By: Do Kyung Yun, Georgetown University, ThinkImpact Panama Scholar
Thrilled with the bountiful riches of fruits I have found myself in, I often return home for lunch clutching an armful of the various fruits I have gathered while walking about the community. If I were to eat this much fruit back in the States, I would have to spend a fortune, but here, I can pamper my appetite for mangoes, oranges, bananas, and an entire assortment of exotic fruits that I am continually discovering, free of charge. Everywhere I went, people were eager to let me pick fruit off their trees or off their lawns, since they were just lying there, being lost to nature’s process of decay. I never thought there can be too much fruit, but seeing the sea of mangoes strewn across the grass, rotting and infested with worms, has made me question my assumption. Still, coming from a place where a mango costs almost a dollar each, I cannot discount the value of these mangoes, even if there appears to be an endless supply of them.
Johnny, another fruit aficionado, noticed the same fruit loss predicament, and when we spoke to our host-parents about this, they told us that there were just too many mangoes and that community didn’t know what to do with them all. In this region of Panama, during the winter season, mangoes trees sprout mangoes as if they’re fueled by the energizer bunny. Classic economics was at play here; supply far outstripped demand, virtually reducing the value of mangoes in the community’s eyes to nil, and more than anything, they were seen as a hassle. Having spent more than a few weeks here, I can see how this outlook comes about. It becomes a pest when you’re walking across the grass, skipping around the fruits, and you step onto a festering, moldy mango that almost makes you slip onto a bed of decomposed mush that hardly resembles the picturesque shade of mangoes’ red and yellow. I have seen and experienced the ugly side of mangoes, and boy, can it get horrid.
Johnny and I are foodies; we love to eat, and we will eat a plate clean to the very last scrape. As such, one can imagine our dismay with the fruit waste situation and how much our hearts ached whenever we walked past a spoiling fruit buffet. A week into our arrival at the El Cocal community, we were discussing this dilemma of the squandering of fruits when we experienced a light bulb moment: why not preserve these mangoes by making jam? We both jumped at this idea, as we saw so much opportunity to create something out of all these precious resources that were going to waste. Per the ThinkImpact mission, we are here to work with the community to create a product or service with a social benefit, and we believe that through our project of making jam preservatives using the surplus of fruits, we can positively impact the community by encouraging the mindset of seeing great value in even the most everyday things and empowering the community members to understand that their knowledge of their land and its produce has immense economic worth. The community was full of skilled cooks who have extensive experience in creating variations of dishes with a single produce; for example, my host-mom has served me yucca in so many different ways that we would be able to make a t-shirt out of it, much like the infamous shrimp tee. If we combine their resourcefulness and free time with the tons of ingredients readily available in the community, I knew that we would be able to cook up something amazing.
Every day after lunch, Johnny and I walked about the community, conversing with families to gain different perspectives on how fruits are perceived by the community. The response was unanimous; everyone had concerns about the waste of fruits, especially considering that the following month of August is ominously called el mes de hambre, or the month of hunger, due to the sudden decline of fruits growing in the area. Community members were excited to learn about our interest in the region’s fruits, and during the course of our conversations, we were thoroughly educated on all the different types of fruits that grew in the area, the seasons that they were cultivated in, and the various fruit festivals that spring up throughout the year. There are two major festivals around this region, la Feria de los Mangos, held in May, and la Feria de las Naranjas, in January, and the different communities all throughout the region convene at these festivals to celebrate the apex of a fruit’s harvest and flaunt the produce of their area. In addition, each community creates a billboard monument of sorts to exhibit above their community hut, and the community with the most creative and inventive display wins the grand prize of a cow. This has since become the main event of the festival, and communities begin crafting their work of art months in advance. Last year, the El Cocal community won the competition, and thus the cow, by constructing a colossal lobster made entirely out of local tree bark. As custom, the community had a huge party celebrating their victory, complete with music, barbecue, and good people. I can only imagine how fun the festivities must have been.
In our third week in the El Cocal community, Johnny and I formed our design team based on who was interested in the initiative to make something out of previously underutilized or wasted fruit. I understood that this approach didn’t precisely follow the ThinkImpact formula of co-creating the idea with the community since the thought had originated from Johnny’s and my own brainstorming session; however, I felt that being able to deliver a possible sense of direction was also crucial, because as scholars coming into the community with the intent to provide an outsider’s perspective, we should be able to offer a concrete example to demonstrate our competence. If we were to approach community members empty-handed, it would be difficult to instill the high morale that is vital to generating progressive momentum from the beginning.
Originally, we hadn’t planned on disclosing our potential idea at least until our first meeting, but as Johnny and I delved into talking about fruits with the community members, conversations naturally led to the idea of preservation, and successively, to jam as a possible solution. For better or worse, the plan immediately clicked with the community members, and our first meeting was arranged with the agenda to discussing how, as a team, we can carry out the project of making jam preservatives. However, I also wanted to make certain that the community members understood that this was going to be their project, that they were going to be the owners of whatever business we will create; we desired for them to realize that jam was only the first step and that if fruit preservation was the direction we were going to take, that there were so many different possibilities to realize our goal. Throughout the course of our meeting, we worked on establishing the norm that everyone’s involvement was critical and each of our input was highly valuable, especially considering that the community members were the more knowledgeable in the workings of the land and in cooking.
During our time in Panama, we scholars often played around with what was referred to as Panamanian time. It is almost custom here to arrive fashionably late, and our own scholar meetings would regularly start around fifteen minutes past our initial planned time, as there would always be someone, including me at times, who would take advantage of this time leeway. However, in our first design team meeting, the concept of Panamanian time reached a whole new level. We had scheduled to convene at el rancho at 5 o’clock, the time suggested by the community members themselves. While Johnny and I stood waiting with lovingly packed peanut butter sandwiches that we had made using mango jam we had cooked ourselves as a test-run, minutes slowly dissipated, as with our enthusiasm to finally begin innovating for social impact.
The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.