationally. Of course there are exceptions. Coffee is a major export crop, as is tobacco and a few other products. But there is a major untapped potential for Nicaragua to process more foods locally, import less from abroad, and export more. There are a number of economic advantages to this strategy. Rather than paying the Ticos and the Salvadoraneans for their food, Nicaragua would be generating income locally. The Cordóba, which has been on the long slow slide of devaluation, could stabilize. And importantly, there would be more high paying jobs here in Nicaragua. As a matter of fact, Nicaragua, as a member state of CAFTA-DR has favorable trading conditions with the United States and other countries in Central America and the Caribbean, but Nicaragua does not reach its allotted export quota for a staple as basic as dairy.

There are a number of businesses around the country working on value-added production in the agribusiness sector. Nicaraguan beef is popular in Venezuela. Flor de Caña rum is world renowned, and there is a company in Rivas exporting tropical fruit pulps to the United States. Moropotente beer has also gained notoriety nationally, although all of their ingredients are imported, not sourced locally. Unfortunately, these enterprises are the exception, not the norm.


In Poneloya, a Pacific-side beach in León, there is a small fishing cooperative that goes by “Cooperativa de Pescadores del Pacífico Primero de Septiembre.” The Cooperative was formed in the early 80’s after the revolution. Its President to this day, Don Juan Carlos, joined the Sandinista rebels when he was 14. He couldn’t read before some of the other rebels taught him how to. After the revolution he returned to Poneloya and formed the cooperative with his hometown friends. In the early 2000s the government sent Don Juan Carlos to Panama and Peru to learn about deep water fishing. In addition to his new skills, he brought back an idea.

IMG_4499In Peru, he saw fishermen grinding their catch of the day and making “tortas de pescado” – fish cakes. Don Juan Carlos saw this as a profitable idea and introduced it to his cooperative. The coop invested in equipment for the process, and a foreign development organization helped them build a factory where they could process their fish in a sanitary environment. And ever since then they have been making fish cakes from the local catch and selling them locally. A half-pound tray (the fish cakes come in small, medium, and large sizes, but all the trays have a half pound of food on them) sells for C$35. However, their only clients until recently have been small restaurants and bars at the beach and in the city of León. Business has been slow, and many members of the cooperative and the community have become disillusioned with the fish cakes idea.

The fishing cooperative needs to expand its market and increase sales in order to produce enough trays a month to be profitable. Students from the University of Commercial Sciences (La UCC, León) have recently began working with the cooperative to help them increase sales, particularly by approaching Wal-Mart of Nicaragua (Pali, Maxi-Pali, and La Unión) about selling within their stores. This would be a great boost for the cooperative, and importantly, it would give this impoverished fishing village another source of steady income, in addition to the trickle of backpackers that stream through to enjoy the beach.

The cooperative is not stopping at fish cakes either. They have an innovative solar drying oven that uses solar panels and volcanic rocks to concentrate dry heat. They are dehydrating fish (a delicacy for Semana Santa, I am told) and also working on making fish flour. Basically, they take fish heads and fish bones, dry them out and then grind them up into a powder. It is a great natural alternative to consommé, and it can also be used as an animal feed, especially for pigs.


As Volunteers are working with members of their communities, I encourage them to think about commercial development. In the Entrepreneurial Education sector, I think we have valid roles as advisers and as consultants. As consultants, we can help our clients improve their business management skills. But as advisers, we can talk about strategy. We owe it to our clients to talk about the economic realities of the country and help them filter through good and bad ideas for the expansion of their companies. Value-added production is certainly a valid theme for advisory work, in my opinion.

And this sort of work does not have to be limited to the Entrepreneurial Education Program (the new name for the Small Business Development program). Why do families who get a new oven only have to sell baked goods within their community? Packaging and distributing the products could be far more profitable. Community gardens are undoubtedly beneficial for local nutrition and health, but their effect could be magnified if participants worked on processing the vegetables. Yuppies at Whole Foods back in the States would salivate over all natural chutneys and salsas made from a small community in the Nicaraguan highlands. Anyone working with a youth group could also take a more industrial route and build a simple solar food dryer. There are instructions in the Peace Corps Nicaragua cookbook and it is a far more efficient method than putting stuff up on the tin roof and hoping it does not rain. Anyone with one of these solar dryers could easily dry fruits such as papaya or mango, and then slather them in chocolate and outsell the chocobanano lady down the street.

Granted, successful commercial development, especially on an international scale, is not an easy, nor a quick process. However, there are many organizations in Nicaragua that can help Volunteers and communities. I would personally recommend partnering with universities that have agronomy and business concentrations. In addition, there exists a number of NGO’s working in this sort of rural business development. Technoserve is currently making a push in Nicaragua, and the One Acre Fund is another option for Volunteers that want to pursue grants with their counterparts.

The next time you make a trip to the supermarket, take note of how many items in your basket are imported from abroad. Then reflect on your surroundings: the fruit trees in your patio, your host family finca, and the crops produced in your rural communities. Let’s pull a 180, and instead of seeing Hecho en Costa Rica in Nicaraguan supermarkets, let’s strive to see Hecho en Nicaragua when we are back in the States!

Click here for a Google Drive link to the full magazine edition if you are interested.

The mangrove walk

The mangrove walk

Nearby Las Peñitas gets most of the visitors, but I love Poneloya. It is one of my favorite places in Nicaragua and when I walk down the street I feel like I am in my own little Caribbean village.

You can visit the Cooperative if you want to. They also offer tours of the mangroves behind their property. They try to charge $10 per person, but I suggest haggling that down. It is not worth $10 and it is really just a short walk through the mangroves. It is nice and tranquil though. Pair it with a day at the beach (usually empty, with very strong surf, but no rocks in the water like at the more popular Peñitas beach). There are makeshift cabañas set up on the beach that you can rent for C$ 50, but if you buy food and drinks they may not charge you for the use of the cabañas. And I recommend the food, especially the fried fish and the shellfish soup. There are a group of ladies in one of the cabañas near the bocana that make great food and the prices are really cheap for León.

Beware the rocks of Penitas

Beware the rocks of Penitas

The Cooperative is a short walk from the bocana of Poneloya. That’s where the bus turns around to head back out. Just get off there and walk up the hill. Take the first right and walk until you can only go left or right. Go left, and walk a few more hundred yards until there is a dirt path off to your right leading to a building with a fence around it. That’s the Cooperative.

Buses leave for Poneloya every 40 minutes from Mercadito in the Sutiaba neighborhood of León. The trip costs C$ 12.50 and it takes under an hour to get to the bocana. Getting back from Poneloya takes longer because the bus enters Las Peñitas first before heading back to León. The buses are frequented by tourists so the attendant should be able to help you with any questions if you speak Spanish. Avoid walking around in either beach community after dark.

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