Neither of us knew what would await us in Ecuador – the furthest place in the world from Singapore. From 25 June to 21 July 2017, we found ourselves in the South American country as part of the Universitas 21 Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC), alongside eight students from Australia and the UK. Each year, students from the Universitas 21 member institutions participate in SEC to work directly with social entrepreneurs to help establish new, and grow existing, micro-consignment supported businesses. We were in Ecuador as interns with Soluciones Comunitarias, a partner of SEC and a social enterprise that manages Micro Consignment Model (MCM) initiatives. We also served as community consultants under the AsesorPorFavor programme, where we supported social enterprises and community organisations in Zamora Province.
After a week of Spanish lessons in Cuenca, our work began in Panguintza, a small town flanked by the Amazon rainforest. Over the next two weeks, we were involved in:
- Assessing the community’s need for the Madi-Drop, a water purification device, before identifying potential distribution channels within Panguintza
- A consulting project with APEOSAE, an association comprising 150 small producers of organic coffee, cocoa and banana
- Promoting SocioSolCom, a community development initiative to facilitate the exchange of opportunities and resources in Panguintza, and possibly amongst Soluciones Comunitarias’ partners in Latin America
In that respect, our team members felt compelled to introduce a tangible initiative, say by painting a mural to raise awareness on water cleanliness. However, after we interviewed the Panguintza residents, it became clear to us that obtaining filtrated water was not a pressing concern. Rather, the community’s priority entailed the lack of employment. Some residents we spoke with were concerned about youth unemployment because they believed that it perpetuated drugs and delinquency in Panguintza. We also learned that while in the field, things do not always work out according to plan and we should always be prepared to be flexible and make alternate plans. For example, the SocioSolCom project had reached a deadlock after conducting several interviews. Eventually, we found ourselves involved in and concentrating on small projects and tasks that the community and its organizations explicitly requested us to do. On the APEOSAE front, we delivered a cost and pricing analysis, alongside other research needs.
Additionally, a week into our stay in Panguintza, we visited a coffee plantation owned by one of APEOSAE’s small producers, Don Victor. Upon observing that the labour shortage had caused much of the coffee harvest to go to waste, we held several discussions with APEOSAE to explore possible collaborations between Panguintza’s youths and producers like Don Victor. This culminated in a meeting between APEOSAE’s management and the youths. Not only did APEOSAE get to share about current and future job opportunities, five youths were hired on the spot for a summer stint at Don Victor’s plantation. For the first time since APEOSAE had set up its office in Panguintza, they had established direct contact with the youths there. Admittedly, with our limited Spanish, liaising between both parties had been tricky. Our greatest takeaway, though, was perhaps that of addressing the interests of various stakeholders, and being conscious of our assumptions during our interactions with these parties. While we helped to create a platform for dialogue and communication (which we found meaningful and fulfilling in itself), we consciously reminded ourselves to respect whether and how they choose to cultivate this relationship in the long run.
Throughout our stay in Ecuador, we had the privilege of living with homestay families which was a great learning experience in itself. With the help of Google Translate and the use of body language, we were able to communicate with our families as well as join in their various family activities such as a barbeque session, going to church and collecting cocoa seeds and fruits in the forest. Over time, close bonds were formed with our respective families, making saying goodbye difficult at the end of our stay.
Over the course of our homestay, we experienced first-hand how our host families lived off the land with relatively few material possessions. They led comfortable lives and provided generously for us with wholesome meals in large portions and clean living environment. Our initial apprehension about living in the Amazon rainforest was simply uncalled for. From this, we were able to reflect on our assumptions pertaining to poverty, economic development and progress. The issue at hand is not being poor, or poverty. Rather, these Ecuadorians we got to know through actual interaction are trapped within their communities because they face a lack of access to possibilities and opportunities by virtue of the country’s political and social situation.
Four weeks flew by and we found ourselves having to wrap up our work in Ecuador. We prepared and did a final presentation on our findings and work done in Panguintza, as well as a report with information pertaining to asset-mapping in the community and individual recommendations for future projects. We left beautiful Ecuador with a heart full of gratitude for all the learning experiences and friendships. We hope that we have made some impact, albeit in the smallest and simplest ways, on the community of Panguintza as much as they have, on us.