We’re flying by the seat of our pants down here in Ecuador these days. Lots of last minute meetings, travel plans, school changes, misunderstandings, and project alterations. Honestly, it’s been a roller coaster and I’m just now starting to “enjoy the ride.” For those who know me well, you can imagine it took some time for me to forego my google calendar that schedules my day in 15 minute increments and the notion that I could expect a meeting to start on time.
It’s quickly becoming apparent, however, that Ecuador has operated this way for quite some time and more importantly, doesn’t really see anything wrong with it. Granted, spontaneity, complete neglect of foresight, and living in the moment each have their perks. Little setbacks here are commonly followed by a mere “meh” or “oops.” And In the words of my favorite entrepreneur in Ecuador, Douglas McMeekin – founder and president of Yachana, “If I sat around and took the time to 100% think through it all (all being the entire Yahana Foundation) it would have never gotten done.” That may be true…
But over the past few weeks I’ve seen how the “go with the flow” Ecuadorian mentality can also lead to major inefficiencies, organizational setbacks, and most importantly, loss of opportunity. Perhaps it’s the cultural tendency to think mostly in the “short term,” or Ecuador’s age-old habit of making quick fire decisions without really, well… thinking or communicating (i.e. throwing out 7 presidents in 10 years without stopping to wonder how that may look to investors wanting to invest in a “politically stable” country).
Below you’ll find three “Oops” instances from my first month in Ecuador that may help to illustrate exactly what I’m talking about. They each vary in the severity of their consequences, but all could have possibly been prevented with a little previsto (foresight), planificación a largo plazo (long-term planning), rendición de cuentas (accountability), and comunicación (I shouldn’t have to translate this one….). I really don’t know if Ecuadorians will ever adopt such practices, nor do I think it’s anyone’s place to tell them they should. But the consequences are difficult ignore, and if left ignored Ecuador will continue to struggle in its effort to transition from an emerging market to one that is developed, self-sustaining, and thriving; not to mention delay the interest of impact investors who so whole-heartedly want to see countries like Ecuador realize their hidden potential.
I walk up to a friend from Mondana (community where Yachana is located) and notice that the strap of her cotton bag is becoming unraveled and hanging on by a thread.
Me: I notice your bag is becoming unraveled. I know how to fix it if you have some thread and a needle. Want me to help?
Girl: Oh yes, it’s been unraveling for a few days now. But no thanks, I’ll just wait and fix it when it breaks.
Me: Well if you want I could fix the tear and reinforce the rest of the strap, that way it will last longer and you won’t have to worry about fixing it if it breaks while you’re away from home.
Girl: Really? You know how to do that? How interesting. Thanks, but it’s still not broken yet. I’ll just wait.
I haven’t seen her in a few days, but I can guarantee that strap has surely broken by now. And I doubt she was carrying around a needle and thread, because that would be downright crazy…
My friends and I are about to cook dinner at our hostel in Tena, and have invited a few amigos who were staying elsewhere to join us. The kitchen is outdoors, in a common area, and open to hotel guests. Out of respect we thought we would mention to the hostel owner that we would be having some friends over.
Us: Señora, we´ve invited some friends over for dinner and wanted to let you know. We’ll be very quiet and clean up after everything. Your outdoor kitchen is amazing and we’d love to show our friends.
Señora: What? No, only guests can use the kitchen. Your friends cannot come. I built that kitchen for paying customers only. (she finally allowed our friends to come over, but only because I think she felt bad that we had already bought all the food…)
Obviously I’m not about to tell a Señora how to run her business. But the kitchen has been built and is therefore a sunk cost. Allowing a few non-customers to enjoy the space alongside hotel guests would not have cost the owner a single extra penny. In fact, by allowing friends of guests to enjoy the hostel’s new common spaces she is essentially employing more mouths to spread the word about her business for free! You can’t buy that kind of word-of-mouth publicity in the tourism industry. But the curse of the short-sighted Ecuadorian business owner continues….
This example is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all, but it also represents a wonderful lesson in communication, accountability, and organizational sustainability.
At Yachana, which is a considerably well-run organization compared to others in Ecuador, I’m still a little confused as to who exactly is in charge of what, and what exactly each department is responsible for at the lodge. This became even more apparent after a serious storm this past Sunday when the Napo River rose so high and grew so wide that low-lying houses, buildings and moored boats were in serious danger.
As soon as river started to rise early Sunday morning, boat owners from around the community began to bring their canoes to higher, more secure ground. And rightfully so – since there are no roads and the community relies on its canoes to travel to/from the market, school, and elsewhere. But what about Yachana’s boat – the 30-person, dual-motor, covered fiber-glass canoe that brings tourists (aka income) in and out of Yachana multiple times a week? Who is responsible for keeping that boat safe? The hotel manager? The higher ups in Quito? Whichever boat operator is on duty?
By about mid-day, the river was raging. Actual trees were being ripped out of the ground and carried down the river. By the time Yachana’s boat operator decided he should probably move the boat to safer ground, it was too late. Upon trying to nudge the boat into a small cove, the current caught the tail end of the canoe and whipped it around horizontally so that the whole boat was sideways. Unable to regain control against the current, the boat was forced against a tree and endured hours of river-beating until it was actually flipped upside down from the force of the current.
While witnessing this tragedy I had an enlightening conversation with one of the lodge’s staff members…
Me: Who is in charge of keeping the boat safe?
Staff member: I’m not really sure.
Me: Oh. Well who will tell the hotel management in Quito the boat is destroyed?
Staff member: I’m not really sure.
Me: Oh. Is boat insurance available in Ecuador?
Staff member: (laughing) I’m not really sure, but probably not.
Me: Uh oh. So who pays when something like this happens?
Staff member: I’m not really sure.
Me: And how often does the river flood like this?
Staff member: Oh, at least once a year.
So essentially, it is certain that the river will show its fury at least once a year. It’s 100% going to happen. But have measures been taken to put someone charge and establish a contingency plan in the event the river tears up more than just trees? Nope.
Mental note – there is a business opportunity in the boat insurance industry in Ecuador.