Written by: Luciano Martins-Costa
Photos by: Alfredo Allaiz
Technical school students with their poultry: produced by the students themselves
Homemakers Francisca Rojas, Guape Valentim, Luz Maria Brito and Nelis Rojo live in the Chaguaramal district of Caicara del Orinoco, in the Venezuelan state of Bolivar. One August morning, they went out in the heavy tropical rain to buy poultry from Robinsoniana Agro-Technical School students. “Something’s changed around here,” said Nelis. “Now the chicken is plumper and cheaper and comes to our doorstep.”
Accustomed to walking to the market in Plaza Bolívar, the main square or buying frozen chicken from street vendors that only came by once a week, they were amazed that they could select the poultry by weight, either live or slaughtered and plucked. “It’s even cheaper than the official price,” observed Francisca.
The technical school students are producing La Granja-brand poultry through a private-sector social investment program that Odebrecht is carrying out in the area where the third bridge across the Orinoco River will be built, connecting the cities of Caicara del Orinoco, in Bolívar, and Cabruta, in the state of Guárico. The construction works are advancing across the mighty Amazonian river that divides Venezuelan territory in half. The line of piles and pilotis (piers) extends for over 11 km, across the river bed and the vast area of marshlands in the river’s floodplain. On both sides of the waterway, there are vast areas of arable land as far as the eye can see – natural wealth that contrasts starkly with the overwhelming poverty of this region.
This is the situation that engineer José Carlos Prober, Odebrecht’s Project Director for the Third Orinoco River Bridge Road System, found when he arrived in those parts, and motivated the development of a social intervention plan that is already getting results in Caicara and the adjacent areas. “As soon as we got here, we started looking for a niche where we could make an investment in the public good based on the principle of the Odebrecht Entrepreneurial Technology (TEO) whereby all businesses must have economic, social and environmental benefits.”
With the help of corporate social responsibility consultant Felipe Cruz, they decided that the best opportunity to make the difference would be helping the Robinsoniana Agro-Technical School, which is located a little over a kilometer from the main entrance to the jobsite, in Caicara del Orinoco.
“We conducted a study of the local community’s eating habits and schooling conditions and found that it would be worthwhile not only making an initial financial contribution but also to provide knowledge and technology to enable that business to grow and become sustainable,” says Prober.
With starting capital of just USD 13,000, they were able to refurbish a small poultry farm on the school grounds and start up a partnership with Agrobueyca, a Venezuelan company that supplies special feed and genetically selected broiler breeders (for chickens raised specifically for meat production). The first generation of breeders produced enough working capital to keep the project going, with an over 200% profit, without needing further investment.
Furthermore, by supplying poultry directly to local residents and restaurants, they reduced prices – before the project began, the Caicara del Orinoco was supplied by poultry farmers from other parts of the country, and priced at roughly 11 strong bolivars per kilo. “Granja” (grange) chicken, as the technical school’s product is called, is sold for 8 strong bolivars per kilo, which is even less than the government’s official price for state-owned supermarkets.
“Caicara and Cabruta are two villages that are a long way off from the large towns that the new bridge will integrate into the nation’s road infrastructure,” observes José Carlos Prober. “These infrastructure works should bring about major development opportunities, but for now, things are still pretty rough around here. These two communities are extremely dependent on imported food, and we believe that, by encouraging local production, we will be helping eliminate that dependence,” he adds.
Prober points out that the pilot project has been expanded to include the entire regional market, improving general conditions at the school and applying the business model to other types of livestock, such as rabbits and pigs. These efforts are making the program self-supporting while encouraging teachers and students to think like entrepreneurs.
Gonçalo Santos, the officer Responsible for Administration and Finance for the Third Orinoco Bridge project, says that he helped inspire the program: “I’ve always liked barbecued chicken hearts, and was complaining that I couldn’t get them here. Now, I can buy them directly from the poultry farm,” he says, with a satisfied smile. According to Gonçalo, the project is clearly getting financial results. In a 42-day cycle, the broilers reach slaughter weight, and through proper handling, the school is able to sell nearly 1,000 units every two weeks, he says. “Through direct sales to consumers, they have created a solid base for the business, while developing new financial opportunities for the public and calling the government’s attention to the social benefits of this project,” he adds.
The Head of the Robinsoniana Agro-Technical School, Eris Gómez, recalls that before Odebrecht introduced this initiative, the poultry farm couldn’t afford to make improvements. “Now we have reached the point where the school can begin the process of endogenous development. We have already started studying ways of applying this method to pig and rabbit farming, and can foresee a more promising future for our students,” he says.
Professor Ildemaro José Brito Cañas, who is in charge of the education for work and farm administration courses, says he is amazed at the results. “Previously, the poultry farm wasn’t profitable because we didn’t have access to suppliers of broiler breeders and good-quality feed at competitive prices. From this point on, thanks to the business experience and education they are getting, the students themselves will be able to suggest further improvements.”
Accompanied by a representative of the teaching staff, the students set out regularly to sell their products in Caicara’s neighborhoods. “We always get a very good reception because people can see that the chickens are plump and healthy, and cost less than they’d pay at the supermarket,” says Carmen Júlia Tova, the teacher who directs the production process at the poultry farm. “In addition to the expertise the students are acquiring, which will give them their start in their adult lives, we are also helping ensure that the public has a consistent and guaranteed supply of food,” she adds.
Projects bring development to rural Venezuela
The bridges spanning the Orinoco River are the backbone of a number of civil engineering works that are part of the plan for Venezuela’s development. The third bridge, which is 11.125-km long, linking Caicara del Orinoco, in Bolívar state, with Cabruta in Guárico, is the largest piece of infrastructure under construction in that country today. About 2,100 workers, most of whom have just built the second Orinoco bridge (Orinoquia) in Guayana City, are installing the two rows of piers that are advancing along both banks on the local marshlands, and beginning to sprout from the riverbed.
Currently 30% complete, the project will require 500,000 cu.m of concrete and 130,000 tonnes of steel. Several major logistical challenges had to be overcome to build this bridge. The construction site is located in an isolated part of Venezuela, and there are no commercial flights. The Orinoco River is only navigable five months of the year, and the roads on both banks are in a very poor state of repair.
The project required setting up a complex infrastructure, including a quarry, and extracting sand to produce concrete, as well as preparing steel to make foundation piles. It also involved intensive investment in the professional education of local workers, who traditionally make their living from subsistence farming and fishing. “With the help of the Institute for Workforce Training, we are offering training courses for mechanics, carpenters, steelfixers (rebar workers) and other specialized skills. We were amazed by the students’ ability to adapt and learn,” says Project Director José Carlos Prober.
The expectations of the client, the Government of Venezuela, are proportional to the amount of work involved: the aim of building the third Orinoco bridge includes creating a new industrial hub to explore the large bauxite reserves in that region. The government’s development strategy includes the creation of infrastructure facilities to encourage industrial investments in rural areas of Venezuela, so as to reduce the demographic and environmental pressures on coastal cities.