Illustration by Hisashi Okawa
Illustration by Hisashi Okawa

(Corrects amount of Bolivian quinoa imported by the U.S. in 18th paragraph. This the first article in a three-part series about the importance of delivery in the success of global development projects.)

On a recent trip to Bolivia, I traveled by helicopter with President Evo Morales to Santa Ana de Chipaya, a settlement almost 13,000 feet (3,960 meters) above sea level that is home to the last 3,800 speakers of the Chipaya language. There, we played soccer with members of the community, who then served us a lunch of lamb and quinoa, a grain-like crop that people in and around Chipaya have grown for thousands of years.

The quinoa was bursting with flavor, and so fresh that it still had tiny bits of dirt in it, making it crunchy to eat. Ignoring his lamb, Morales looked up as he ate and said, “This is real quinoa.”

I’m sure many Americans and Europeans, who have become caught up in the quinoa craze of recent years, would have loved this treat. But just two decades ago, Bolivia’s quinoa crop had almost no international market. The phenomenon in the U.S. and Europe represents a triumph of delivery -- of using trial and error, course-correction and innovative partnerships to raise demand for the grain throughout the world. It is instructive to look back at how the groundwork for this triumph took shape.

Farmers in Bolivia’s southern altiplano, a semi-arid plain, have difficulty growing much of anything. Their remoteness also makes it hard to transport crops to market. Still, since before the time of the Inca Empire the indigenous farmers in the Nor Lipez province, 500 miles south of the capital La Paz, have cultivated quinoa.

Cholesterol-Free

The grain packs more nutrition per 100 calories than almost any other crop. It is rich in calcium, dietary fiber, magnesium and iron. Yet it is cholesterol- and gluten-free, making it an appealing source of protein for vegans, the lactose-intolerant and people with high blood pressure. NASA may select it as a staple for astronauts on extended missions.

Quinoa farmers in the southern altiplano long struggled to sell this superfood even in other parts of Bolivia, let alone outside the country, and found it increasingly difficult to make a living. So, in the 1970s and ’80s, Nor Lipez’s main farmers co-op network, the Central de Co-operativas de Campesinos Agricolas Operacion Tierra, initiated a multipronged effort that it hoped would boost quinoa production, increase revenue by tapping into new markets, and help revive the organization’s declining membership.

To scale up production, the co-op needed to mechanize the “debittering” process. The outer skin of quinoa seeds contains saponins, which repel pests but also make the quinoa too bitter to eat. For centuries, women in Nor Lipez removed saponins by hand, taking up to three days to debitter 150 pounds of quinoa.

In the mid-1970s, the co-op used a $15,000 grant from the Catholic Relief Services to purchase a de-husking machine from an Italian baker in Arequipa, Peru, in the hope it would remove all saponins from their quinoa. After months of experimentation, however, the machine still removed only 70 percent of the saponins, leaving the quinoa inedible.

In 1979, Macario Bautista, who headed the co-op at the time, applied for a grant from the Inter-American Foundation, a U.S. government agency working with small farmer organizations throughout the Americas, to purchase a machine that would remove 100 percent of saponins. Kevin Healy, IAF’s portfolio manager for Bolivia, who visited Nor Lipez in 1979 to discuss the application, was struck by the challenges farmers in the region faced, and impressed by how intently they sought better ways to produce quinoa. He approved a $105,000 grant to the co-op for skills training, other forms of technical assistance, and a new and improved debittering machine.

Unfortunately, this machine also failed to perform as hoped. And, soon thereafter, a devastating drought struck the region. Production plummeted.

Debittering Equipment

In the late 1980s, the co-op received a concessional loan from the Inter-American Development Bank and used part of it to add power to its debittering machine, so that it could scrub the seeds of enough saponins to make the quinoa palatable. The co-op used remaining funds to rent other debittering equipment from elsewhere in Bolivia. Production soared from almost nothing in 1983, during the worst of the drought, to more than 100 tons in 1992. About 7,000 hectares were devoted to quinoa production in Nor Lipez, up from 500 hectares in the mid-1970s.

