When I’m not researching social enterprises…..

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what life is like the jungle.  To say that it is different would be a complete understatement.  Sometimes I feel like life out here isn’t even real… The sheer beauty and remoteness of my surroundings, the jaw-dropping size of the prehistoric bugs that dive bomb into my mosquito net at night, and the stories and legends that the locals and kids tell after dinner every night continue to amaze me more and more each day.  I am quickly learning that the Yachana Reserve and the Ecuadorian Amazon are very special places.   To help illuminate my day to day experiences a bit more for everyone, I’ve decided to show you what life is like in the jungle through a few of my favorite photo memories from the past week.  So without further ado…

When I’m not researching social enterprises in the Amazon…

…I’m considering trying new foods… like giant larva (AKA baby cockraoches)


Gracias, but maybe next time.

…I’m defending myself against the lodge’s crazy pet parrot, Yolanda… who takes the term “pecking order” to a whole new level.

It's a long road, but I see friendship in our future.

…I’m playing “connect the dots” with my bug bites and experimenting with various repellents and itch remedies. (The guides here swear a mashed up termite paste is the ticket…. we’ll see.)

Apparently this happened because "the bugs don't know me well enough" yet.

…I’m tending to my mosquito net and making sure ALL personal effects are kept up off the floor.  Open shoes and backpacks make for cozy spider condominiums!

Home sweet home - My room at Yachana Technical High School

…I’m learning how to spit slippery cacao seeds, a favorite jungle past time and true test of  one’s “jungle-ness”

US vs. the Jungle... I'm sure you can guess who won.

…And if it’s right around sunset, you can find me gazing out at this view that no Spanish or English word could ever describe.

You know you want to come visit...




We’re not in Quito Anymore…

That’s for darn sure.  The good news is – we made it to the jungle!  It’s been about a week since we’ve arrived, and let me tell you…. This place is freakin’ amazing.  I can say with certainty that never again will I have the opportunity to spend 5 months at place like Yachana, no less in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.  Yachana Technical High School (where I live, research, work, and teach) is about 2 hours south along the Napo River from the city of Coca.  Everything is greener than green, there are flowers and birds with colors Crayola can’t even compete with, and the people here are super tranquilo.  The bad news is – I’ve already been bitten by a Parrot named Yolanda, I’ve counted over 100 bug bites,  a few of my electronics have fallen victim to the humidity (see ya’ in dryer times, I Pod), and did I mention the insects here are ENORMOUS?  For now at least, the good continues to outweigh the bad and I think that as I get more involved in my projects the bugs will eventually disappear into the background (right?).

So… on the subject of getting settled, it’s been interesting trying to figure out how I can best be of use here.  On the academic front, I’m compiling a list of social enterprises that I’d like to visit and hopefully write a few case studies about.  With respect to giving back to Yachana for so graciously putting me up in the finest of jungle high schools (pics to come soon), I am developing a series of workshops on business modeling, professional planning, and social media for the high schoolers here.  If you read my first post, you’re probably wondering how I’m going about my main reason for coming to Ecuador, which was to connect impact investors with social entrepreneurs in the Amazon.  Well, that’s still a little TBD.

And for good reason….that being, it’s hard to connect to anything out here.  To even leave Yachana, I would have to take a canoe to the nearest town (about $20 for 20 minutes… no, thank you) or wait until a group of tourists come in or out of the Yachana lodge from Coca.  Thank goodness for satellite internet, otherwise you’d only see a blog post once a month!  The reality is, the Amazon region of Ecuador is still extremely difficult to access (you have to go up and down and around the Andes just get to its opening), very few roads have been built here (most are stone roads if they are built), and electricity and modern plumbing are sparse.  For instance, we get electricity from a generator only from 6 – 9 pm, and our water is pumped up from a small estuary. (Let’s just say I hope the rainforest never runs out of rain.)  But again, this is the Amazon.  With so few inhabitants, why would it need the comforts of the quote un-quote “civilized” world?  With the technology that is currently available in Ecuador, not only would it be extremely costly but also extremely detrimental to the environment and habitat of so many precious plants and animals if we paved a ton of roads and ran electrical wires and PVC plumbing everywhere.  Building is also difficult since the rivers are constantly expanding and receding, and the ground is loose and uneven.

That doesn’t mean that we can ignore the communities that live in this area, which are more often than not impoverished and without basic goods and services.  Nor can we ignore the use of diesel in generators and boat motors.  And worst of all, thousands of acres of rainforest continue to be cut down as the demand for lumber and petroleum exploration increase.  That being said, despite the difficulties in physically getting to and connecting with the Amazon – I see hundreds of opportunities for social enterprises that can mitigate such issues.  I’ll go ahead and name the first three ideas that came to me.  (I can’t share all my secrets!) They may sound crazy and far-fetched, but isn’t that how all inventions start?  If you decide to use one of the ideas below, just please make sure I get 10% of the profits and a nice seat on your board

