They were frantically yelling at each other across a large room. Twenty or so families depended on the success of this cooperative and not all was in order. We were about to present our recommendations (¡in Spanish!) to this cheese cooperative in Saraguro, Ecuador.
A sustainable Ecuadorian life contrasts greatly from that of an American. People do not strive to work in corporate Ecuador; that path does not exist. The people live off of the land. These local farmers had been selling their produce for centuries. However, it was time to change. Most recently, local shops refused to purchase cheese on a consistent basis. Not to mention, the large markup shopkeepers would take. The farmers decided to form a cooperative.
Amongst twenty families, organizing a cooperative would not be easy. Many families had to travel miles through the mountainous region to attend meetings. Many did not show up at all. Most were at the will of their farms. Agrarian work is intense. Meanwhile, the group was at an impasse, having a location to process and sell the cheese but lacking governmental health approval. The cooperative needed centralization. Twenty families could neither regulate each other nor control quality.
We decided that it was most important to create an organizational structure that could adequately handle day-to-day operational demands and maintain order within the cooperative. Initially, we hypothesized that the organization could function just like a family business in the U.S.: a manager, a part-time accountant, and a few other operating employees would do. We were naïve to business in Ecuador. Accountants did not need a college education; some did not even graduate high school. The accountant would also need to operate the business. We decided to address the top of the structure. Who amongst the cooperative members would make executive decisions? We created an elected board so that the families did not need to travel so often. That board would then be responsible to hire three team members, one with a background in cheese making, another with retail experience, and the third with accounting knowledge. Surprisingly, the group not only understood my broken Spanish but also liked our idea.
Quality control was the more difficult question. Quite frankly, none of us knew even how to make cheese, so we started by visiting the facility. Here’s how it works: farmers milk their cows and process it into quesillo. They then sell the quesillo to the cooperative that processes it. Voila: cheese. Unfortunately, we discovered two main barriers to controlling quality. First, each cow grazed on different pastures and ate different feed. The cooperative needed to standardize food. Although this would be a long-term goal, group could not do this immediately. In the mean time, however, the cooperative needed to purchase the milk and ensure that the quesillo process was standardized. A variable quesillo would make an unreliable cheese (and no one likes hair in their cheese!). The group agreed. I wish the cheese cooperative the best as they grow and hope one day I can buy some fresh cheese from the group in the U.S.!