Nor Lipez’s quinoa farmers also faced a cultural bias against the grain in Bolivia. Because of its historical association with indigenous identity and role as a nutritional lifeline for the Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples, quinoa had developed a negative reputation as “Indian food.” Many of the country’s wealthier mestizos (those of partial European ancestry) thought that eating quinoa would lower their status in society.

The co-op had begun training its members in various skills aimed at improving production, and formed a committee in 1982 to establish new markets in Bolivia and Peru.

About the same time, the farmers co-op also attracted the interest of David Cusack, an American agricultural scientist who visited Nor Lipez to learn about the nutritional value of altiplano quinoa. After the farmers got to know and trust Cusack, they gave him special permission to take some of the seeds back to Colorado to study.

Along with Steve Gorad and Don McKinley, two other Colorado-based quinoa enthusiasts, Cusack started the Quinoa Corp. to introduce Bolivian quinoa to U.S. consumers. Sadly, Cusack was killed near La Paz in 1984, in an attempted robbery, but Gorad and McKinley took over the project, traveling to health-food shows with samples of quinoa. Demand grew quickly in small health-food stores across the U.S. Consumers were drawn to its nutritional quality, and found it an excellent substitute for pasta and rice.

The Nor Lipez co-op helped their members take advantage of these new export opportunities, and even created ANAPQUI, a national alliance of small farmers that eventually allowed Bolivian quinoa growers to secure a much higher price than they could get from other exporting agencies.

Quinoa Phenomenon

In 1992, the co-op’s quinoa exports, primarily to the U.S., reached $70,000. European demand grew, and exports kept rising, reaching $500,000 by 1996. The quinoa phenomenon had begun.

Since then, the seedy crop from one of Bolivia’s most isolated regions has become a global development blockbuster. In 2012, the U.S. imported 58,000 tons of Bolivian quinoa. It has become Bolivia’s second-highest-grossing agricultural export, after soybeans, and third-largest export overall, trailing only natural gas and minerals. The Nor Lipez co-op has doubled to 500 small-holder farmers.

The United Nations declared 2013 as the “Year of Quinoa.”

The Bolivian farmers’ success in selling quinoa to the U.S. and Europe offers three lessons.

First, trial and error play an essential role in successful delivery. For each new technology the farmers acquired, they invested considerable time and capital working to improve it. The co-op finally perfected the debittering process, allowing it to scale-up production as foreign markets were opening.

Second, local leadership can ensure perseverance. During the drought of the early 1980s, generations-old ties among families in the farmers’ co-op held together and reinforced the group’s devotion to growing the crop of their ancestors. The co-op’s strong organization also ensured that farmers continued to receive vital service such as transport and consumer goods when they were struggling most.

Third, an external partner can open doors, but strong organization among local groups is needed to leverage external assistance to the fullest. The Bolivian farmers showed good judgment by putting their trust in Cusack, who helped open U.S. and European markets for quinoa. But without the group’s strong network, Cusack and his colleagues in the Quinoa Corp. would have struggled to secure a sufficient and steady supply to successfully market the crop to Western consumers.

Of course, the challenges continue. Today, rising demand for quinoa has led its price to skyrocket in poorer Bolivian communities, which still depend on the crop as a protein source, making it unaffordable for some families. In addition, some worry that overfarming has placed land used to grow quinoa at risk, increasing its vulnerability to drought and extreme weather wrought by climate change. And, naturally, the Bolivian farmers’ success has attracted competition. Farmers in countries from Canada to Pakistan are now planting quinoa.

At least now the Bolivian farmers know they have the creativity and persistence to meet new challenges head on.

(Jim Yong Kim, a former president of Dartmouth College, is the president of the World Bank Group. This is the first in a three-part series about the importance of delivery in the success of global development projects.)

To contact the writer of this article: Jim Yong Kim at president@worldbank.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.