Nicaragua Greenhouse Update

Nicaragua Trip Report- Sept 5-Nov 25

On September 5, 2015, I began a three-month survey of our projects in Nicaragua as a means to improve our efficiency and effectiveness on the ground and to provide more support and infrastructure to our Nicaragua staff. The primary focus of the visit was to streamline the Affordable Greenhouse Project, but reviving Namlo’s efforts in the area of education and establishing Namlo International as a registered NGO in Nicaragua were additional prospects.

The Greenhouse Project

The Greenhouse Project continues to show success in the Namlo communities, and the demand for the greenhouse in other rural communities has cause for the expansion of the project in 2015 beyond the 4 communities where Namlo has historically been involved. Five communities have been added to the scope of Namlo’s work. These communities are as follows:

  • La Labranza: La Labranza is a community in the Miraflor area north of El Quebracho. We currently have two women there who are greenhouse owners. Both had experience growing organically before becoming part of the greenhouse project.

Patricia Mendoza

Patricia Mendoza

 Deyanira Alanis

Deyanira Alanis

• Las Calabazas: Las Calabazas is a community 20 minutes SW of Estelí. While it is a rural community, it is accessible by bus from Estelí making market linkages much easier for farmers here. Five greenhouses have been installed here.

Fernando Benavidez

Fernando Benavidez

Ricardo Navarro

Ricardo Navarro

Bayardo Navarro


Deysi Gonzalez

Deysi Gonzales

Deyli Gonzalez

Dayli Gonzales

• El Porteria: El Porteria is a hill community 30 minutes SW of Las Calabazas. Six farmers have had greenhouses installed there in early December.

• La Garnacha: La Garnacha is a community just west of El Porteria. Two greenhouses will have been added there before the end of the year.

The communities where Namlo has historically worked include Los Pinares and Barrio Nuevo in the municipality of Madriz and El Quebracho and El Salmeron in the municipality of Estelí. The greenhouse project has shown promise and great successes in Barrio Nuevo and Los Pinares. Seven greenhouses have been installed in Barrio Nuevo to the following farmers:

Luis Herrera

Luis Herrera

Jose Agenor Gonzalez

Jose Agenor Gonzales

Flavio Cardoza

Flavio Cardoza

Elsa Alvarez

Elsa Alvarez

Reynaldo Gutierrez

Reynaldo Gutierez

Gerardo Isaguirre

Gerardo Isaguirre

Roger Isaguirre (not pictured)

In Los Pinares, initially there seemed to be less interest aside from Nimia Melgara and Jose Polanco. However, we discovered recently that many members of the community were not informed about the greenhouse. We had left that in the hands of the members of the community leadership, but it seems they did not effectively communicate the requirements of the project. We have rescheduled a meeting with the community members and expect to add between 2 and 4 greenhouses to the community. Currently, the users are:

Jose Polanco

Jose Polanco

Nimia Melgara

Nimia Melgara

The greenhouse project has not been successfully adopted in the communities of El Salmeron and El Quebracho. In El Quebracho, the challenge is water. While the community now has water, there is only enough for domestic use. Until there is a more reliable source of water, the greenhouse project is not feasible for this community. Including drip irrigation in the project may improve its chances in this area.

In El Salmeron, there are two issues. First is a lack of initiative in the community. Only two members of the community expressed interest, and only one of those two was successful in harvesting a crop. Despite that individuals’ efforts, the problem of high winds made continuing with the greenhouse difficult. During our trip we contacted this individual (Santos Rocha) to see if he was interested in trying to locate a better spot that was more protected by wind. Due to the lack of rains from June to September, Santos had left home to look for work. We will continue to try and re-establish contact with him in 2016 as he showed a great deal of initiative in maintaining the greenhouse despite the challenges.

Santos Rocha

Santos rocha

Overall, the results are very positive for the greenhouses we have installed to-date. Seed germination is at close to 100%, and in many cases it has been necessary to transplant as many as 140 seedlings outdoors because of the issue of crowding inside the greenhouse. This makes a case for two scenarios. The implementation of the techniques taught to us by BioNica will improve the chances of these surplus seedlings surviving outdoors without the use of pesticides. Encouraging farmers to prepare outdoor beds with the anticipation of having surplus seedlings extends the impact of the greenhouse beyond the greenhouse itself. Another possibility is to design a smaller greenhouse used strictly for developing seedlings which would then be transplanted to the larger greenhouse. This would mitigate the situation of overcrowding and competition for nutrients which are preventing some of the crops in the greenhouse from reaching their full potential.

