Against all odds

Posted On 29 Jan 2007
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If someone had to pick the least likely place in Brazil for a successful new flower project, it could well have been the drought-plagued hinterland in the northeastern part of the country, Brazil’s poorest region. In the town of Pilões, in the countryside of Paraíba state, the situation worsened when a sugar mill, which employed most of its workers, had to close down. A number of families were forced to survive by tending to their manioc and banana crops. Those lucky enough to have a job were making around US$4 per day, three days per week. This desolate scenario encouraged a group of 21 farm workers and housewives to look for a way out of poverty.
After a series of meetings among themselves where a number of commercial possibilities were considered, they turned to Sebrae for help. Local Sebrae manager Marcílio Santos soon pointed out that as sharecroppers and farm workers, they should bank on their experience in agriculture. Marcílio knew of successful out-of-state floriculture projects and suggested flowers as an alternative. The idea was met with skepticism by most, but to community leader Karla Paiva it turned out to be the good seed that fell onto good ground; with her high-school diploma, well-spoken Karla has been the natural group organizer, together with Maria Helena dos Santos.
The adversities seemed to be overwhelming: lack of experience, funding and schooling; everything seemed to conspire against the project. Intrigued by the possibility, however, Karla decided to investigate and went to visit a flower grower in another state. Once convinced that it was something she could do, she planted some flower beds in a small plot of land, and sold them at a local fair. Once this last step turned out to be profitable, her belief in the project was confirmed; what nobody knew then was how long it would take to become established.
Due to the lack of collateral and several bureaucratic stumbling blocks, after three years the group still did not have an answer from the local development bank. The town mayor prompted attention to the financing available for social projects from the World Bank. Having nothing to loose, they submitted their project, and after some time, it was approved with one last hurdle. The World Bank would loan them US$34,000; the state government another US$7,000; but the coop would have to invest nearly US$4,000 of their own. Since the coop did not have this amount of money, the proposal was made to pay in terms of labor, by setting up the all-wood greenhouse themselves – the green light was given!


Under way
The determination, typical of those used to fighting against the odds in their daily lives, led the 21 women to work with no pay from January to October of 2002, when they finally harvested their first chrysanthemums. “It was only then that things started to improve”, says Karla, “before that many of the husbands could not accept that their wives were out all day, but were not being paid.
Before production started, Sebrae did help with some measures to increase their chance of success: the agency hired a crop advisor, took the coop members to visit other projects and to trade shows where they met suppliers. Karla also attended a training course for new business managers.
Common to most new plantings, the first crops were disease and pest-free. It was only in their third year that the technical challenges arose, but by this time the group was experienced in handling their chrysanthemums. Each of the two companies that supply their cuttings send an advisor twice a year; plus, soil and water samples are taken regularly. At Cofep, all crop work is done by the members themselves, temporary workers are only hired at the peak harvest dates. In the days preceding All Soul’s Day, for example, they work from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. to make sure everything is cut, packed and shipped in time.
Positive aspects for the project are that it is located in a hilly area with an advantageous microclimate, distinct from the dry region around it. At an altitude of 300 m, cooler temperatures prevail but, still with plenty of sunshine. The greenhouses site is well-protected from wind by the surrounding mountains; the original greenhouse plastic is as taut as new, and without a single tear.
Their main market, the town of Campina Grande with a population of 400,000 is located at a distance of 90 km; the product quality is welcomed. Most flowers in Paraíba arrive from São Paulo state, two days by truck, so the local production has a natural post-harvest advantage.


Recognition and outlook
Karla recalls the improvements since the ‘pioneering days’. In 2003, a US$20,500 supplement loan from the World Bank was received, enabling investments in a well and a small packing shed.  In 2004, the project was the first in the state to receive financing from the Bank of Brazil, from funds specifically dedicated to women-owned businesses. They doubled the greenhouse area, adding 1,500 m2, with an all-metal structure. In 2005, the Bank of Brazil donated a pick-up truck to help them with the deliveries. Last year was also the year that brought recognition for their vision and hard work, and some measure of fame too. Besides the World Bank award, which took Karla to Washington DC, Cofep also won Sebrae’s National Woman Entrepreneur Award, beating 800 other projects. Representing the coop, Karla was given the chance to participate in a 15-day workshop in Switzerland. The funds from both awards were completely reinvested in greenhouse equipment. The project outlook is encouraging. In 2006 they managed to grow another 700 m2 with their own funding, and plan more expansion for 2007. Economically, it has fared well, too, as working members have earned US$270 in some of the best months – not a fortune in any way, but a giant leap in their living standard. Gerbera trials have been very positive, and are under consideration for the next expansion. Other options could be statice, gypsofila, aster or foliage. The coop is aware of the necessity to complement their chrysanthemums, and innovate. The local climate does lend itself to several crops. Over the years, some of the coop members have not been able to dedicate themselves to the project as much as others, and during 2006 Cofep has called for new partners – even men. Preference was given to the sons and husbands of the coop founders. “There have been a lot of jokes in town about us being a gals- only club, but it was not our intention, it just turned out this way. We all like men, really!” says Karla with the sense of humor that has helped her overcome more than most people, with less at hand, and when so few believed it could be done.     

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