One of my main business advising projects was the rural tourism cooperative at Telica Volcano. I’ve written some articles about them that I am quite fond of, so I will not rehash all of the details here. Bottom line: I love working with these communities, but it is extremely challenging.
In 2014 an NGO, with funds from the European Union, began constructing a dormitory and restaurant/visitors’ center for the Cooperative, on the slopes of the volcano. Through mismanagement and some volcanic eruptions the two buildings were not completed. Funds ran out, and there were no doors, windows, or equipment. No toilets, no sinks, no stoves or ovens, and no beds. Plus, the restaurant is a 10-15 minute walk away from the dormitory. Lastly, the Cooperative was unhappy with the thatched roof that was put on the dormitory. They are worried that the acid rain and gasses from the volcano will force them to replace it, at their own expense, in a few short years. Needless to say, the project did not go well.
In October, when the construction project was left inconclusive, the Cooperative approached me to see if there were any funds available through the Peace Corps that they could apply for. I am not a fan of the Peace Corps Small Grants Program. However, the Cooperative was in a bind at no fault of their own, so I did tell them that I would investigate. I expected to come back a week later and just say, “No, there are no funds available.” However, I found one program with a $2,000 maximum that they could apply for. It was through the One Acre Fund, an American agricultural NGO, and they were awarding a small number of Peace Corps grants every quarter.
The Cooperative decided to go ahead with the grant application, and I counseled them to focus on the restaurant or the dormitory, not both. There were not enough funds for both. We chose the restaurant, because the lack of a working bathroom for the dormitory was a bit more of a problem.
In one week we wrote the grant and came up with the budget to outfit the restaurant with cooking equipment, utensils, and windows and doors, plus a solar lighting system for dinner service. Due to deadlines, we had only one week to do it. I didn’t think that we could do it, but the Cooperative was extremely motivated and got me the budget in time.
Later in November there was another volcanic eruption, and the crater spewed out boulders. A number of them rained down on the roof of the restaurant, perforating the roof and cracking the floor of the building. It was deemed unsafe to occupy in its current condition, and due to the lack of funds on the part of the NGO, no one could repair it. I thought that we were going to have to withdraw the grant application, but when I got back from Puerto Rico I met with the Cooperative and they had a new idea: forget about the old restaurant for the time being and build a new one next to the dormitory (which was not damaged in the eruption).
They provided me with an updated budget also within the $2,000 ceiling, so I went along with it. The Peace Corps office grumbled a bit that I had to change so much in the application, but by New Years the application was approved and ready for funding, if the One Acre Fund was so inclined.
It took nearly another two months to get the grant approved by the One Acre Fund and receive the funds. They interviewed me one or two times via Skype and asked a bunch of follow-up questions. Their questions were spot on. They really identified the weaknesses in the project plan and wanted to help me strengthen the plan so that it could be successful. It seems that they believed in me and the Cooperative, because at the end of February approximately $2,000 were deposited into my Nicaraguan bank account – a bank account that typically fluctuates between $40 and $200.
Over the next two months we suffered a number of aborted takeoffs for the construction project. There were more explosions at the volcano and the Peace Corps prohibited me from traveling to the crater. Furthermore, the Cooperative was going through a turbulent time and having some financial and personnel issues. Another issue was that in the original budget the NGO that had built the abortive restaurant and dormitory had agreed to make two trips up the volcano in their pick-up truck for materials transport. I had received this pledge from an employee at the NGO, but I never cleared it with the President himself, even after the scope of the project changed and we wanted to build a new structure rather than outfit the then damaged restaurant. I remember mentioning that we should talk to Andrew (the President) to make sure it was ok, but the person I was working with said that he was sure it would be fine.
In March the Cooperative and I had a meeting with the NGO to plan the construction project. Again, the worker we were coordinating with said that the two trips would be fine, but the President came into the room and heard about the plan. He was adamantly opposed to supporting the construction of the new restaurant. First he suggested that I just donate the funds to the NGO so that they could eventually repair the restaurant and complete the project as they had originally envisioned it. When I said that that was not permitted by the grant he said that the NGO had no money available for any trips up the volcano whatsoever.
