Going native: the sweet success of Bolivia's bitter potato
In the highlands of Bolivia, farmers have laid clusters of small, white potatoes on the ground in anticipation of an overnight frost. For thousands of years, the Amyara and Quechua communities have taken advantage of the high variation in day- and night-time temperatures during the winter months in the Altiplano to prepare chuño - traditional freeze-dried potato. This indigenous food is valued by local communities but it is only recently that it has been consumed more widely.
Rural communities use chuño both as a staple food and a form of capital, with small quantities sold at market when money is short. Exposing certain native varieties to several nights' frost, together with days of strong sunlight, reduces water content and the concentration of bitter-tasting glycoalkaloids. After several days, the tubers are trampled underfoot to remove any remaining water and, once washed, the chuño (also known as tunta or chuño blanco) is consumed or may be stored for several years.
Despite it playing a vital role in local economies, many Bolivians have long regarded chuño as "poor man's food", with only a small proportion reaching larger urban markets. Until recently the chuño, transported to the major cities of La Paz and Cochabamba, was often sold in bulk, and not actively marketed; also it was not required to meet food quality or hygiene standards.
In 2003, Papa Andina, a regional initiative of the International Potato Center (CIP), was established, with its national partner, the PROINPA Foundation, to create better links between smallscale farmers and urban markets and to improve the quality of commercially available chuño. Key players in the market chain were brought together including farmers, traders, processors, exporters, cookery schools and research-and-development organisations, in what has become known as the Participatory Market Chain Approach (PCMA).
In the beginning, as Papa Andina's André Devaux explains, it was no simple task: "The main challenge was to bring people with different perspectives and from different backgrounds to sit at the same table, and then to create trust," he recalls. Following discussions, participants widely agreed that the unreliable quality of chuño was one of the biggest obstacles to expanding the market. So, they developed formal quality standards that became legally-recognised by the Bolivian government in 2004.
Improving the quality of chuño was just the beginning; changing its image was also a key priority. A marketing makeover resulted in the launch of cleaned, selected, bagged and branded "Chuñosa" in supermarkets in La Paz and Santa Cruz. An important feature of the revamped product was transparent packaging to demonstrate that the potatoes were in good condition. Opaque sacks used previously were notorious for containing damaged tubers and up to a kilogramme of soil. With consumer confidence restored, sales soared.
Five years after the start of the initiative, Papa Andina reports that chuño is now regarded by urban Bolivians as less of a traditional "folk" food and more as "a natural and healthy Andean product." As a result, it has attracted interest from exporters supplying ethnic markets in Brazil, Argentina, USA and Spain, and around 250 chuño-producing families have benefited. Papa Andina members continue to meet every month to discuss new products and investigate ways to further expand the market, with chefs and cookery schools recently helping to develop new chuño-based products, including dehydrated soups and flour.
Papa Andina has now moved beyond potatoes in Bolivia and, through establishing similar partnerships with research-and-development organisations, is bringing together stakeholders in the milk, coffee and cacao market chains. The PMCA approach has also proven successful in neighbouring Peru, where Papa Andina helped launch the award-winning T'ikapapa brand of selected, naturally-coloured Andean potatoes, sold as gourmet food in urban markets. The first commercial brand of coloured crisps from native potato, Jalca Chips, has also been introduced.
Reflecting on the success of Chuñosa, Devaux is convinced that although the market chain involves many intermediaries between producers and consumers, farmers continue to benefit and are now able to negotiate better terms-of-trade. "They understand the system better; they know the quality criteria required and have access to price information, which allows them to be more competitive," he enthuses.
Devaux is also confident the product will survive the changing preferences of Bolivia's urban consumers because it remains an important part of the country's cultural heritage. This means the ancient tradition of potato preservation will continue to help chuño producers earn a living, at least for the foreseeable future.
Date published: September 2008
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