This is Part 3 of a three part diary style blog post on Entrepreneurship Competition Season. Part 1. Part 2. And apologies for how long it took to write and post this. I lost a bit of motivation to write about the event after it had concluded. In addition, photos are sparse. When the official event photos are sent to me I will post some of them up.
In this diary style post I am going to include fewer daily entries. Less is going on, and many of my feelings have already been captured in my blog post on “work.”
Tuesday, October 27
With the competitions that I am responsible for in the rear view mirror, I can now focus on the volunteer activities I am most interested in. This afternoon I will be going down to Poneloya to meet with the cooperative. Tomorrow I will be going to Estelí to help Matt with his departmental competition up there. But sitting on a judging panel is a cinch compared to organizing one of the events. Plus I love Estelí, and we are planning on visiting an eccentric sculptor out in the campo on Friday after the competition.
Thursday, October 29
Today was the Estelí Departmental Competition (and five other competitions around the country). Yesterday was a blood bath for Matt. All well laid plans crumbled due to factors beyond his controls, and he had to run around all day patching things up. He is a competent Volunteer though and did a very nice job. The competition went very well. My job was to act as an auxiliary fifth judge. After all the judges had made their evaluations I convened a little discussion with my balancing thoughts, and they made some adjustments to ensure that the best team advanced to Nationals and as many teams as possible were awarded awards and certificates.
There were a bunch of interesting products. Two of the best were a gas tank gauge so you know when your tank is going to run out of gas and a cough syrup made from a local fruit known in English as star apple. After our deliberations the cough syrup won first place. I don’t have any pictures from the event because I did not bring my camera, but many of the products were impressive, especially the packaging. The packaging may have actually been one of the pitfalls of the gas gauge. They had cardboard packages printed up in color, and they totaled to roughly 50% of the total unit cost. All of the parts for the gauge can easily be found and not so difficultly assembled (I suppose you could just Google it), so at the point in which you are paying so much for a cardboard box you are just going to throw away, it doesn’t make sense to buy the pre-assembled product.
The Following Weeks
Following Estelí my day-to-day activities were much less related to the competition. I only had two responsibilities left: Receive permission for two students and teachers to attend the three day Congress & Competition event with me in Managua, and prepare a session with my counterpart at the local business university for the Entrepreneurship Congress.
I’ve chronicled my trials and tribulations mobilizing the invitees in another blog post (to which I have received both support and criticism), so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. Getting the session ready with my counterpart was its own kind of special though. A month or so ago we were asked over e-mail to give a session on Business Administration, both concepts and studying it in university. I had no idea that the organizing committee was going to ask us to present anything. And that day I was actually upset with my Counterpart because he had cancelled on me last minute and I had to run to catch a bus to meet with the fishing cooperative in Poneloya. And when I got home that evening the invitation e-mail was waiting for me, as well as the confirmation from my Counterpart. I was reeled in and on the boat before I even knew that I was out of the water.
From there things moved slowly getting our presentation together, and I was not especially pleased with the content that he put together. It was not the first time that I got stood up either. I respect him though. He is very intelligent and motivated and dedicated to helping me in my work. He is also a very busy man, running an entire department of a university as well as his own family business and being an active member of professional organizations.
Wednesday, November 11
Today, in the afternoon, I felt a profound sense of boredom. There was nothing pressing on my to-do list. I had no meetings to attend to. I had not felt that way in many months. It was welcomed. I wound up lying on my bed in front of my fan reading (Peace Corps Volunteers do not get Veterans’ Day off).
My counterpart stood me up for our final review and edits of our presentation.
We finally met up to firm up our presentation for Tuesday morning at the Congress. We started the meeting 45 minutes late (and I was trying to catch a bus to Managua for a little music festival).
Sunday – One Day to Go
After a difficult week getting permission for teachers and students to attend the three day Congress & Competition I finally got word that all participants were approved to attend by the local superintendent. It did take an administrator calling a principal “tonto” though. I thoroughly enjoyed that.
Monday, November 16 – Day One of the National Entrepreneurship Competition
We met at the Bus Terminal at 7:30 and were on our way to Managua by 8:00 AM. Really, it was a good day. Everything went will with my counterparts and students (everyone arrived, on time!).
The National Congress & Competition are held at a nice hotel and conference center near the airport in Managua. All the winning teams from the departments go, plus we invite extra teachers and students. Not all Volunteers get to go. This year there were a lot of Volunteers from the newer group, Nica 65, and fewer from my group, Nica 63. It is 65 time’s to shine now. I can understand the decision completely.
Today was my big day, the day of my session on business administration with my counterpart. And it went splendidly. Perfectly, no. People had some doubts about the case study we had put together for the students. They said that it may be too challenging. My counterpart and I made some changes so that it would be more manageable, and it went great. The Volunteers really helped out, and the kids did a good job. Did they hit it straight on the head? No. But with some more time and with the improvements that I could now make with hindsight, I think that they are capable of the challenging critical thinking exercise that I had put together.
After the session we went to lunch, and while I was waiting in the lunch line I realized, “I am done for 2015!” It dawned on me; it really hit me in the face. That session was the last big obligation that I had for this year. Grad school applications are in. The school year is basically over. And with only five short months in Nicaragua in 2016, the sun is setting on my service.
