A co-op member coats palm leaves with a layer of cassava to make cassava chips. (photo by Stephanie Wolcott)

I remember a beached hospital ship I saw once, rusting on the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A well-meaning nonprofit had dreamed of providing first-class healthcare services to hard-to-reach communities, but no one had asked the locals if a ship of that size could navigate the river.

Always talk to the people you are trying to help. And make sure you listen. On a recent trip to the Brazilian Amazon, I visited a cassava mill supported by the Pajiroba Project, a nonprofit that assists micro-enterprises in an area called Juruti.

The cassava mill is owned collectively by people in the village. Making edible cassava products is a labor-intensive process. Part of what makes cassava a difficult food source is that, in its raw form, it contains cyanide and is poisonous. If eaten to excess, it can cause paralysis. To prepare it safely, the root must be peeled and grated; then the resulting mush must be soaked for hours. That mush is heated in a large, shallow pan until it becomes more of a crumbly mixture, which is then made into crispy pancakes. This whole process can take a day and requires enormous effort to produce a food that is not nutrient-rich. Given all this, it might make sense for a nonprofit to introduce a more nutritious crop into the community.

Members of the co-op meet to discuss what to do with profits from the sale of cassava flour and chips. (photo by Stephanie Wolcott)

However, as of 2008, cassava was the staple food of over a billion people in 105 countries. It grows in poor soil and requires little cultivation, and communities in the Amazon have eaten it for generations. Earlier nonprofits tried to introduce other crops to Juruti, but because there is a strong cultural preference for cassava, the projects failed.

The Pajiroba Project knew that you have to work where people are and improve on what they know. So it took a look at the value chain of cassava production and found that by providing higher-quality cassava flour and chips to the local market, the community co-op could get double the price for their products. Instead of introducing a new crop, Pajiroba helped the co-op create a simple but clean processing mill to produce quality cassava products locally. It introduced a slate floor, gloves, and hairnets to improve cleanliness, and taught proper food processing principles to the co-op members. They also introduced two large biochar cookstoves to boost production of cassava chips and reduce the need to chop down trees for firewood.

Equally important was encouraging the right management structure. Each person is not merely an employee; they are all equal members of the co-op. Most decisions are made via consensus, and leadership rotates among members every six months. This collective mindset is rooted in tribal traditions and maintains strong community bonds.

The cassava co-op is successful because it works with the local culture—both the community’s preference for cassava and its egalitarian ethos.