She is half the height of the plantain trees, but her ambition is immeasurable.
We are in Nicaragua, the land of the dragon fruit and the passion flower. Maria walks with us through groves of leafy green plantain trees offering welcome respite from the late-morning sun. Her sun-scorched farm is just a few too many kilometers east to catch a cool ocean breeze.
She doesn’t seem to mind. The 26-year-old leads us through field and pasture with long strides and a farmer’s cap. She has no time to bother with sun or sweat.
“We are happy,” Maria tells us through an interpreter. “We are so happy with the results from the in vitro plantain plants from the university.”
The local university has been busy.
The Catholic-run school, Escuela Internacional de Agricultura y Ganadería Rivas (EIAG), is located in the southwestern district of Rivas in a city of the same name, population 41,000.
Here, in a dark, damp basement of an otherwise inconspicuous open-air building, students and staff dream of a better future for their country with tiny glass jars in hand. 60 years of accumulated experience guides their work.
Their finished product comes with a proven promise: genetic selection will increase yields, improving resistance to disease and drought.
In the poorest country in Central America, where 50% of existing exports are tied to farming and 60% of the population work as the farmers behind these shipments, foundational improvements to the industry are paramount.
Such game-changing endeavors require teamwork.
MEDA, an international economic development organization whose mission is to create business solutions to poverty, played a crucial role in pushing forward the local school’s promising in-vitro discoveries.
With financial backing from major players, including the Canadian government, MEDA launched TechnoLinks, a project aimed at helping small-scale farmers by strategically focusing one step up the ladder: the businesses providing the farmers with supplies and tools, like genetically-selected plants.
In 2012, MEDA invited Nicaraguan agro-businesses to submit proposals, and of a competitive pool of applicants totaling nearly 70, EIAG was one of 10 to win funding.
With MEDA’s support, EIAG was able to give new energy to their budding in-house business. Though still located in the basement, the newly-named “Vitroplants Biofactory” was propelled into broad daylight with renewed efforts towards marketing and commercialization.
New public demonstration plots were built. Production schedules were staggered to meet rising demand throughout the year. On-site training and workshops were offered to ensure happy farmers, healthy plants, and positive word of mouth.
Today, Maria is one of 1,500 Nicaraguan farmers to receive in vitro plants from the school since 2012.
Conversation with local farmers confirms what is readily visible: The plants are healthier.
In a 2013 MEDA review, 17 of 20 Rivas farmers interviewed said they would recommend the Vitroplants Biofactory to others, siting improvements in disease and drought resistance. The remaining three farmers had just received their first in-vitro plants and needed more time to determine results.
Inspired by the success of EIAG and other similar projects in the country, MEDA launched a second phase, TechnoLinks+, in 2017.
Specifically, TechnoLinks+ will use an innovative e-voucher system to provide discounts for technologies, enabling a greater number of subsistence farmers to access tools like EIAG’s in-vitro plants.
As a new, locally-driven MEDA team prepares for another generation of strategic, market-focused development in Nicaragua, sown seeds continue to grow.
Maria is proof.
Before, explains Maria, growing plantains on her father’s farm was a game of high stakes. Workers--as many as 10 locals seasonally--would pick and choose between the best, the mediocre, and the poor. Finding consistent workers is no easier in Nicaragua than North America; differently-timed harvests proved an added complication.
Now the manager of her father’s farm, Maria sees new ways forward. Equipped with a university degree in agriculture, Maria is set on innovation.
“We are always thinking ahead,” she says. “We know that if we want to move forward, we need to implement new things all the time.”
Her ambition shines through: “Not all the farm is like this yet,” she says, indicating dragon fruit and dry pasture beyond. “We need to renovate other areas using this technology. That’s one of our goals.”
Almost as a personal reminder she adds, “But we need to do this little by little.”
Plants towering overhead, Maria tilts back her farmer’s cap, daring the sun on her face. Somehow, little by little seems an obstacle this next generation farmer will inevitably conquer.