Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guatemala # 10 Bowen, Neitzsche and Pigeonpeas

The charismatic young leader of Semilla Nueva, Curt Bowen, speaks with equal urgency about corn thrashing machines, liberation theology, open pollination, Frederich Neitzsche, American politics, microbial life in the soil and the cheapest way to feed yourself in Guatemala.  In a short life he has
been in and out of the commercial fertilizer business and the biofuels business in Central America and founded and run a significant new NGO, all while thinking about life’s great questions.  He is a philosophy major in dirty jeans and well worn boots, living simultaneously in the modern world and a deeply traditional society. 

During a stretch of the summer of 2013 Bowen was honored for his work by Arriana Huffington in New York City, toured farms and research stations in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania, then came home to Guatemala in time to plant pigeonpeas, meet with the local club of Rotary International and, for the first time in six weeks, sleep in his own bed.

September finds him preparing for the visit to Guatemala of a potential major grant-giver while getting more seeds in the ground between rainstorms and heading back to Idaho to raise money and engage with his many advisors.  It looks to be a fine time to be Curt Bowen.

At 26 Bowen has already lived in Guatemala more than five years, starting with a typical build-something-for-the-poor project by students from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, then in and out of those two businesses and, for the past three years, honchoing Similla Nueva.  He is smart, good looking and well spoken but his particular strength seems to be intellectual and physical tenacity: following a question wherever it leads, learning, consolidating and keeping relentlessly on the move.  That’s why a philosophy major knows a very great deal about the chemistry, biology and financing of small-plot agriculture in Guatemala.

I’ve known Bowen and been on his board for a little over two years.  The first year he was like an organizational teenager, very bright and knowing but still growing into his body. I wondered how long SN could hold on; financing was tenuous.  The last year has been a wonder.  That he was among a score of young leaders picked out by Huffington’s organization is one thing, but that he was identified as one of leaders of those young leaders and their spokesman is another, and no accident.  On a Huffington panel of young people talking about their work, Bowen was the most grounded, the most convincing, from what I couldsee.  Something substantial happened in the last year, certainly to the organization but at the center of all this, to Bowen.

The SN web site has a video of Bowen speaking alone in a field for six minutes virtually without interruption about Semilla Nueva’s work.  This is entirely too long as these things are supposed to go. Yet it works because of its authenticity.

It would seem to be hard for bright young people to leave the comforts of the United States or Europe and drop into the life of five acre farms, 95 degree weather and another language.  Yet going back more than 50 years to Accion International's founding, I’ve watched special people do this naturally and without great fanfare or self-importance time and again. 

I wrote in my last post about the admirable Anne Barkett, SN’s nutrition specialist.  I could equally have written about Kristin Lacy who is Bowen’s sidekick and organizational genius in Guatemala.  I’m sure I could do the same for the original co-founders who have moved on. 

Curt Bowen and Kristin Lacy at lunch after a morning of planting pigeonpeas.

Until a few months ago, SN has a single small Jeep-like vehicle to get over rough roads, all other transportation being by “chicken bus.”  SN somehow kept four or five people and all the work in the field going on less than $40,000 a year for two years, with some of the support coming from family.  Bowen made the top salary at $500 a month or so.

At least three things happened which have turned the tide in roughly the last 18 months:

First, Rotary came to the rescue, particularly the remarkable way Rotary International triples local club’s contributions.  When Bowen first sought funding from them, it seemed the least likely and most labor-intensive way to pay the bills.  He could have lost the whole thing, it seemed to me, had he failed to clear the final hurdle in what became $60,000 a year from Rotary, a near-doubling of the budget.  But he did and Rotary did it.  The organization than banished polio around the world, Rotary, has scored again.

Second, Boise’s Steve Hodges, a low-key guy who started and sold four successful start-ups, came to Guatemala, slept on the ground and got his hands dirty and ended up buying land for SN’s new research and training center.  It may be just eight acres but it is up and running and already hooked into the world’s research network for tropical agriculture which will be important to improving farm income all over the country.  All this since February.

Third, Bowen was named the winner of the Mr. Whitman Award, a one-time grant of $25,000 given to an outstanding graduate of Whitman College.

Those are big financial victories.  Behind them is a Bowen’s growing maturity and settling in.  

In the next three years, Semilla Nueva can make real progress on the greatest challenge to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in Guatemala: the productivity of very small farms.  By 2015 it could bring Guatemala into the world pigeonpea market, potentially worth tens of millions of dollars a year.  This one crop could jump income 25-30 percent on small farms, the threshold for “farmer to farmer” innovation to take hold widely.  That will be the subject of our next post on Guatemala.




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