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Our multidisciplinary team of Northwestern University graduate students arrived in Nicaragua with a commitment to the human-centered design process. We sought to understand the unmet needs of Nicaraguan coffee farmers through in-depth interviews and hoped to design a business solution that would improve their lives. We had many fascinating conversations during our first few days, but two interviews in particular stood out because we witnessed the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and relative wealth in two families living just a few feet apart.

Two Sides of the Same Street

In the first interview, we met with an elderly woman who began producing coffee eight years ago after decades of farming simple produce such as onions, beans and corn. She had heard about the recent upward trend in coffee prices and sold her cow to secure the investment funds necessary to plant her first coffee crop. For several years, everything was going well, and she enjoyed the profits of her investment decision. Then, two years ago, La Roya (coffee rust) struck. This disease affects certain varieties of coffee plants and can decimate an entire crop in a short amount of time. Her entire coffee crop was destroyed and she lost everything: her crops, her investment, but most importantly her continued source of income.

Amazingly, despite her recent hardships, she remains an optimistic person. She talked about wanting to get back into coffee with more resilient plants. She maintained a very positive attitude about the experience and proclaimed that if she were able to obtain new plants, she would continue to work for many more years. This woman is 64 years old.

In the midst of this touching interview, three of us stayed outside the house so as not to overwhelm the woman. While sitting outside the house, we noticed who we believed were two construction workers taking a break from laying down new road tiles. After a minute of hesitation, we reminded ourselves that talking to them could lead to a greater understanding of our primary users and introduced ourselves. It turned out that the first man, named Don Osorio, actually lived across the street and farmed coffee. He joyfully welcomed us into his house for a tour.

What we found here was starkly different from what we found across the street. Starting with Don Osorio’s fancy fence at the edge of his property, the tile floors, and the small television, we quickly realized he was not facing the economic troubles of his neighbor. Don Osorio told us about the seven manzanas his farm encompassed and the split of his farm across coffee and ganado (livestock).

Don Osorio sold no coffee this year because La Roya decimated his crops as well, but his livestock business softened the blow. While proudly walking us through his farm, Don Osorio generously picked so many chayo (a type of squash) to give to us that we had to ask him to stop. He also talked about how he gives extra fruit, including bananas, oranges and avocados, to neighbors and friends. Finally, he sent us off with three pink chupetes (homemade ice cream) and a bright-eyed smile.

Don Osario’s generosity, un-sold produce, diversified business operations and large acreage came across as clear assets in our time with him. The team climbed into the back of the pickup truck, struck by the extreme differences exemplified in our two interviews. As we jostled down the bumpy road, we were excited about the ideation sessions we were about to have.

Learning Through the Design Process

These contrasting interviews illustrated many of the larger themes that we uncovered during our in-field design research, including:

  1. Community and generosity are assets to these farmers. Even in times of hardship, the farmers help one another, which contributes to their optimistic outlook on life.
  2. Having a diversified crop portfolio is often the key to success. However, the barrier to diversification is not personal choice or lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of proper funds to meet the startup costs involved.
  3. Abundant natural crops (bananas, avocados, oranges, etc.) are potential revenue driving assets for landowners in Cusmapa. However, because of lack of demand in their own community and high transportation costs, farmers often do not see the market potential for these items.

The stories of farmers, like those of Don Osorio and his neighbor, instilled a deep sense of empathy in our team. We shared the heartbreak of the woman who lost her entire coffee crop during La Roya, and we shared the delight of Don Osorio’s abundant farm.

But most importantly, we were able to step back and look at the scope of our research as human-centered designers. What we saw was an amazing community, rich with natural beauty, resilient people and an incredible amount of potential.

The NUvention Nicaragua team is composed of an interdisciplinary group of students in the NUvention Impact course taught by Kellogg professor Jamie Jones. NUvention Impact is an interdisciplinary experiential learning program developed to teach students how to design and build market-based startups that help address unmet needs in resource limited areas. As part of their coursework, the Nicaragua team worked directly with Nicaraguan coffee farmers to understand their needs for crop diversification. They partnered with the Fabretto Children’s Foundation and its CEO, Kevin Marinacci, a Kellogg alumni. NUvention Impact is part of the NUvention interdisciplinary curriculum managed by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the McCormick School of Engineering of Northwestern University.