Overall, families are eating better and saving money (see chart below). In some cases, there is significant income generation, but that is mostly in the cases of farmers who have had a greenhouse for more than six months. We expect similar results from those farmers who are just now entering their second harvest.

  Total Cumulative Sales for Greenhouse Users
Total Value Sold                           Total Value Consumed
Elsa Alvares                 NIO 130.00   $4.76                         NIO 220.00   $8.06
Reinaldo                       NIO50.00   $1.83                            NIO 150.00   $5.49
Luis Herrera                NIO 0.00   $0.00                            NIO 540.00   $19.78
Flavio Cardoza            NIO 0.00   $0.00                            NIO 450.00   $16.48
Jose agenor                 NIO 0.00   $0.00                            NIO 790.00   $28.94
Gerardo Izaguirre       NIO 0.00   $0.00                           NIO 740.00   $27.11
Patricia Castillo           NIO 360.00   $13.19                      NIO 210.00   $7.69
Deyanira Alaniz           NIO 0.00   $0.00                           NIO 1,000.00   $36.63
Nimia Melgara            NIO 3,089.00   $113.15                  NIO 1,938.00   $70.99
Jose Polanc                  NIO 380.00   $13.92                      NIO 261.00   $9.56
Average                                $14.68                                            $23.07
The greenhouse project was designed to improve nutrition and increase household income. Setting up greenhouses is just the first step in this process, and while production of vegetables has been good, it has not been maximized since many of these farmers have limited experience in horticulture. More technical assistance is needed and better examination of soil content is necessary to maximize the potential of the greenhouse. Once the harvests are maximized we will start to see much higher returns on the sale of surplus crops. In terms of nutrition, education is necessary in order for the families to understand the nutritional value of their greenhouse and how it can improve the future of their children.

Collaboration with the UNAN: The UNAN (National Autonomous University of Nicaragua) has become a valuable partner for Namlo International since their involvement in the nutritional survey carried out several months ago. The point person for us is Kenia Paramo. The addition of Kenia to our local staff is part of the proposal for next year’s program activities because of her background in nutrition and her contacts with the university and the government. Kenia also arranged for a group of professors at the university in the Education Department to draft a proposal to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the schools in four Namlo communities and to make recommendations on how to approach improving the educational environment there.

Everyone that I have met with or worked with from the UNAN has shown a great deal of initiative and dedication to their respective cause. Maintaining a professional relationship can improve the impact of all our projects. They have an internship program to which they are ready and willing to include Namlo. This would involve 5th year students (seniors) to spend four weeks at a time in the field helping Namlo in a variety of capacities. The most immediate and achievable is carrying out a nutritional educational plan that will follow a curriculum so that each group of interns can build upon the work of the previous ones. With Kenia as part of our staff she can oversee that coordination as well as augment it with her experience as a Master’s in Nutrition.

If we proceed with the educational survey as documented by the team of professors at the UNAN, not only do I expect that we received a very comprehensive study on how to improve education but we strengthen our ties with the UNAN. This could have quite a ripple effect on our access to the Nicaraguan government and other international NGOs. I have already forwarded the proposal for the educational survey to you all via email.

Greenhouse Design: One of the first things to address on this trip was refining the design of the greenhouse. The design of the greenhouse has gone through several evolutions since its inception in 2009. The original greenhouse was supported by rebar encased in rubber house and was reliant on a series of stakes and wires to support it. The malla was previously laid on top of that structure. While effective, it was cumbersome. The next evolution involved sewing sleeves into the malla so that PVC pipes could be fed through the material much in the same way a tent pole is inserted into a tent. This improved the integrity of the structure but still required some stakes and guide wires. One of the biggest challenges to the design of the greenhouse has been the doors. Until earlier this year, all the doors had to be sewn in by hand in the field. This was very time consuming and often left the greenhouse with a compromised entry way that enable insects to still get in. Once we added zippers, we found that they only lasted a maximum of 6 months.