  1. Renewable energy.  Obvi.  A good majority of the time, it’s pretty sunny here.  And solar technology gets better by the second.  There are some companies that are already experimenting with roof panels, but the possibilities are endless! (on top of canoe covers, floating solar lilly pads in the river banks, I’m sure you can think of more).  Also, most of the tributaries that flow to Amazon have a strong current. Micro-hydro generators have been proven to generate consistent electric current and do not damage natural habitats like large hydro-electirc plants can.  Finally – biomass.  Everyone and everything in the jungle (and the world) poops.  Let’s start capturing that methane and cook with it!  The problem with renewable energy technology is that it’s still new in Ecuador, costly, and difficult to maintain.  But I have faith that the bright, young, engineers of the world will heed my calling and develop something that’s light, inexpensive, and durable.
  2. Durable, bug-proof, humidity-resistant electronics.  I say this mainly from personal experience, but also in seriousness.  If you were told that a laptop, camera, I pod, phone, or other electronic device would only last a year in the jungle because of the extreme humidity and the bugs that fly into its crevices, would you buy it?  I sure as hell wouldn’t.  (Don’t worry Mom and Dad, I’m taking precautionary measures with my computer and camera 🙂 ).  So how can we expect those who live in the Amazon rainforest to adopt new technology if it’s not economically worth it?
  3. A micro franchise of (sustainable) river taxis / buses.  Outside of the Amazon, most of Ecuador is connected by large network of city, municipal, and national buses.  It’s not a stretch to say that you can pretty much get anywhere west of the Amazon by bus.  But inside the Amazon, roads are sparse.  Most communities are settled along the major rivers, and thus most transport is done by boat.  There are several private canoe operators, but none that offer organized public transit, much less in a sustainable fashion (all of the boat motors are diesel).  Also, gasoline is extremely pricey.  In case you missed it earlier, it can cost one person as much as $20 to go just 20 minutes.  That’s where the beauty of public transportation comes in!  Wouldn’t it be great to have a few, slightly larger, hybrid canoes taking community members to various markets so they can sell their goods, participate in commercial activities, and access services like healthcare, banking, and higher education?  I sure think so.
In the next posts, you can look forward to an inside view of my life here in the jungle, and hopefully some more updates on social enterprise in the Amazon. 

Wait, what again are you doing in Ecuador?

…. I seem to get this question a lot.  Don’t tell anyone, but even though I’ve already been here in Ecuador for a few days, I still don’t really know the complete answer.  I would imagine that if you placed all the people to whom I’ve given some sort of answer in a room together, you’d probably think I have multiple personalities.  Given the many stakeholders, deliverables, and project tasks that have been tossed up over the past few months, the possibilities for what I’ll actually accomplish are endless (and quite frankly, a little overwhelming).

Therefore – to clear it all up for you guys and myself, I’m going to use this space for some good old fashioned project organization.  I was inspired last week by little sister’s first week in high school Chemistry where they learned how to write up a proper lab experiment.  And since my project here is quite experimental in itself.. I think that’s precisely the format I’ll use to relay to you, my loving public, and to myself what the heck I’m doing down here.  So here ‘goes..

Background: One of the greatest things to come out of the development/NGO/social enterprise/foreign aid/do-gooder space in the past 10 years (in my opinion) is impact investment. What is impact investment you ask? As one of my classmates used to say, that’s a GREAT question. In my own words, impact investment is the flow of capital (cash) from a social investor to a social entrepreneur with the intention that this injection of capital allow the entrepreneur’s enterprise to scale and grow not only in revenue, but also in social impact. If this defintion doesn’t do it for you, check out this, and this .  Oh and this too!

Now some of you critical thinkers out there might be wondering what I mean by “social.” And my response is – what does it mean to you? For some investors, social impact may come in the form of clean energy, last-mile power distribution, or employment. For others, it could mean access to healthcare, affordable basic goods and services, or education. For instance, First Light Ventures aims to invest in companies that provide affordable basic goods and services to impoverished individuals.

So far, impact investment has made wonderful headway in the United States. And while we in the US definitely have our own social problems, there are BILLIONS of people in the world living below the poverty line, many of whom live in emerging markets. Foreign aid efforts have been proven inefficient, and microfinance for the most part is geared toward individuals. Impact investment allows social entrepreneurs who would otherwise be overlooked by traditional investors the chance to play in the venture capital space and prove that not only can they sustain a profitable business, but also one that benefits society as a whole. This leads us to the main reason for me being here….

Problem: Well, there are a lot of those out there. I’ve settled on one that is pretty all-encompassing, and we’ll go ahead and call it a challenge. Problem is such a weird word…

1) How can impact investors most effectively and efficiently channel much needed capital to social entrepreneurs in emerging markets? And more specifically, in the rural Amazon of Ecuador?

Hypothesis: The Village Capital (VilCap)  business accelerator model (more on this in a later post!) will help to harness social innovation and entrepreneurs in the Amazon region of Ecuador, and thus further promote social and ecnomic development in the region.

Methodology: Well, here I am in Ecuador so the first hurdle has been conquered. One of the biggest challenges for impact investors is actually getting to countries such as Brazil, Lebanon , Egypt or Ecuador. Not to mention, language and cultural barriers are abound in these locals, making it difficult to work effectively in a limited time contraint. Lucky for me, hablo español, I am familiar with latin culture from previous travel and educational experiences, and the kind folks at the Yachana Foundation  have agreed to host me for next 5 months in exchange for some entrepreneurship training at their high school.

So, in order to tackle this challenge I’ve been tasked to perform feasibility study, or estudio de factibilidad, on whether or not a business accelerator or some other type of medium for impact investors and social entrepreneurs to gather is possible in the Amazon region of Ecuador. And since this blog post is quickly turning into a novel… I’ll wrap it up by saying that over the next 5 months I’ll be visiting various micro enterprises and social businesses in the Amazon, venturing to existing business incubators in Ecuador to see how they run their ships, working closely with the entrepreneurship program at Yachana, and talking to anyone and everyone who will listen to my ideas 🙂

Until next time, sending you all lots of latin love 🙂