On a perfectly sunny day in March, a small white motor coach loaded with 18 business students and two professors from the University of Bridgeport pulled out of San Jose, Costa Rica, headed east on the Pan American Highway, and began its steady climb over Cerro de la Muerte Pass, some 11,322 feet above sea level. The road—an innumerable series of U-turns sliced into the mountain’s punishingly steep face—seemed to grow narrower with every foot along the route, and if one was candid about it, the breathtaking journey,(for certainly, the distant tufts of clouds—now below the bus—and expanse of green mountain range were impressive), was suddenly unnerving for this one small yet significant deficit: there was not a single guardrail in sight.
Better to think about Biolley.
That was the coach’s destination. It lay approximately four hours away, nestled in the shadows of La Amistad International Park, a 479,000-acre World Heritage Site brimming with puma, monkeys, jewel-colored birds, and equally varied ecosystems, from rain and cloud forests to grasslands. Plenty of flower and fauna.
Human inhabitants? Not as many. There are, in fact, fewer than 100 families—mostly cocoa and coffee farmers—living in Biolley, but their ranks are dwindling. The young people of the village have been boarding the bus back to San Jose, looking for jobs and more promising futures.
“Last year, 23 kids graduated from the high school, and a few months later, 18 of them had moved to San Jose,” says Estasania Pulgarin, one of the UB students sitting at the rear of the bus.
That’s why some six hours and 237 kilometers later, the motor coach finally grinds to a stop on a red dirt road in front of the Asoprola Lodge. It’s run by the citizens of Biolley, and as the coach rattles up to the building, spraying great plumes of mud in its wake, a small crowd of men and women emerges from the building to welcome the UB passengers.
For the next six days, the business students, guided by professors Tim Raynor and Elena Cahill, will stay with local families, tour the village and farms, and gather as much information as they can. Their goal: to find a way for Biolley to prosper without destroying its culture.
From classroom to farms
For Raynor and Cahill, the trip represents a tantalizing opportunity to apply classroom lessons to the real world. Raynor, an entrepreneur and former owner of an independent coffee company, and Cahill, the CEO of an energy company and other successful start-ups, have guided dozens of managers and moguls throughout their professional careers. Now they both teach at UB’s Ernest C. Trefz School of Business, where this year they cocreated an entirely new class called International Entrepreneurship. It launched in January 2017, and rather than relying on books, Raynor and Cahill, both ardent disciples of you’ve-got-to-experience-it-yourself learning, invited students from the inaugural class to Biolley. It’s here, amid a canopy of strangler fig, palm, and cocoa trees, that students will put management theories into practice. The trip isn’t required to graduate, but it is a draw for undergraduates like Christian Hernandez, a senior majoring in finance.
“It’s my first time going to a global community,and I wanted to make the trip,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity.”
The villagers are equally excited. Thanks to various contacts and sometimes-spotty Internet access, they reached Cahill and Raynor through email, and have spent months coordinating the trip. Now, as luggage is unloaded from the coach, they are eager to escort the UB visitors back to their various homes and welcome them properly. They head out, walking past fantastical Gaudiesque concrete-and-tile buildings, including an improbable mushroom-shaped ice cream stand in the center of their town. Everyone will regroup in the morning.Tonight is about food: giant platters of chicken, home-grown vegetables, and glasses refilled with freshly pressed fruit juice. Some students like Hernandez chat easily in fluent Spanish. Others rely on a hodgepodge of English and mime to make their point. No matter. Whatever form it takes, communication is the key to any successful business venture, and tonight, the villagers will begin to explain their hopes for the future.
Tonight is about food: giant platters of chicken, home-grown vegetables, and glasses refilled with freshly pressed fruit juice. Some students like Hernandez chat easily in fluent Spanish. Others rely on a hodgepodge of English and mime to make their point. No matter. Whatever form it takes,communication is the key to any successful business venture, and tonight, the villagers will begin to explain their hopes for the future.
Although farming is in their DNA, the villagers are desperate to create jobs and additional income for their young people. They’ve already formed the Asoprola Association, a consortium that uses surrounding natural resources to drive the local economy. The inn down where the motor coach parked?