After working with Jorge Urbina, the shoe maker that is responsible for all the sewing that goes into producing the greenhouse, we came up with a design which enable him to sew the doors into the structure before they get to the field and by using Velcro instead of zippers we have simplified the field installation of the greenhouse and provided better protection from insects. That said, we were still having problems with the closure of the doors and had to reduce the width of the ground area in order for the doors to close properly and not cause the Velcro to pull apart. After two revisions we were able to accomplish that during this trip and I feel as though we have a reliable and uniform product.

Building a team: Prior to this trip, Eveling Lanuza and Vicente Velasquez were the only members of our permanent Nicaraguan staff and were only capable of monitoring and evaluation and technical agricultural support. Installation was impossible for them since they were reliant on public transportation and neither one knows how to drive. Each time we installed greenhouses, I had to be there or we had to find someone that could install them (previously Rosario’s father) and provide transportation for the materials and staff. With Rosario’s departure, her father no longer wanted to be involved and so I reached out to someone that had worked with me before I joined Namlo. His name is Edwin Guadamuz. Edwin also owns a van and while this seemed like a perfect fit for transportation and installation, his van is not able to reach all the villages where we work because it doesn’t have 4-wheel drive. I realized after one month that we cannot expect our staff to get much done in the field if they spend 90% of their time on the bus. They are only able to spend 20-30 minutes in each community because of the infrequency of public transport and even have to rent a motorcycle to get to some of the communities. That means that in what results in a 14-hour day for them they only spend 30 minutes actually collecting data or assisting farmers. This is not feasible if we are expecting to achieve any results in the communities once the greenhouses are constructed.

Something else that our field team lacks is someone with a higher education who has the ability to network with other local and international NGOs working in Nicaragua as well as access to reliable telecomm. Kenia Paramo, the master’s student from the UNAN who authored the nutritional survey has been a great asset to Namlo even beyond the contribution she made with the survey. She successfully connected us to a group of professors at the UNAN that have submitted a proposal on how to do a comprehensive assessment of education in the communities.

Staff Training: Refining of our in-country staff’s communication, monitoring and evaluation, implementation and coordination skills was a primary goal of the visit. After spending 3 months with our staff I am very confident in their ability to procure and transport materials and achieve a quality installation of the greenhouse. Small details were added and refined during my stay but overall the staff had done a pretty good job of automating the process and they have my full confidence for completing installations. Communication with the farmers was pretty good but clarifying the cost of the greenhouse, its availability and the role of Namlo in the project was necessary. Probably the biggest issue for our staff is identifying challenges to the success of the greenhouse for each greenhouse user, in particular soil quality and ways to improve it. I will discuss that later in the report.

Monitoring and Evaluation: An equally important access to greenhouse installation is monitoring and evaluation of the greenhouse and its owner after the installation is complete. The structure means nothing to the project or the owner unless it is actually saving or making the user money and improving the nutrition level of their daily diet. We can only measure this by collecting regular and precise data. Eveling has been doing a good job with the data collection devices she was given but quantifying the data in this type of project is not always easy. I worked with her to improve the charts. Examples of those documents are attached to this report. The average earned to date through the sales of crops produced in the greenhouse is $14.68 and the average value of the food consumed is $23.07. This is based on data collected starting May 2015 and the average includes farmers who only received their greenhouse as late as September 2015 so the data is a little skewed in the sense that some of the farmers have had as many as four separate harvest while others as little as one. Data collected over a twelve-month period on all twenty-five greenhouse users will more accurately represents the long-term results.

