Like many youth in his small village of Santo Domingo Xenocoj, Guatemala, Bonifacio Saso Choc began working as a field hand at the age of 12, laboring on his father’s tiny parcel of land. Even still, the farm barely produced enough maize and beans for the family to eat.
To earn money, each year Bonifacio and his father travelled with other native Guatemalans to the southern coast for seasonal work on large private estates. Two months later, father and son would return home, frequently sick and injured from the gruelling work and poor conditions.
Recalling his childhood, Bonifacio said, “The saddest thing was the way we were treated, almost like animals; we were abused and deceived by the landowners; we were given terrible food. I clearly remember how my father suffered.”
When he became the breadwinner for his own family, Bonifacio worked hard to make sure his children had a different childhood – and a better future. By age 50, he had achieved more than his father could have imagined. His farm provided for his wife and eight children, and even allowed them to live in their own home, which was well equipped with bedrooms, a kitchen, running water, and a latrine.
But transforming his farm into a profitable business was not possible through hard work alone. Working independently, farmers lacked the necessary technical knowledge, business skills, and organization to operate an efficient irrigation system, to imrpove production, and to identify the most profitable and sustainable market opportunities. At market, buyers pitted farmers against each other for lower prices, and competition and jealousies kept farmers from effectively collaborating to improve their sector.
This competitive atmosphere was pervasive even within the local cooperative, Fuente Chuya. Cooperatives are an impactful way for farming communities to pool their experience and knowledge, to share common needs, and seek common solutions, but Fuente Chuya was afflicted by the same lack of knowledge and collaboration as the sector at large. Unable to agree upon and implement a cohesive business plan, the company was ultimately unable to pay even its electric bills, meaning the cooperative’s irrigation system shut down – and crops, farmers, and their families suffered.
In 1991, Bonifacio and his neighbors turned to TechnoServe, which was working with farmer cooperatives in the region to improve rural livelihoods. First, TechnoServe worked with the electric company to negotiate a payment schedule, and power was restored. Recognizing that the electric-run irrigation system would never be cost-effective, TechnoServe completed studies to install a gravity-feed irrigation system. And a simple purification procedure was introduced to improve the long-contaminated water.
Now, with the utilities they needed in place, TechnoServe agronomists worked with the cooperative to establish demonstration plots, helping farmers to experiment with agronomic practices designed to boost production. After careful study of potential markets, products, and profit margins, the farmers of Fuente Chuya were also introduced to new crops to diversify their production.
Finally, TechnoServe trained the cooperative in efficient accounting procedures, and best marketing and administrative practices. With a well-run agribusiness in place to support production and effectively navigate the marketplace, farmers like Bonifacio were able to convert their hard work into sustainable incomes, and into a brighter future.
Don Bonifacio was proud of what he and his community had come together to accomplish. Looking to the future, he explained, “A stronger cooperative will help us make a better life for our families. If we unite our work and our land with education, we will become a prosperous village; for our children, that will be the best inheritance of all.”