It’s integral to the village’s eco-tourism business that caters to hikers, nature photographers, and other adventurers. There’s talk about adding a restaurant, too. A few women make jewelry and sell homemade preserves, but none of these ventures is large enough to lift a village. Perhaps the UB group will have other ideas once they get to know Biolley.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, appointed tour guides lead everyone to farms scattered above the village. At one, a labyrinth of white PVC piping extends from a homemade sewage system used to treat animal waste back to a main house, where it supplies methane gas to power the family’s stove. Hernandez is wide-eyed.“This guy has found the best possible way to recycle and to creatively make money and live on his land!” he says. “It’s ingenious!”
Next, the coffee groves. “Coffee is very important because it is what we have always done,” explains villager Yendry Suarez Chacon. “But we face many challenges now. The disease of the crop, the economic part. The way we work now is not profitable.”
Indeed, some farmland sits fallow, too costly to cultivate. Nonetheless, Raynor is delighted by the tidy rows of coffee bean trees he does see. Soon, thousands of tiny white flowers will burst among deep green leaves, filling the air with the aroma of citrus and jasmine. The buds will turn into red coffee cherries, and as they have for generations, farmers will wait patiently as spring cherries fully ripen into summer fruit filled with coffee beans.
The beans, Chacon explains, are harvested at a communal drying center run by the Asoprola Association. Now silent, the cavernous space will thrum with gossip by late summer as neighbors work side by side, setting their fruit to dry on large concrete tables before they extract coffee beans by hand. Beans then go into 50-pound burlap sacks, ready to be trucked down the mountain by a distributor from San Jose who pays approximately 17 cents a pound for the bounty. That works out to $2300 a year per farmer, the UB group is informed.
Suddenly, as they stand among now-empty drying beds, listening to farmers talk about the local coffee trade, it becomes abundantly clear that what Chacon says is true: Biolley’s farmers have been giving away their profits.
“They’re getting abused by the market,” says business student Edgar Velez.
Cahill is animated, too. “There’s so much more they can do! They’re only participating in one small segment of the market. This is a perfect opportunity for Asoprola and us to team up tobe more impactful!”
What the village really needs to tip the economic scales in its favor, and what the UB group is about to propose, is quite simple: a 14-kilo coffee roaster.
“Coffee is very important because it is what we have always done . . . but we face many challenges now. The disease of the crop, the economic part. The way we work now is not profitable.”
– Yendry Suarez Chacon
ln development circles, it’s called a value chain. Instead of selling unfinished commodities for pennies on the pound, transform raw materials into something else, something worth more. Take cotton. Rather than export it, turn it into cloth, then use the cloth for clothing or towels or throw pillows. Do that, and you’ll make more money and create jobs for people searching for options.
It works with coffee, too. Instead of selling unroasted beans, which will get somebody else rich, Biolley’s farmers could roast their own beans, and, with a business plan, brand, market, and sell them directly to customers who are willing and able to pay for high-quality boutique coffee.
“Assuming that they are going to get the roaster, the No. 1 recommendation we made is that they sell to customers directly on e-commerce platforms like Amazon or their own website. With the Internet, they can participate in the revenue stream,” explains Raynor. “Instead of pennies on the pound, they can make $5 or $6 a pound.”
Of course, the old adage about spending money to make it holds true—even in Biolley. The tab for a good roaster runs at least $18,000 and climbs to as much as $40,000. When farmers’ typical earnings run a couple thousand dollars a year, a five-figure investment is impossible without help.
Suddenly, the class has a clear purpose: it will help the Asoprola Association secure funding for a roaster. The government of Costa Rica has a grant program, and Cahill and Raynor are hopeful that the village can provide sales totals, inventory records, and other data so students can complete a persuasive grant application on behalf of the village.
The magnitude of the project, its potential to positively impact the village well into the future—well, it’s a heady and inspiring thought. But the responsibility to make sure they get the funding? That’s scary, say students like Estesania Pulgarin, a first-semester senior majoring in marketing. “I think we’re all a little nervous,” Pulgarin admits. “We’re all trying to do our best work.”
