“A dollar goes a lot further here” is a sentiment that we use frequently to describe daily living in Nicaragua to those visiting from abroad. To better illustrate this idea, we recently sat down with Brigadista (Community Health Promoter) Deisy Gonzalez to learn more about the local economy of Los Robles and her experience as an inaugural participant of our Grow For Good program.
Severe food insecurity is a reality for 20% of Los Robles. That means over 400 men, women, and children experience hunger on a daily basis. Severe food insecurity is characterized by feeling hungry but not eating, or not eating for an entire day, due to lack of money or other resources. Grow For Good is a program that improves access to favorable loans for farming families to plant, grow, and harvest food for themselves and their food-insecure neighbors. In May of 2020, Deisy obtained a $200 loan to plant corn and by October, she and her children had harvested over 5,000 pounds of corn. However, shortly after harvest, mother nature threw a curveball. The hurricane season of 2020 was historic. Two category 5 hurricanes arrived within two weeks of each other, disrupting the essential drying process for the corn harvest throughout Nicaragua.
“Here [in Nicaragua], those who have money, don’t lose it”, explained Deisy, when speaking of unexpected changes in climate. Meaning, for those with resources, adaptation is easy. One can securely store crops from the elements when there is too much rain, or buy a motor and pump when water is scarce. But for those living without stable income, “You have to be patient with nature”, Deisy saied humbly as she recalled lessons from her grandmother.
Upon reflection of her 2020 Grow For Good participation, it was clear Deisy used her Grandmother’s lessons and life experience to take three distinct actions to mitigate the bad weather. First, her land was ready. She took the initiative to till and prepare the soil for planting. Second, she planted on time. Upon receiving her loan in May, she wasted no time to have seeds in the ground by early June. The window of opportunity to plant crops is becoming smaller each year as the rainy season is more unpredictable. And third, she paid attention to the changing weather and harvested all her corn just days before the heavy rains arrived. In the end, she did lose some of her harvest to damanged wet corn that locals refer to as “ojo negro” or “nacido”, but was able to fully repay her loan and store a good portion of her corn, which she is now using to make and sell traditional dishes. We asked her to tell us about these items and explain the prices surrounding them.
“You can make a countless number of dishes from corn”, explained Deisy. In Los Robles, some of the most common are tortillas, nacatamales, and a drink called Pinol. For tortillas, 25 pounds of ground corn makes approximately 150 small tortillas that can be sold for 1 cordoba or ($0.03 dollars). Larger tortillas can be sold for 2 cordobas at a lower yield, but with the same profit margin. During our visit, Deisy began a batch of tortillas and explained the process along the way.
Nacatamales are a true culinary delight made up of corn masa (corn dough), and a variety of ingredients including pork meat, rice, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. The masa and cooked ingredients are wrapped in plantain leaves, tied with a string, and then boiled for several hours. The entire process often requires preparation over the course of two days. 10 pounds of corn meal produces enough masa for about 50 nacatamales. Some cooks make them bigger than others. Deisy explained that there are different levels of nacatamal, with the most expensive to make (and most delicious) containing meat. These sell in Los Robles for about 20 cordobas, or $.60 cents USD. Interestingly, this same product sells for about 50 cordobas ($1.50) in the capital city of Managua.
Pinol and Pinolillo (when cacao is added) are famous traditional drinks in Nicaragua. Made by ground toasted corn and a small amount of cacao, the powder is mixed with water or milk. It takes 120 pounds of corn to yield 100 pounds of pinol power. The cost of roasting and grinding 100 pounds is 200 cordobas. The pinol powder is then sold by the pound for 15 cordobas, and pinolillo at 30, since cacao is added.
As we spoke of food and drink, Desyi explained that in the past, she and several other women from the community would often travel to Maganua to sell their products. They had their own market stand and the trips were productive. However, given the challenges Nicaragua has faced recently, these lucrative trips have not happened in several years. The economy of Nicaragua took a beating from the civil unrest three years ago and has not recovered. Compounded by the pandemic and natural disasters, many families are facing extreme economic challenges. Deisy lamented this fact with a somber tone, but as Nicaraugans do, she shared her optimism for the future.
We ended our conversation with reflections on her life and future rounds of planting crops. “There is so much to know about growing food, but in my 74 years, there is a lot of knowledge I do have to share”, Deisy said. “We can’t fight nature, and we don’t know when the good or bad will come, but we have to be patient”, echoing again the words of her grandmother.