Development of the Project: Currently the demand for the greenhouse in and around the Estelí and Madriz regions exceeds our ability to meet this demand. The twenty-five greenhouses we budgeted to install this year will be exceeded by two, with a total of twenty-seven greenhouses installed to-date. We currently have fifteen solicitations for greenhouses for next year and another eight inquiries. More importantly, we need to look at how to increase our technical assistance to our farmers once the greenhouse has been installed. Vicente and Eveling’s contribution to the famers beyond data collection has been limited due to a lack of efficient transportation. With the addition of a vehicle in 2016, that should be improved upon. The contribution of Lucas Wilcox, a volunteer from Alaska who spent 1 month in the field with us, shed some light on the inefficient use of soils and compost by most farmers and the importance of educating them and our field staff further on preparing and renovation of soils. In the case of many greenhouses in the areas of Los Pinares and Barrio Nuevo, crops like beets and carrots which require sandy soils (more carrots than beets) are being grown in very clay-rich soils, which inherently produces smaller crops. The germination is almost 100%, which speaks to the benefit of the greenhouse but the development of the crop will only improve if we pay closer attention to the soils. Another issue we face is crop acceptance. In the case of lettuce, we are seeing that the families are very slow to accept it into their diet as they are not accustomed to leafy vegetables and their taste. Educating them on the nutritional and market value of them as well as ways to prepare it may increase their acceptance. In other parts of the country this is not as much of an issue but lettuce is not something that is commonplace in the Nicaraguan diet.

Another component of the project that is important is branding. As the project has grown in popularity and visibility, people have begun to copy the design. In order to avoid confusion and bad press in the case that copies of our design prove to be less effective and to establish our role in having developed this project (there is no other like it to date in Nicaragua) it is important to brand the greenhouse. After exploring different options and sharing them with both people in the US and Nicaragua the most popular and universally accepted name for the greenhouse was Organicasa, as it is a name that can be understood on both sides of the border. A logo has been developed and I’m in the midst of trademarking the name. On the side of press we had the fortune to be interviewed both for TV and radio at the end of November. I posted that video with subtitles on our Facebook page.

NGO Collaboration: NGO’s that I met with or worked with on the trip included Catholic Relief Services (CRS), International Development Enterprises (IDE) and BioNica. I left messages with USAID and Technoserve but did not receive any replies.

CRS also failed to return two emails that I sent asking what their current interest on the greenhouse was. It appears they are either too busy with other projects or since they have had a chance to inspect the greenhouse in the field they may have chose to copy it and therefore see no reason to involve us in their projects. IDE is working with micro-irrigation in Nicaragua which is something we need to incorporate into the greenhouses in the future. I exchanged emails with their country director but she was on her way to Europe for a month. We made plans to skype when she gets back.

I attended two separate workshops with BioNica, the organization that Greg Bowles and his wife Mercedes have been involved with for some time. Their work with soils has become an integral and important part of the greenhouse project. I attended one work shop on bio-intensive farming in September which includes soil preparation and organic compost and another one on leaf nutrients in November.

Summary Statement

One of the primary goals for this trip was to establish a level of infrastructure in our program so that it could run autonomously, with guidance from the Denver office. Having worked with the greenhouse manufacturer on technical aspects of the fabrication and with our field staff on proper assessment, installation, and data collection, I feel confident that this project can run effectively and efficiently provided they are given the resources needed. I have committed the truck from GCI to be used for Namlo purposes and have hired an additional full-time employee (pending approval) who will serve as a driver and greenhouse installer. With the addition of a nutritional expert (pending approval) to our team, we will possess a group of diverse and skilled Nicaraguan staff.

In order to improve the impact of the greenhouse on individuals income and well-being, we will need to further develop our technical assistance in the field, nutritional education and market linkages. We should be able to achieve this with current staff but would help to find some partnerships with other NGOs working in the same field. Due to the lack of response from larger NGOs like USAID and CRS, looking for partnerships with small to mid-size NGOs may be more effective.

If we choose to pursue the historical role of Namlo International as being involved in education we will need to look for at least one additional staff to fill that role as our staff is already overwhelmed with the tasks at hand. The first step that must be taken before starting any type of further school construction or educational project is to commit to the survey proposed by the team of professors from the UNAN. Without a foundational study and assessment of the educational system, any sort of approach is directionless. Moreover, once we have completed the survey we will have access to those professors’ expertise as well as 5th year interns from the educational department to work as volunteers in much the same capacity as I mentioned early for the interns from the Nutritional Departments.

Overall, the largest and most challenging factor that remains is raising the money to support a project of this scope. However, considering what we achieved on a skeleton budget in 2015, we should now have the track record to demand more attention and funding.

–Tim Gibb