That night I was sitting around with the Director for the Small Business Development program and Thomas, Matt, and Jessica. They started giving me a really hard time for picking the cough syrup over the gas gauge in Estelí. It had me really upset that they did not value my judgment. I had serious reservations about the gas gauge, and the cough syrup had an excellent presentation. The team was very very sharp. Everyone was riding on me that there was no reason to believe that the natural ingredient in the cough syrup worked, but I found that irrelevant. Natural medicine is very popular in Nicaragua. Even the government supports it. This group had made it to the Departmental Competition because their teacher, schools, and classmates all believed in their product. Not a single other judge challenged the efficacy of their product. I am a huge skeptic of natural medicine. If natural medicine was so miraculous all along why did we develop a pharmaceutical industry in the first place? However, at the point in which no one so much as raises an eyebrow at the ingredients in the product, I had to exercise cultural deference. I am not Nicaraguan. I was not put in the panel to correct problems with Nicaraguan culture. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I do not find being on a judging panel to be an appropriate time to challenge cultural norms, such as natural medicines.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015 – The Day of the Competition
The organizers assigned me to media today. I was supposed to help members of the news media understand the event and find people to interview. It was challenging but I liked it. One writer did ask me some tough questions about why the Peace Corps does not operate in the Northern Caribbean Department (Volunteers are not allowed up there for safety reasons), but I just got someone from the Peace Corps office to answer his questions.
Everything really kicked off when the Ambassador (she’s new, maybe just two months into the job. She is career Foreign Service and was previously working at the Mexican Embassy) arrived. It was arranged for her to come with Daniel Ortega’s left hand man (that’s exactly how he was explained with me – left hand because he takes care of politics. Mr. Right Hand takes care of the money), and they did indeed walk in together. They went around together to every single student group, hearing about their products and services.
The morning was long, listening to all of the groups. There were some good products though:
- Fungicide for crops that does not contaminate soil
- Natural animal feed
- Natural mouth wash
- More animal feed
- Cream for muscle pain
- A really cool contraption to separate beans from their vine, great for small-time farmers
- And more stuff that I do not remember at the moment
This year the organizers also asked Volunteers to send in short videos of innovative products, regardless of how much work the team did or how far they advanced in the competitions. I sent in three videos:
Bolsa de Zipper won first place, Most Innovative Product. Everyone at the Congress & Competition voted and my team was selected as the winner. It’s a shame that the group did not do any work all year, because this goes to prove that they could have been very successful. I’m probably going to be sassy and say that when I present the award to them later in the week.
Overall at the competition the cough syrup got second place. Vindicated!
My Final Thoughts
The event was excellent. It was very well run, and in my opinion better than last year. The talks were better, the kids and all of the teachers were more engaged. I do believe that the goals that Thomas, Matt, and Jessica had laid out ahead of time were met, which is a great accomplishment for them. I am just skeptical that the immense investment, in terms of time and money, is worth the payout. The participants received great trainings over the two days, but they will now all scatter. What effect will all of the conditioning have, especially in the absence of strong follow-up? I always say that people need to hear or see or experience things three times to believe them. This was number one. How are we going to get two and three to all of those kids? The Peace Corps does a ton of these summits/youth camps, and I am truly skeptical of their effectiveness, especially given the immense investment they take.
Given the money that these types of events require, the organizing Volunteers have to get grants. I have come to see grants as a grand waste of time in the Peace Corps, and potentially counter to our goals. The Peace Corps is intended to be hand-in-hand development. Become a community member, and dedicate yourself to informed community and human development. The Peace Corps is premised on human capital, not financial capital. Many NGO’s make uninformed handouts and create dependencies among communities. Ever worse still, some organizations build structures like schools or health clinics without working with locals to create a sustainable operating plan. And now these structures stand vacant.
Volunteers are actually prohibited from fundraising on their own. That rule does not bother me at all. What bothers me is that our staff in Managua disregard this rule and require us to fund-raise within our communities for certain projects, such as the Entrepreneurship Competitions. It is very difficult to asks for donations in the second poorest country in the hemisphere when you come from the richest country in the world. I suppose that the office would say that we are supposed to be fundraising with our counterparts for their projects, but many of them do not feel comfortable fundraising on their own. It is out of the question for the Ministry of Education.
Over time a few grants have become available to the Peace Corps. One of which is through PEPFAR, the Bush-era AIDS eradication initiative. It is for HIV and AIDS related activities. Second is USAID grants, which are few and far between. They are directed towards projects that relate to USAID’s political goals. And lastly there is PCPP, which is basically just crowdfunding funds from the general America public. However, very few strangers surf on over to the PCPP website and donate, so PCPP is usually Volunteers hitting up their friends and family in the states for cash.
Larger Peace Corps activities, such as the National Entrepreneurship Congress & Competition, as well as other youth camps, all hit up Volunteers for help. Girls camp. Soccer camp. HIV camp. Boys camp. Leadership camp; the list goes on. I am constantly getting e-mails, asking me to send PCPP links to my friends and family. I simply do not feel comfortable turning my friends and family into a revolving line of credit for Peace Corps Nicaragua activities; activities that I have repeatedly expressed skepticism about. And if my friends and family were the only viable sources of funds, I certainly wouldn’t go through the nightmare that is the Peace Corps small grants process. I would just directly solicit the money and bypass the bureaucracy. Assuming that my friends and family want to help me in my service as well as the country in which I serve, I suppose that they would trust me to properly administer the funds that they donate to me. In fact, there are probably some friends of mine who prefer to bypass the government altogether.
So that’s a wrap for 2015 and ostensibly my service. Back to León this afternoon. I’m glad that I now continue to focus on my business advisory projects, particularly the fish processing coop and the volcano cooperative.