Friday, July 12, 2013

India’s Reflections on the Aldeas SOS Entrepreneurship Project

I have spent three months volunteering with International Service’s “Greenhouse Project” in La Paz. Our project is centered around two important goals – empowerment and the raising of nutritional standards in El Alto.

We focus on empowerment because more than 70 per cent of El Alto’s families live in poverty. Enabling these families to better their lives is of paramount importance. The project also recognises that if it is to empower the most maligned sectors of Bolivian society, it must help women first and foremost.

India Thorogood with a local Alteño family

Greenhouses can empower by giving individuals and families economic independence. When vegetables finally bloom they can be sold, they can provide a sole or a supplementary income for anyone who may need it. But this can be especially empowering for women.

As part of our role on the project, we spend one day a week helping to build greenhouses in El Alto. On one particular week, we were sent to help a woman who had recently lost her husband and had been left with four children to support. As you can imagine, we felt very motivated to support this family.

The family live on a small plot in a barren area of El Alto. Their house consists of only one room, but a greenhouse sits proudly to the side of it, constructed with bricks and plastic sheeting. Inside grow vegetables to improve the nutrition of the four children and to improve their economic standing.

We were tasked with creating bricks to rebuild her greenhouse. We spent the morning sorting through sand, taking out any large rocks and ensuring it was suitable to create bricks. The sand was then mixed with water and hay by members of the community and ourselves. It was left to dry, and then placed into moulds. Even after all this, we couldn’t quite believe it when we saw real bricks lying on the sandy ground.

Siobhan Cunningham with local children making bricks for the greenhouse

The Mother of the family was very much a part of the work and a part of changing her own future. That day we felt as if we had made a genuine impact on the family’s life, and it certainly felt like empowerment.
Nutrition is important as arguably one of the biggest issues facing Bolivian society. A third of children are malnourished today in Bolivia and the rate of malnutrition for children in the poorest households – where we are working – is as high as 40 percent. This is most important for Bolivia’s children as when a child does not receive enough nutrition before the age of 2, this affects not only the development of the body but of the brain.

We are helping the community around the Portada Triangular children’s centre to build a greenhouse. This is a part of our work more focused on nutrition, because of the example this can set to the children. Arguably, the community will only use the greenhouse to its full potential if they have a real stake in it, so it is they who are taking responsibility for building it.

We are also spending one morning a week in the children’s centre next to the steadily rising greenhouse. We have been closely observing the food eaten at the centres and have implemented activities based around nutrition with the children.

Our team has also been carrying out some small-scale research to find out more about the diet of those in our two work areas in El Alto. We recently held a research workshop in Portada Triangular. We had observed that, when faced with formal questionnaires, individuals might exaggerate their healthy-eating habits or simply get bored of answering the questions. So, we created fun activities in which information could be revealed without any pressure.

We led an activity in which the parents were asked to place pictures of food on a scale of “good” to “bad” health. These items included Bolivian staples like chicken, corn, potatoes and coca tea. Another task for the group was to draw around one participant on a large piece of paper. They then drew a heart, muscles, eyes and other important areas of the body and wrote next to them what foods they believed to be beneficial to those areas specifically.  The volunteers were interested to learn it is apparently a Bolivian tradition to feed your child grapes should they have trouble speaking.

There were two final tasks to gain an understanding of how the parents cook and shop for food. The first task asked two groups to imagine shopping for a family of 4 with 100 Bolivianos. We asked the groups to prioritise food and were wondering whether vegetables, meat or eggs would be cut. The second listed around eight food items and asked whether they mostly ate them fried, boiled, baked or raw.

We finished the workshop by serving up food that we had cooked with nutrition in mind. This included a sweet potato and spinach bake a quinoa salad and a courgette frittata. The food was received better than we had expected and the parents even asked for the recipes.

Our final efforts before leaving this beautiful country will be to use the knowledge gained from our research for two educational workshops. One in Portada Triangular and one in El Alto. We will also be producing educational leaflets for both communities with the hope that these too could have a positive effect.

The Entrepreneurship team in El Alto

We sincerely hope that our “Greenhouse Project” has had a positive consequence on those in La Paz. We have certainly enjoyed our project and met some amazing people, such as the strong woman in El Alto and the enthusiastic parents in Portada Triangular. If we have had even half the impact that Bolivian people have had on us then we will leave Bolivia fulfilled.

Written by India Thorogood
Edited by Liam Hilton

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