My Costa Rica Trip: Bananas and the ACRG

Katey GorskiTeam Member Volunteers

Whole Foods Market Team Member Volunteer Maria Miglioretti shares what drew her to participating in the volunteer trip to Costa Rica and what she learned through the experience. 

It was primarily bananas that led me to select Costa Rica for my volunteer trip. The “flying banana” display is a prominent feature in the Whole Foods Market Virginia Beach produce department,and I looked forward to the opportunity to visit the place that I talk about so often to our customers.

Did you know bananas from EARTH University were the first Whole Trade Guarantee product sold at Whole Foods Market or that 90% of the bananas grown at EARTH are sold at WFM stores? Commercial endeavors at EARTH not only make money for the university but also increase global awareness about the university, provide educational opportunities and support the neighboring communities through good-paying jobs. Banana workers at EARTH earn significantly more that the average agricultural wage.

Managers know the names of every employee. There is an annual bonus based on production, financial incentives for attendance and a matching funds retirement plan. There is a medical clinic at the production facility and training programs like English and financial planning for everyone. School supplies are even provided for the children of employees. These might seem like “normal” benefits to us, but for production workers in a lesser-developed country, they are far from.

Something else we were honored to see in action in Costa Rica is the microlending program supported by Whole Planet Foundation. Costa Rica was the first Whole Planet Foundation-funded program in 2006. Asociación Costa Rica Grameen (ACRG) is now completely sustainable, and operations are now run by Costa Ricans. The program in Limon Province is also so successful that the government of Costa Rica has recently announced a $1 million match to the funds provided by Whole Planet Foundation to ACRG so that the program can be taken nationwide.

Through ACRG there are three types of loans. The basic loan is $200, and payments are made every 15 days for one year. For proven businesses, there is a micro-enterprise loan of up to $4,000. And unique to Costa Rica, there is a pig fattening loan of $200 that is available as a secondary loan to borrowers. Basically a woman can borrow $200 in June to buy a pig. She “fattens” the pig over the next six months, and in December she sells the pig in time for holiday tamale production. She then repays the $200 loan and keeps the profit. This loan is appealing because pork is very expensive in Costa Rica, and tamales are an integral part of the December holiday celebration.

ACRG Center Meeting

As Whole Foods Market Team Member Volunteers we had the opportunity to visit an ACRG center meeting within an hour’s drive of EARTH University. A center is made up of 6-8 groups of five women. Group leaders attend the center meetings every 15 days and make payments on behalf of the women of their group and attend to any business. Of the women we met at the center meeting, there were seamstresses, clothing resellers, cake decorators, store owners and chicken farmers. As they talked about their businesses you could see the pride on their faces.

Later we met Gabriella, a dairy farmer/cheese maker and recipient of a microenterprise loan. I was interested to find out why someone who appeared to be running a successful business would go to ACRG for a loan instead of a “normal bank.” She told us that the support of the other members of the group make an ACRG loan more appealing to her. In Costa Rica it is also very difficult to get a loan, and the ACRG doesn’t have nearly as much “red tape.” Gabriella has also taken advantage of education programs at EARTH to improve her business and now has a bio digester on her farm which converts animal waste to both gas for sterilizing cheese-making tools and fertilizer. Since building the bio digester she has been able to cut down from purchasing 30 bags of fertilizer a month to just three. She additionally is now operating an agri-tourism business on her farm, something else she learned at EARTH, and welcomes visitors from all over the world.

After hearing Gabriella’s story, I realized that without ACRG, these women might never have a chance to change their economic situations. And that’s what I will remember most about my Team Member Volunteer experience… Whole Planet Foundation is giving women the opportunity and the power to change the lives of their families for the better.