Mercedes Bohorquez at the shop where she and her family have been cooking up panela for three generations. Behind her, bricks of the sugar-cane confection wait to be delivered to schools. Photo:WFP/David Parra
Mercedes Bohorquez has made panela, the main ingredient in Colombia’s favourite thirst-quencher for as long as she can remember. But, unable to sell her product herself, she remained trapped in poverty. Now, with a helping hand from WFP, she and her fellow paneleros are solving that problem.
BOGOTA – “I’m a panelero and my father and grandfather were too,” says Mercedes. “It’s what we do best. I hope that my son and grandson will keep the tradition alive.”
Millions of aguapanela drinkers in Colombia hope they will too. In a country renowned for growing coffee, it may come as a surprise that many people prefer this cinnamon flavoured pick-me-up made from panela, the ground and boiled essence of sugar cane.
Colombians consume an average of 1.4 million tons of panela per year. Served hot in the morning and cold throughout the day, aguapanela packs a cheap and tasty energy boost that makes it a staple among farmers and workers.
Panela is made from boiling sugar cane juice into a thick syrup and then drying it into cakes. Dissolved in water, it makes aguapanela, a tasty drink loaded with calories, vitamins and minerals. Just 70 g of panela will satisfy close to 10% of an average adult’s daily nutritional needs.
Getting to market
Despite her product’s popularity, however, Mercedes struggled to stay afloat. Her home in Nocaima is just 60 km (37 miles) from Bogota, but barriers to reaching markets there put her at the mercy of local middlemen.
“There was hardly any point. They would take all the profit and leave us with almost nothing.” With her savings spent and hunger looming, Mercedes and other producers came together with a plan.
“We had to find a way to get fairer prices and that meant improving quality and raising production. So we came together as a community,” she said.
“Today, if you want to sell, you have to compete and guarantee the quality of what you’re selling. That’s not an easy job, but we’ve made an enormous effort and now it’s paying off.”
A new customer
The paneleros’ fight for survival came to the attention of WFP at the same time as it was looking for a supplier of panela for its school meals programme. An order for 155 metric tons was soon to follow, which Mercedes says will take over 100 producers to fill. “We’re working like ants. The whole town’s involved. Everyone’s pitching in,” she says.
Once they deliver, the panela from Nocaima will provide some 30,000 hungry school children around the country with a sweet, nutritious refreshment to go along with their rice and beans.
It’s best to buy local
Many people think all food aid travels across the world from rich countries. But it’s WFP’s policy to buy food as close to where it is needed as possible. In 2009, a third of WFP food assistance was purchased in the same country where it was given out. And 80 percent was bought in the developing world. Find out more.