A small farmer’s cooperative in Paraguay is helping to boost individual prosperity and overall GDP, encourage and educate youth in vocational skills, and disprove a local belief that a female-run organization will never succeed. When Claudelina Portillo, a Paraguan banana farmer, heard that her female friends could not afford the $3 monthly fee to join the Guayaibi Poty Cooperative that she was a part of, she quit and formed the originally female-only Paraiso Poty Committee in 2008. The committee produces and exports bananas and pineapples from Paraguay to Argentina.
The other cooperatives mocked Portillo, and said that her committee would not succeed because the women would not be able to get along with each other. After securing a spot in the central market of Asuncion, she received an award from the Ministry of Agriculture because hers was the only women’s cooperative in the market. The award was a piece of banana-processing equipment, and the large volume that the committee produces (497 tonnes in 2012) proves this stereotype of women to be wrong.
ACDI/VOCA, whose mission is to promote economic opportunities for community cooperatives that use innovative yet sound business models, works with committees like Paraiso Poty in places like Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Ethiopia, and Russia. Their Cooperative Development Program (CDP) is funded by USAID, and works with coops like Portillo’s to fight against rural poverty by increasing coop members’ incomes. The CDP stresses the importance of having women in leadership roles, because they will help other women increase their financial security.
The success of the Paraiso Poty Committee works against stereotypes of women and proves that they can be agricultural leaders as well as men. Although originally all members of the coop were women, nine of the women’s husbands have joined boosting the number of members to 61 in 2011. Portillo envisions the cooperative as a family venture, and is taking steps to make the coop more attractive to Paraguan youth. Membership is free for those between the ages of 15 and 25, and the local government has helped provide short-term vocational courses for the 25 youth members.
Programs like this are important in Paraguay, where despite a relatively high education level, the poverty rate has been increasing since 1995. Without innovative cooperaties like Portillo’s, which focus on groups such as youth and women who are regularly forgotten in the strive for economic growth, countries like Paraguay will continue to suffer with high poverty and unemployment rates. Portillo’s vision of a family-oriented network that encourages youth involvement is certainly a viable and attractive model for future development projects.