Friday, March 28, 2014

Growing with Focapaci

On my first journey to the offices of Focapaci I knew that I would never find my way back. The local NGO is nestled in the depths of the bustling city of El Alto and required three different buses and probably one of the best commute views in the world, heading out of La Paz into the mountains and clouds of El Alto. 

Most travelers on visiting La Paz completely bypass El Alto, the giant, sprawling, flat city, but in my opinion it is just as complex and culturally rich as it’s more famous neighbor below.

El Alto used to be the fastest growing cities in Latinoamerica, fuelled by families migrating from the countryside to the city to try and find a better life and better opportunities for their children. However El Alto is a tough place to live, completely exposed on the Altiplano it can go from below freezing at night to up to 25 degrees during the day. To make a living often both parents must go out to work, travelling to the centre of El Alto to work on stalls, driving minivans or in ever-available construction work that keeps El Alto growing at its astonishing rate. However often this means that families are forced to leave young children at home with no one to care or look after them….and this is where Focapaci steps in.

Focapaci is a grass-roots organization that identifies issues with the migrant families of El Alto and then creates projects to help support them. One of these projects is an Urban Gardening project. It supports women’s associations to build their own greenhouses and form cooperatives. The benefits are many, women have an independent, sustainable source of income that they can use to support their family, while also being able to stay at home and care for their young children. They can also use the excess food from the greenhouse for their families, improving their nutrition. 

The ICS Aldeas Infantiles Entrepreneurial Education project came into contact with Focapaci almost by accident. Trying to build a greenhouse by a children’s centre in La Paz, the volunteers needed to be trained by an expert and in stepped Wilfredo, agricultural engineer of Focapaci. 

When I started as team leader 10 months ago the relationship with Focapaci was a simple exchange. The volunteers would receive one day of training for one day of physical labour, supporting Focapaci in their greenhouses or working with a family who needed extra help. 

In my first Cohort we built greenhouses with 7 delayed families, all of whom had been waiting for over a year to finally finish their greenhouses. The work was mainly with women, who couldn’t finish their greenhouses on their own because of lack of support. For most their husbands had to live away to find work and there were also some who were single mothers. It was tough but thoroughly satisfying work. The volunteers immediately bonded with the families, getting invited to stay for lunch or even to visit the families’ village in the countryside. Walking away at the end of a tough, grueling day of building they not only knew that they had contributed to something lasting, but they’d also connected with the families and got to know a different side of Bolivia. 

Due to the success of the construction work we very naturally began to expand on our work with Focapaci and the women’s associations. When one of the women’s cooperatives lost their client that they sold to we started up a vegetable order in the IS office.
After training with Wilfredo in the Focapaci greenhouses, we moved on to more advanced techniques and starting investigations. Focusing on new techniques that used less space in the greenhouse and also experimenting with new types of plants, to see if they would grow in the greenhouses. 

As my time comes to an end with Focapaci we have developed a much fuller and mutually beneficial partnership, working in four main areas.

We now have a regular weekly order, with the IS office and 6 restaurants in La Paz. We are going to increase this order to twice a week and include another cooperative group so they can benefit from the stable order too. 

We’ve finished a report for Focapaci to help them advise families on what to grow in their greenhouses to have a more balanced diet. Focapaci want to combine this report with planting advise and then publish it so that they can use it for all families. 

Greenhouse investigations
We have been supporting Focapaci in a variety of investigations, from different kinds of fertilizer to rain collecting systems to vertical planting. Once investigations are complete we can then work with Focapaci to support the families to replicate them. 

Strengthening Families
We are also working with the women’s associations to support them to improve their use of the greenhouse. This is a combination of one-on-one support, connecting different families so they can share new techniques and ways they can use their greenhouse. We are also making two videos, one that is a basic introduction to greenhouses that can be given to new families starting in the cooperative. The second is on new innovations and advanced techniques that will record and share all of the innovations of the different families and the work of Focapaci’s agricultural engineer. So that families can keep progressing.  

It is incredibly satisfying to see how far we’ve come in just 9 months of working with Focapaci and the variety of work that we’ve developed with them. For volunteers it’s a unique opportunity, not only to learn new skills in these areas, but also to connect with people and a way of life that otherwise they may never come into contact with. For the communities we work with it's a chance for further support in advancing work and sharing ideas that will benefit them in the long term.

I have loved my time with Focapaci and I’m really excited about the work that the ICS project will be able to achieve with them in the final year of the project. Personally I’ve learnt so much, from the organization and especially the families. It’s very difficult to leave but I know that I’ll never forget the time I’ve spent with them here in Bolivia. 

- Zoe Scabbiolo 

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