The Encinas siblings were invited by Andean Naturals
Irineo Encinas was sitting at a hotel table in Maryland in September, relaxing and enjoying a plate of fresh asparagus for the first time. The day before, he had flown on an airplane — a new experience for the Bolivian farmer.
He was hungry and yet exhilarated. He was also exhausted because he and two of his siblings, Efigenia and Arturo, had just traveled two days to attend Expo East at the Baltimore Convention Center. Andean Naturals, the largest U.S. importer of quinoa, invited the trio to participate in the U.S. trade show, which annually attracts more than 1,350 exhibitors.
“These events bring together in one place the most important players in the industry of organic and natural foods in this country,” said Sergio Nuñez de Arco, founder and president of Andean Naturals. “Several are importers of Bolivian quinoa and ignore the reality of the people who produce the food they buy and distribute here.”
Nuñez de Arco said it was important “this market know the faces and the way of life of Bolivian producers who are not agribusiness, but families living from this monoculture, who strive to produce organic, in harsh conditions, in a hostile climate, without basic services and away from urban centers, in many cases.”
Expo East focuses on the production and distribution of innovative products, sustainability and growth opportunities in the organic and natural products industry. This 30th version featured exhibitions, conferences and educational sessions with more than 25,000 attendees, including big-box chains, independent retailers and guest speakers.
Irineo, Efigenia and Arturo Encinas joined the Andean Naturals team at its booth at the convention center, helping put a face on the root source of quinoa: farmers. The siblings promoted their livelihood to other show-goers, in concert with team members who were there to publicize Andean Naturals’ mission and commitment to Bolivian organic royal quinoa.
A couple days earlier, the Encinas siblings started their arduous journey in Urcuri, in the Bolivian department of Oruro.
“I cannot believe that just yesterday, at this time, I was in Challapata and now in the United States,” Irineo said.
Their travel itinerary was challenging, more like dizzying. On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 13, they left Urcuri for Challapata, a one-hour trip. They spent the night so they could leave early Monday in a “surubí” (a small bus) toward Oruro, where they picked up their visas. They returned to Challapata to collect their bags commissioned to an embroiderer. The embroidery, their mother’s, contained a detail that read “Encinas Family” on the image of a quinoa plant. They reached a bus station in Oruro at 9 p.m. and looked for transportation to El Alto. Only a bus without heating was available. That bus deposited them on the March 6 Avenue at 2 a.m. Tuesday. They took a taxi to the airport and registered their luggage. They left on that first flight of their lives at 4:30 a.m., had a layover in Bogota, Colombia, and finally arrived in Washington, D.C., at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 15.
The Encinas siblings, weary but full of enthusiasm, were greeted by Sarah Connolly, manager of social responsibility for Andean Naturals. The farmers met with the Andean Naturals team at the airport and were driven to the hotel in Baltimore.
For the next eight days, they met importers specializing in organic food supermarkets. They also mixed in some sightseeing, viewing the National Aquarium, Baltimore’s bay and famous monuments in Washington, D.C.
The siblings hoped to soak up as much new knowledge as they could on this fact-finding adventure. Nearly everyone was a stranger, but no language barrier could not be overcome with a warm smile or a handshake. When their stomachs rumbled, they sampled oysters, kale, crabs, fish, blueberries and so much food they had never tasted.
Efigenia, Irineo and Arturo are three of eight siblings engaged in quinoa production. In March, a brutal hailstorm ruined most of their crop. They remained strong, undeterred. A few days later, a delegation visited. Efigenia’s first words to them were: “being a woman is to be strong.”
Efigenia told the visitors that shortly after starting that March harvest, she left her land in the morning and returned at night to find the unthinkable — their crops destroyed. “However, we are alive and for that we have to thank Mother Earth, which protects us,” she said. And then she sang, “because I have to cheer up my brothers.”
Efigenia bought a video camera in the United States so she could make and edit recordings of her trip, capturing footage of Expo East, American culture and parties. Included was video she shot of Emma Jagaz, a young agro-ecological farmer with whom Efigenia compared and contrasted information on growing practices and cultures.
Andean Naturals and its Cultural Exchange Program
The Baltimore event marked the third year small-scale quinoa farmers have attended large trade shows in the United States. It’s a winning marriage for both parties, as companies interested in buying organic Bolivian quinoa talk with producers without intermediaries, and farmers explain to companies the importance of working with Fair Trade for communities and the effort involved in organic certification audits so their grain can reach foreign markets.
“Expo East and Expo West are opportunities to meet the people behind the brands, talk face to face and connect with real people, bridging the gap,” Nuñez de Arco said.
About Expo East
Expo East, a premium business-to-business event,was held Sept. 16-19 at the Baltimore Convention Center. It is organized annually by New Hope Natural Media, in collaboration with Biofach America and other organizations.
Expo East promotes competitions and awards for entrepreneurs and companies committed to sustainable organic and fair trade products, preserving and nourishing the planet’s biodiversity and cultures and traditions of the towns where they produce and harvest food.
More than 400 brands debuted at ExpoEast this year. Healthy food and beverage options included “pegan” products (paleo and vegan mashup without dairy, grains or animal ingredients), enhanced waters (watermelon, alkaline, aloe, coconut, maple, probiotic-packed), cashews, almonds as well as floral ingredients.