Classmate Arianna Shams-Kollar agrees. She is staying with a single mother of five, her host for the week. Her first morning in Biolley, Shams Kollar woke to the sound of the children getting dressed and heading out the door. Yet when she opened her eyes, it was dark except for a canopy of stars stretching as far as she could see. “The kids are up at 4 a.m. before school, working on their uncle’s farm. When they come home, they work some more. They grow what they eat. If we’re successful, we’ll help change their lives.”
“Our farmers, they know little of languages, computers, the Internet. Our young people are our opportunity. It is our eagerness that they find work opportunities in the community and do not immigrate to other regions.”
A new way of doing business
Changing business practices also means changing minds. The Asoprola Association is eager to get the roaster, but it is nervous about taking over the marketing of their product.
“Our fears have to do with doing things right, not that we don’t want to try,” says Chacon, the Asoprola member. “Saying selling coffee online is easy, but the details are very important. We know that to sell online we need to have working capital with a good financial cost, which is not very expensive. That for an organization like us, it is not easy. Our farmers, they know little of languages, computers, Internet. Our young people are our opportunity. It is our eagerness that they find work opportunities in the community and do not immigrate to other regions.”
Eager to allay fears, the International Entrepreneurship class dives into research to prove it can and has been done.
They start by identifying three Costa Rican coffee companies that sell coffee directly to consumers via the Internet. But, they quickly add, the Asoprola Association has something extra, something more than tasty coffee to offer discerning buyers: the perfect ingredients to craft a distinctive brand and effective marketing campaign. Student Ariana ShamsKollar ticks them off quickly: Biolley is a small community. It’s situated next to La Amistad International Park, world-renown for its pristine and natural beauty. Farmers don’t use pesticides so their beans are organic. They work cooperatively and qualify as a fair trade organization. Coffee is a way of life, not just a business.
“They have a great story to tell. They’re sustainable, organic—all the things that people connect to,” Shams-Kollar concludes. “So the biggest thing is getting their story across. They need to incorporate marketing and brand development.”
There are myriad other challenges, like creating the name and look for the business, sourcing materials, such as labels and coffee bags, and finding someone local to run a website. Yet with each step, there’s opportunity to retain profits and create new jobs in marketing, inventory control, and management. As the lists of needs and ideas grows, it’s clear that six days isn’t long enough for the UB group to accomplish everything. Soon, it will be time to return to Bridgeport. Cahill and Raynor aren’t disappointed. The class will polish the grant application for the coffee roaster in time for its May deadline and email it back to the village. By July, they should know if there is money for a roaster. They’ll also return in the fall 2017,
“This isn’t a one-semester project for the Trefz School students nor is it a quick fix for Biolley,” says Cahill. “Start-ups require nurturing. The class and the coffee business can grow together.”
Hernandez, who graduated in May 2017, won’t be among those students who return to Costa Rica, but the experience has been transformative all the same. After he returned from Biolley in March, he scuttled plans to pursue a corporate career and applied to the Peace Corps. If all goes well, he’ll use his business skills to do similar economic-development work.
“This experience definitely changed me. It made me realize you don’t need extravagant things to make life meaningful.”
– Christian Hernandez
“Originally, I planned on getting a 9-to-5 job and staying in Connecticut,” he says. “But this experience definitely changed me. It made me realize you don’t need extravagant things to make life meaningful. I loved it.”
His classmate, Edgar Velez, a junior, will return to Costa Rica. In fact, he’s already started to think about how the International Entrepreneurship class can find additional grants to pay for the farmers to attend a coffee trade show or two. “They can go and see what other companies are doing!” Velez says, “They can get ideas.”
Bit by bit, a road map for Biolley’s future takes hold. It includes a very steep and curvy road that goes up and down the mountain. Round trips, not dead ends. It may be difficult to see what lies around the next U-turn, but the village, guided by Cahill, Raynor, and their Trefz School students, are helping to find the way.
At the end of six days, the white motor coach returns to fetch the UB group. There’s time for last-minute selfies, a hug, and then the coach rumbles away. Yet as the students peer out its windows, the view no longer looks so scary—just expansive.
This story by UB Director of Communications Leslie Geary originally appeared in Knightlines, the University of Bridgeport alumni magazine.