Baking and business in Panama
October 15, 2009
Last spring, 11 students from Calvin College flew to Panama to visit a bakery—but not just to try the bread. As members of Calvin’s chapter of Global Business Brigade, the group visited Isla Tigre, an island in the Kuna Yala comarca (or district) to assess and fix the financial and technical problems the bakery was facing. The group also taught better business practices to the community before returning home to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"Each student played a huge role,” said Calvin senior and club president Ashley Luse.
Global Business Brigade (GBB) is a division of Global Brigades, a nationwide organization whose efforts span into medical, environmental, architectural and other international concerns. The organization is mainly driven by college students who have set up their own schools’ chapters of Global Brigades on their campuses. The GBB helps communities internationally by providing sustainable business solutions for developing areas. At Calvin, the Global Business Brigade is the only currently available division.
Calvin’s chapter of GBB is lead by Luse and seniors Brendan Snyder and Trevor Deters. They organize the weekly meetings, initiate fundraising efforts and correspond between the Calvin members, Calvin faculty and staff, and the international community their brigade is focused upon. The actual semiannual trip, however, gives all attending members an opportunity to serve as leaders.
The students who traveled to Panama in the spring spent months preparing before flying to Central America. They researched the area’s culture and community structure and generated funds and a practical business plan for the community. “The key to a successful brigade,” said brigade external vice president Brendan Snyder, “is empowering the community and providing a sustainable solution.”
On the job
Once in Panama, the students set to work. They worked with the owners of the community’s bakery, which had been nonoperational since an equipment failure that was too expensive to repair. The task Calvin’s students undertook was not only to repair the necessary equipment, but to educate the operators on business practices to ensure a stable business for the community.
The challenges went beyond simple technical matters. Since the native language in Kuna Yala is Dule, rather than Spanish, students needed to overcome language barriers. They used skits and translators— oftentimes translating from English to Spanish to Dule and then back again—to run workshops on business practices such as investment management and accounting. Luckily, Luse explained, the local pastor who served as their contact spoke all three languages.
Students without much business experience and with little knowledge of Spanish were able to contribute by repairing the equipment and building a new wooden table for the bakery. “The tools that make this happen,” Snyder said, “are mostly willing and enthusiastic students.”
The trip was not meant to be a quick fix, Snyder said. He said that the goal is not only to fix a problem, but to make the solution sustainable. The project isn’t meant to be a short-term “mission trip” (GBB is open to all colleges and is not a specifically Christian organization). Also, the trip to Panama isn’t meant to be a type of international “aide.” The idea is to develop and empower a community to sustain itself through its business practices, Snyder said: “Catch a fish, teach how to fish—that’s the difference.”
According to their Calvin Web site, the Global Business Brigades’ mission is “to serve as God's stewards in developing countries … and deliver sustainable business solutions to in-need enterprises with the goal of assisting in local economic development while preserving local culture.”
The students are not done with Kuna yet. Plans are already underway for GBB’s next trip to the Panama bakery this fall. The brigade plans to travel back to the area once per semester to continue to educate and ensure that the bakery is a stable source of business for the community.
The Calvin chapter of Global Business Brigade meets every Thursday in North Hall 162 during chapel break. The organization is entirely student run and is open to any student dedicated and willing enough to contribute to the development of the area.
~by Cloud Cray, communications and marketing