Students consult with Panama coffee farmers to improve business

A dozen globetrotting University of Washington Foster School of Business students visited a Central American jungle village over spring break and boosted farmers’ incomes by nearly 400 percent.

Emily Cernak and Derrick Nation and 16 other Foster students traveled to Panama to help village farmers add value to their coffee bean production. The team’s pre-trip research and strategy led them to believe that a relatively small investment in processing equipment and basic business practices would dramatically improve the villagers’ incomes.

It was a fairly simple plan that almost failed.

On the penultimate day of their trip, the team had to face the fact that their efforts to better the villagers’ lives were falling short. Refusing to accept lower revenue for the villagers, the Foster team did what all tenacious business teams do – they challenged each other, wrangled with divergent ideas, and forced themselves to find a real solution to a very real business problem. Collaboration for a greater good.

“We had made friends with the farmers and their families and we could see that this would have a powerful impact on them and their livelihoods,” said Cernak.

“My experience in the village reminded me that the purest form of business is just survival,” Nation said. “This is what they were living on. If this business failed, they don’t eat.”

International experience at the Foster School

The Foster students’ 2009 spring break trip was organized through a student-run UW chapter of the Global Business Brigades, a national organization open to all university students who are interested in sustainable economic and social development. While the Brigade at UW is not officially tied to Foster, the students received financial and other support from Foster’s Global Business Center.

Through the Global Business Center’s student programs, roughly 30 percent of graduate and undergraduate students bolster their resumes with international business experiences. From quarter-long internships, exchange programs, and global business study tours to the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition – which in 2009 saw a record 161 applications from 36 countries – and the Certificate of International Studies in Business, Foster students have an array of international possibilities.

Aside from the formal aspects of learning about business in different cultures, explained Global Business Center Director Kirsten Aoyama, international travel also helps students mature in their self-confidence and problem-solving skills.

“In general, what study abroad teaches students, is a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility; it teaches them a lot about how to gather information from a wide range of sources and make decisions from incomplete information,” said Aoyama. “And, that is a lot of what business is all about, making decisions, sometimes major decisions, with incomplete information.”

Foster students didn’t stop until goals were achieved

A high-stakes, high-pressure decision based on incomplete information is exactly what faced Foster undergraduate students in Panama.

In less than a week, 18 Foster students had helped the village farmers create a basic accounting system – tracking how much money was coming in, being spent and how that compared to the previous year – none of which the villagers were tracking before. Students spent $1,800 adding a depulper, fermenting vats and drying slab to the farmer’s process, giving them an almost fully processed bean to sell for a better profit.

Final problem? Without a peeler to take the final layer off the bean, the last step before roasting, the farmers would not increase their income from $345 a year to $1,330 – the 386 percent improvement and ultimate team goal.

With a shared passion, the team began to have intense discussions about possible solutions.

Students’ solution: A peeler in a nearby village that these farmers could pay to use. With the aid of a Panamanian non-profit, they could transport the beans. The farmers would be able to process their beans to the point where they could sell directly to coffee companies.

“It was really an amazing experience because we were able to take concepts learned in the business school and give them a practical application,” said Cernak. “Having real people benefiting from our work made us feel like we were doing something powerful, we were making a difference.”

Explore International Programs @ Foster

Learn more about the Global Business Center.