The back and forth with the NGO is worthy of its own saga. The NGO party line changed, but not substantively. I did try to convince the President and assuage him to the merits of the Cooperative’s new plan, but he never responded to my communications. Again, I had to tell the Cooperative I did not see a way for the project to go forward. I honestly did not think that it was ever going to happen and I was going to have to give the money back.
The Cooperative, to their credit, was resolute in their desire to see the project through to fruition. A requirement for the grant funds was them putting up 25% of the total project expenses, either in-kind or in cash. Although they were already stretching themselves thin with the 25% contribution they decided to pay out of pocket for two private pick-up truck trips up the volcano to deliver the materials that the grant was purchasing. They were also so eager to get the project underway and not to have me return the money (bear in mind that I was racing the clock. Volunteers are supposed to complete all grant projects three months before close of service, and I was approaching one month) that they went ahead and purchased lumber and began leveling the land before I dispensed the money to them.
Sometime in early or mid-April I found myself in the parking lot of a roofing supply depot waiting for the pick-up truck and the Vice President of the Cooperative. All I could think to myself was, “Who the hell put me in charge of a construction project?!” I had absolutely no experience in construction. We got everything bought, but we were way off with the budget. We had to eliminate some unnecessary items and the Cooperative had to put up even more money to cover the difference on some others. Nevertheless, that week in April we purchased all of the necessary materials and transported them up the volcano to the site of the new restaurant. Lumber is particularly difficult to get up the volcano, so they bought a eucalyptus tree from a local landowner and then cut it down and had it cut and transported by horse or ox to the site of the construction (the hauling was an expensive unforeseen cost and they paid for it out of their own pockets). The members of the Cooperative also contributed their own labor, free of charge.
I actually didn’t oversee the construction at all, nor would I have been very helpful if I were overseeing the works. Credit for the design and construction of the restaurant goes to Alfredo, a very intelligent member of the Cooperative that has no more than a fourth grade education. It was his idea to ask me to see if there were any grant funds available. He was the man who came up with the idea for the new restaurant after the eruption in November destroyed the old one, and Alfredo was the member of the Cooperative who was always calling me letting me know that despite the setbacks the Cooperative did not want me to return the money. I like to call him ‘Ingeniero’ – Engineer.
Despite all of the challenges in their lives – under-education, constant threat of dangerous volcanic eruptions, under-productive agriculture, isolation, and lack of access to health care, among others – the communities are so eager to improve their lives that they took a lot of risks to realize this project. I can’t say that about any other groups that I worked with in Nicaragua (although I am sure that plenty others exist). They expressed a lot of gratitude to me as I was leaving in May, and I am very gracious for their appreciation. However, it was truly my pleasure and an honor for me to work and to learn from them.
The restaurant, as it now stands, is not perfect. There are no nearby toilets; only a latrine. For the time being the solar lighting system is in the dormitory, not the restaurant. The half-walls of the restaurant are a little too tall and obstruct the nice view of the volcano. It needs some more wood stain and decorations. They also don’t have a refrigerator or freezer, which makes storing meats very difficult (we did buy two small coolers that they can fill with ice, if and when they can get their hands on ice). Despite all of this they are making plans to purchase more necessary items for their services. I’ve suggested that they not expand too fast and spend too much money and instead focus on attracting clients. Earn earn earn and save save save. I’ve also heavily emphasized the importance of marketing their services, and I have tried to cultivate some advisers around León (including my replacement) to help them with marketing.
Update, 5/30 – They bought a solar power freezer for $2,800, half of the money down, the rest financed. I’m not thrilled, but they do need to be able to store meat I suppose.
Best of all, it seems that the hard work and investment is already paying off. Over the summer months a lot of student groups and other groups come down to Nicaragua from the United States and other countries. An organization that brings in a number of student groups has visited the dormitory and restaurant. They will be bringing 10 different groups of students in July and August for tours, lodging, and food services. The Cooperative and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
If the other restaurant were ever to be fixed and outfitted (I have heard that in total, to repair the restaurant and outfit it along with the dormitory, the NGO would need $50,000 in funds) I truly think that the new restaurant could nicely complement the old one. The old one would be great as a visitors’ center and lunch restaurant. The new restaurant, since it is right next to the dormitory, can be used for breakfasts, dinners, and groups.