Shelli McMillen, the marketing and Community Development Block Grant program administrator at the University’s Entrepreneurial Center (EC), recently completed an economic development fellowship in Costa Rica.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Professional Fellows Program offers emerging leaders from around the world intensive fellowships designed to broaden their professional expertise. The program is managed by the University of Connecticut’s Global Training and Development Institute in partnership with the U.N.-mandated University of Peace located outside San Jose, Costa Rica.
The fellowship began last April when McMillen’s Costa Rican counterpart, Felicia Granados, came to job shadow McMillen at the Entrepreneurial Center. Granados teaches and runs programming at the Center for Tropical Agronomic Research and Studies (CATIE), which focuses on building the rural economy by promoting competitive and sustainable agriculture. She also owns her own farm in the region of Turrialba, Costa Rica. When McMillen and Granados met, they quickly realized that although their professional backgrounds are different, their skills and interests in economic development were complementary.
With the support of the Fellows Program, they developed an economic empowerment project with the Association of Small Producers of Guava (APPAG) in Turrialba, Costa Rica. The communities that make up the membership of APPAG live in spectacular, tropical surroundings, but with few amenities. The roads are very rough, though passable at about 5–10 miles an hour with a good truck. Most families have running water and a TV. Some have computers and/or smart phones, giving them access to the Internet.
APPAG members harvest their guava and process it into a pulp that is sold to local clients for further processing. As small farmers, they depend upon the small income they receive from guava sales to help sustain their farms. They would like to expand by selling refined guava products, developing export markets and creating a stronger sense of community among the membership. Granados and McMillen incorporated these needs and goals into the project, which includes the development and implementation of a marketing plan.
Fluent in Spanish and with extensive prior experience traveling in Central America, McMillen traveled to Costa Rica in August. With the support of her husband’s technology company, Open Wire Lab, and regular feedback from APPAG via email, McMillen had developed a logo, Facebook page and website for APPAG prior to the trip.
During three successful trainings, she and Granados helped APPAG members develop an action plan for implementing these new tools. The trainings took place at the guava plant. The plant is rustic, but thanks to a projector, laptop, and a large, empty wall, they created an interactive classroom space.
Two of the trainings focused on Facebook. These were included as a medium for engaging the younger generation in Turrialba as well as keeping members informed on APPAG news and projects. The response from the younger population has been enthusiastic and, since the trainings, they have worked as a team to build community on the page. See the APPAG Facebook page. The goal is to develop a sense of pride of business ownership in the small farmers of the region. Lack of this has created a talent drain in the communities as the more capable move to the city.
McMillen and Granados are now building a long-term collaboration with plans to help APPAG and other Central American businesses to prosper. They will enjoy the continued support of the Entrepreneurial Center, Open Wire Lab and CATIE as they continue to work with APPAG and build educational tools that can be used in their future economic empowerment projects.