EL CARIZAL, Nicaragua— In this farming community of 250 people, money is earned from temporary work projects and often winds its way through the hands of men. The women, who have seen jobs come and go with few opportunities for them, are adopting a new role as entrepreneurs, producing a popular line of organic jam.
The last employment gold rush that swept through here was during production of the popular CBS reality television show Survivor, which filmed its last two seasons on the private Hermosa beach, accessed through the El Carizal compound. Most of the men found work.
“Women could cook and clean, or if they were bilingual there were opportunities to work [as production coordinators], but [otherwise] none of the women in El Carizal worked,” says Doña Nelly, 55, the community matriarch.
As their backyard became the setting for an entertainment-based idea of reality, the women say their actual reality was disrupted. The show brought mixed blessings —an unprecedented six months of gainful employment at wages that have since been unmatched, but also a moratorium on fishing in certain areas, which hurt a community whose livelihood comes from the sea. Filming also prohibited foot traffic through familiar places.
“It was strange being told where I couldn’t go. I’ve lived here for decades,” says Doña Nelly of the production. “But it was also good because when men have work, then we women can focus on long-term projects.”
One such project is a jam-making cooperative: Condimentos Carizal Co-op, composed of 10 grandmothers and mothers, some of them single women.
The group, organized last November by Doña Nelly and her daughter, Belkys, united women in a business venture using skills they already possessed.
With funding help from two private individuals from the United States, the El Carizal women began organizing. Falling back on an organic lifestyle practiced for decades, the women decided to make jelly using local fruits.
“This was an opportunity to get ahead. I had to see if I could do it,” says Aurelia Monestal, a widow and mother of two.
With the help of the Americans, the women learned recipes and jarring techniques together. They now produce five popular flavors including mango, passion fruit, dragon fruit, pineapple and tamarind. All of the jams are organic and call for minimal ingredients, including fruit grown just miles away.
The Carizal jelly has become popular locally for its delicious taste and the story of the women who produce it.
Customers include a bakery and cafe, at a farmer’s market and in a nearby town. Loyal consumers purchase jam by the boxes for friends in the United States and Canada.
The money earned has gone toward clearing debts at the local food store, paying medical bills and affording small luxuries like graduation parties for children.
As sales grow, the women are learning conversational English and numbers to better interact with customers. For many, it is their first opportunity to attend school.
Unbeknownst to the women, the curiosity cast upon Nicaragua due to the Survivor spotlight, combined with a global movement to embrace organic foods, has positioned their small jam-making cooperative for unimaginable growth.
For now, the ladies are focused on sharing their jam and showing other women how to start businesses.
Doña Ilicia, 69, is hopeful that the jelly will soon be available to customers overseas. “I want people, when they eat this jam to know that these country women made it, and I hope they like it,” she says.
But first a major challenge needs to be overcome.
The jam is currently produced in Doña Nelly’s small kitchen, making it difficult to pass health inspections and apply for legal export. Recent fundraising efforts are going toward the construction of a first-world quality kitchen which would provide the necessary health and sanitation certificates qualifying food products for export.
One of the initial private investors, Tim Kelly, estimates it will take upwards of a year to see El Carizal food products on American store shelves.
“In two years, I hope this is the only job I have to do,” says Doña Nelly. She is currently working with other women on recipes for organic wine.
The season of Survivor in Nicaragua is now airing on television to some of the highest ratings in that show’s history.
The two eldest women, Doña Ilicia, and Doña Nelly, who have survived years of change and upheaval in Nicaragua with little impact on their simple way of life, remain unfazed by the attention. Pointing to the vast hills behind her, Doña Ilicia quips that she is the real survivor. “I was born up there where there were two houses and monkeys. My umbilical chord was cut with a machete.”