If, like me, you’re filled with excitement at the thought of tonight’s final of The Great British Bake Off, I think you’ll enjoy this story of how the fortunes of Peruvian baker Luz Marina Cusci Cáceres have been transformed, with a little help from Practical Action.
It is a Thursday morning in September 2012, and visitors are gradually arriving at a huge food festival that is a highlight for many Peruvians. Within a few hours, the place will be packed with hungry diners and long queues will form at the myriad food stalls. There is no respite for Luz Marina Cusi Cáceres, who has just returned to her stall after she has run out of stock. Her stall is to be found among the organic producers section, where delicious home-grown Peruvian goods are sold.
But what is so special about Luz Marina? And what does her story have to do with Practical Action?
Several years ago Luz Marina participated in Practical Action’s project ‘Development of productive uses of electricity in the Cusco region’. During her participation in this project, she developed her baking knowledge, and learnt how to bake traditional kiwicha [a traditional Peruvian cereal] biscuits in a more efficient manner.
Luz Marina used to make kiwicha products by hand until Practical Action came to her town, San Salvador, and worked with the community to introduce a variety of electricity-generating technologies such as solar panels.
“We knew nothing about electrified machinery before, but with the help of Practical Action engineers we began using kitchen appliances, like the electric whisk, which need electricity to operate.”
Luz Marina had always sold kiwicha, but she did not do anything to the raw kiwicha to add real value to it. An Italian woman in the town who knew how to make biscuits shared her baking skills with Luz Marina.
“She taught me that I could sell biscuits made out of kiwicha, which would fetch higher prices at market than raw kiwicha products.”
Once Luz Marina learnt how to bake the biscuits, rumours of her delicious culinary treats spread across town, and people started asking for more.
“People would eat them and then buy them. So I kept making the biscuits better, and although there is still room for improvement, I am now a much better baker than I was before. In 2009 I decided to start a baking business with three of my friends who also cook with kiwicha. It is very helpful to work as a group; we have a lot of confidence, we know each other, and we are united.”
The real turning point came when Luz Marina met a customer named Hugo. He was so impressed by the biscuits and the commitment of Luz Marina and her friends he helped the bakers to obtain the official hygiene certification they needed in order to sell their products in larger markets.
“Now we sell our biscuits in Ayacucho and San Gerónimo. We have to stock the stalls with 1000 packets every two weeks! What would we do without electricity? We use an electric whisk to make our biscuits. It saves us time and means we can make better quality biscuits that sell in their thousands! We still need more encouragement from the council though – it would help if they advertised and promoted our products.”
In addition to the biscuits, Luz Marina and the bakers are now selling kiwicha-based pastries and honey. At the bustling food festival these have been hugely popular.
“We have sold 6000 packets of biscuits in three days! I am very grateful to Practical Action – without electricity we could not have made a productive or profitable living from baking. The electricity has transformed our baking. And baking has changed our lives”.