Monday, February 06, 2006

all in a day's work

so if you read the last post you will understand a bit of my frustration. it hasn't lessened since i wrote last, and i don't expect it will for a while. i'm just holding on tight and biting my lip and trying not to let my anger and exasperation get the best of me.

jackson and i took a shipment of avocados to nairobi on friday, 7,000 pieces of the fruit, which we would sell to an exporter. but i'm getting ahead of myself.

jackson and i decided a couple of weeks ago that we didn't know what the farmers' capacity of avocados was, but that we would try to get a shipment together to sell for export to East African Growers. this being pre-season for the fruit, we didn't really expect a lot, but jackson thought that they would at least be able to produce 2 tons for us to deliver. we represent, after all, over 200 different farmers, who have an average of maybe 2 trees per person (this is a very rough estimate, given the difficulty in information collection). in our discussions, we decided to deliver on friday morning, which would mean that collection with the truck would take place on thursday. therefore, farmers would pick the fruits on wednesday. simple enough, right?

well, on monday of last week we held a meeting for the farmers, with a representative from each farmers' group expected to attend. there are 12 groups, so guess how many farmers showed up? by the start time of 10am, one farmer was there. this was anticipated, so we were actually expecting the meeting to commence at 11am, by which time two more farmers had arrived. we started the meeting at 11:30 with five farmers, and since i had an activity i wanted to lead, unrelated to the issue of export, i started it off.

i wanted the farmers to help me create a seasonal calendar, which outlines the periods during the year during which certain activities take place (rain, harvest, etc). most of the farmers didn't speak english, or they were too hesitant to speak it in front of me, and my swahili isn't advanced enough to lead them through it, so jackson translated into kikuyu for them. engaging a group of farmers in such an endeavor would be challenging enough, but we also had the language barrier to get through, which meant by the time the translation of what i was asking for got to them, they were too bored to care. the calendar got filled out, but it wasn't the engaging session of group discourse and discussion that i had hoped for.

by the time i finished, another two farmers joined us, making the final tally a resounding 7. a little over half! a round of applause, please? i sat down and let jackson take over the meeting, expecting him to guide the farmers through the outline i had prepared, which covered the agenda that jackson and i had previously decided on, item-by-item. since i don't know kikuyu yet, all i can do is listen and try to read body language to try to keep up. based on my observations, jackson has the ability to speak at length, for a good 20 or 30 minutes, about nothing. the reason i know this is because he will point to one of the bullets on the outline as he speaks, and won't refer back to the board for the next half an hour. he just spews a stream-of-consciousness monologue while the farmers' glazed eyes stare back at him, expressionless. i can also gauge his progress sometimes by the english words that have no kikuyu equivalent, like 'exporter,' so when he rambles on...'blah blah blah exporter blah blah size 24' i assume that he's talking about the size standards that the exporter has for the avocados.

anyway, after 20 minutes or so i interrupt jackson and ask for a summary. at one point, while the farmers were discussing something amongst themselves, i asked him what was going on. 'oh,' he says, ' they decided that they will pick on wednesday and thursday, so we'll collect friday morning and deliver in the afternoon.' i could feel my temperature rising. 'why do they need two days to pick?' i asked him. he replied that some might have a lot of fruits. i told him to give them one day to pick, and to hire as many laborers to do the job as it took. the laborers were getting paid per piece anyway, so it wasn't going to be an extra expense for the farmers. jackson turned back and spewed some more, and 20 minutes later he turns to me and tells me that they have agreed. they'll pick wednesday morning. somehow they cut the picking time by 3/4. great, i say, we can collect wednesday afternoon and even deliver on thursday! jackson thought perhaps we should leave a whole day for collection, just in case, and i agreed that perhaps i was getting carried away. we could still deliver on friday morning.

the meeting was interrupted by a representative from another exporter who we were expecting, and who gave a presentation on the upkeep of the avocado trees and a summary of their standards for the fruit. this meeting also took place in kikuyu. all told, i sat in that cramped room in the back of the library for almost four hours without understanding a word that was said (not counting export and size 24). afterwards i took the export rep back to the office for tea while jackson wrapped up with the farmers.

after the farmers left i asked jackson what went on in the wrap-up session. well, he thought since we freed up all this extra time that they could go ahead and pick thursday morning. we would drive around with the truck thursday evening and friday morning, collecting the fruit, and we'd deliver friday around noon. i didn't even care at this point, i just wanted to be done with it.

in the end, collection started friday morning at 7am, and finished around 3pm. we collected 7,000 avocados, and headed to nairobi to deliver them to EAG. well, they had been expecting us in the morning, and by the time we got there, around 5pm, the graders had stopped working. they would store the avocados there overnight and we could come back saturday morning to observe the grading process. well, jackson and i came back saturday morning via public transportation, and observed. EAG rejected a little under half of the avocados due to size requirements (a problem which would have been avoided if jackson had instructed the farmers to pick up to size 20, which we had agreed he would do but never did). The good news was we could take the rejects and sell them to a broker, or even to an exporter next door that was accepting the smaller size . The bad news is we didn't have a truck to collect them. we ended up having to leave them there, til they would be picked up several days later by a group of nuns.

although the farmers will still benefit from the sale (the price they'll receive per piece will be higher than if they sold directly to brokers), it wasn't close to what i was expecting. i guess it's what i get for sitting back and trying not to interfere. i want to see how things will function without me initially, so that i can discover the greatest need. i only hope there aren't too many 'greatest needs.'

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