SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Despite Bolivia reducing aggregate poverty from 63% in 2002 to 39% in 2013, much of this success is attributable to unsustainable extractive industries, which represent a disproportionate amount of GDP, at 1.1% of the annualized growth rate of 4.7%. Commensurate increases in employment are attributable to unskilled labor filling positions in the notoriously unpredictable hydrocarbon market. According to the World Bank Systematic Country Diagnostic, job creation in this sector will not sustain Bolivia’s relative overperformance in addressing income inequality. Findings suggest that a coherent strategy to transition impoverished communities toward a skilled, urbanized labor force will determine much of Bolivia’s future economic performance. With preexisting educational disparities hampering this effort, potential areas for advancement are vocation education training centers in Bolivia. Often unaffiliated with the public sector and unencumbered by Byzantine federal regulation, these programs create novel approaches for an evolving marketplace. In particular, culinary programs demonstrate a cost-effective solution to train the adaptable workforce of the future.
The Gastronomy Boom
Beginning in the early 2000s, Peru consistently recorded growth in the gastronomy sector, with restaurants alone accounting for 3% of annual GDP. Moreover, Peru produced three entries on the “50 Best Restaurants in the World” list, and in a remarkable shift, more Peruvians rank cuisine (39%) over Macchu Picchu (36%) as a source of national pride. Approaching $8 billion in annual revenue, growth in this sector helped transition seven million people out of poverty during the first decade of the century.
To acknowledge this astonishing success, several of the world’s foremost culinary minds drafted the 2011 Lima Declaration. Though largely ridiculed at the time, they presented a case for the culinary industry as uniquely positioned to confront socio-economic injustice. Peru, they argued, demonstrated that culinary activism is a component of poverty reduction and that the active role of the Peruvian government and culinary community in establishing a national gastronomic identity was foundational. Much of the “gastro diplomacy” and development occurred at vocation education training centers where culinary ambassadors solidified this nascent gastronomy expansion.
Boosting Bolivia’s Economy
Bolivia is poised to replicate this boom. Defining the Bolivian gastronomic identity is fundamentally bound to its agricultural bounty and, inasmuch, the 2009 constitution set parameters for “food sovereignty as decolonization.” To link this abundance to the national cuisine, vocation education training centers in Bolivia have trained the professionals required to develop the nation’s culinary character. In neighboring culinary schools, western curriculums proliferated, often being incompatible with students’ “Peruvianness” and indigeneity. At worst, these programs represented “racism in disguise” and a forced urbanization of the rural impoverished. Ironically, the inclusivity envisioned could in actuality alienate the impoverished and indigenous population crucial to the productive future of the Bolivian economy.
Combatting Poverty Through Cuisine
Across the Atlantic, Claus Meyer, Danish über-chef behind the perennial World’s Best Restaurant contender Noma, was developing progressive culinary centers to combat social injustice. After a global search and in partnership with several Danish, Bolivian and Peruvian NGOs, Meyer created the restaurant Gustu, which means “flavor” in Quechua, and Manq’a, the Aymaran word for “food” — a tuition-free sister culinary program in La Paz, Bolivia.
Despite initial struggles, the Bolivian native Coral Ayoroa and Meyer opened eight schools in 2015, graduating 600 students from impoverished communities surrounding the urban center. Central to the schools’ popularity and success was an early observation that French culinary dogma, a vestige of Peruvian vocation training centers on which Manq’a was based, was antagonizing the students. Subsequently, the program was converted into a two-tiered system, funneling students to either the molecular gastronomy of Gustu or to cafeterias that offered affordable, high-quality food to the public. In this manner, Manq’a addressed the unique exigencies of the student body, preventing the accused indoctrination of the Peruvian counterparts.
As of today, Manq’a operates 15 schools across Bolivia, Columbia and Guatemala, graduating more than 3,500 indigenous students from underprivileged backgrounds. Assisted by 80 affiliated restaurants and businesses, 58% of students find immediate employment in the culinary field. Partnerships with small local farmers to supply the culinary program have flourished, helping to preserve local produce and promoting sustainable agriculture.
With Youth Business International, a global business incubator, entrepreneurial alumni have developed an astonishing 100 small businesses, many of which are in the rural communities most in need of economic advancement. Remedios Ramirez, a Manq’a graduate, returned to rebuild a family business and Belen Mamani founded an ice cream parlor to highlight unique ingredients native to Bolivia. Elsewhere, Marsia Taha, after training in Denmark, is now head chef at Gustu and has directed the restaurant to multiple appearances on the “the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America” list. All learners of the Manq’a and Gustu culinary system credit the education for helping them to “re-evaluate Bolivian food.”
Students attending vocation education training centers in Bolivia have steadily increased over the first two decades of the century. These graduates are in part responsible for an increase in small enterprises from 64,000 in 2005 to 316,000 in 2018. Crucially, an accompanying rise in private investment of 22% signals the sustainable long-term growth necessary to eradicate poverty. The progressivism of institutions like Manq’a and Gustu exemplify culinary activism and demonstrate how international organizations can make tremendous strides toward socio-economic equality among disenfranchised indigenous populations.
– Kit Krajeski