Sunday, May 18, 2014

Accelerating funerals in Managua

The Inter-Continental Hotel, Managua

I achieved a life's ambition that I did not know I had until yesterday...accelerating the growth and development of a funeral parlour!

Technoserve, a US based NGO, took me to see two clients that had been through their business accelerator programme our foundation had funded. The first was a funeral parlour that has 22% of the market for dead people in Managua. You can be this precise because death is scrupulously registered, making funeral businesses easy to competitively rank. Something I had not considered before and may never again! They planned expansion, not thankfully by promoting the occurrence of more dead people in the capital, but by building a parlour in a socially up-market part of town. People, with lots of money, think that the area where the present parlour is located is 'unsafe'! The perception of being kidnapped or robbed when attending your loved one's demise is undoubtedly a drag on business!

I cannot say I liked the coffins - too Baroque and showy - but that is a strand of Latin American Catholicism and the customer, even in death, is always right! The owner also wanted to build a crematoria to cater for Nicaragua's growing population of Protestants. I confess I skipped a tour of the storage and embalming facility out of a squeamish respect for the dead! There are places where the 'market' should never intrude (shrinking as these apparently are).

The second business was thriving too - a restaurant, soon possibly to be a franchise - but one more regularly in my portfolio of experience!

However, the first thing you notice about Nicaragua is how much more relaxed it appears to be compared to Guatemala from which I had come. Most of the houses have open railings rather than thick walls topped with razor wire unlike Guatemala and shops do not, on the whole, have men with shotguns guarding their premises (unless they are more discrete)! Even the people at the Inter-Continental reception desk in Managua are more outward going than their Guatemalan counterparts (who are politely professional).

It was exactly twenty years since I was last here discovering fraud in a micro finance organisation and sneaking by night to meet staff to learn more about the nefarious gun trotting (sic) executive director who was paying his staff one amount and claiming he was paying them a higher and pocketing the difference! USAID wanted to sweep it all under the carpet and the Dutch government, the other principal funder, wanted him in prison! The Dutch won and he is the only person I have ever been instrumental in imprisoning! Sadly, I wonder what happened to him subsequently - Central American prisons are nothing if not challenging!

Lots has changed, no signs of the great earthquake of the 70s that helped bring the Samoza regime down ultimately given the callous way in which they responded. But for years afterwards there would be plots of land in the centre of Managua with ruined buildings, simply left there to rot. There may be still, for alas, this was a whirlwind visit, crammed with actual and potential partners, and meetings mostly confined to offices.

Except on one's last morning and a ride out into the countryside to see a fruit plant - where organic bananas are processed into either pulp (for the catering business) or dried for Wholefood Markets in the US (and similar customers). Here I was impressed by the extraordinary level of detail that is required to follow through the whole process, particularly with regards to traceability, every pallet is referenced to when, where and by whom it was packed. It was both impressive and paranoid - so disconnected has our food system become between producer and end recipient that every safeguard has to be taken but you know it is never 'enough'!

It was lovely to be 'back' in Central America and I look forward to future visits - not least because 'physically' it is of extraordinary beauty. In Guatemala, we went to a second food facility, near Antigua, that beautifully semi-preserved colonial city surrounded by volcanoes (one of which was currently semi-active) and you simply marvel at the returning green of things (the rainy season had just started) and wonder at the fragility of the landscape and how people endure with such grace.

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