February was a remarkable month for me as it offered an extraordinary opportunity to travel to Colombia and meet with ANEI, an indigenous-led coffee cooperative based in northern Colombia. ANEI, short for Asociación Nacional de Empresarios Indígenas (National Association of Indigenous Entrepreneurs), was established in 1995 with the noble purpose of improving the living conditions of indigenous communities and peasant families in the region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Guided by a rich spiritual connection to the land, ANEI has embraced Fairtrade coffee as a vehicle for change, empowering communities, reclaiming traditional land, and restoring cultural practices for generations to come.
While the Terraso team and I have worked extensively with ANEI as a co-design partner for the past year and a half, this trip marked the first time anyone from Terraso had the opportunity to meet the ANEI team in person, and what an unforgettable meeting it was! The primary objective was to conduct in-person user feedback testing, specifically focused on Terraso’s story mapping tool. Little did I know that this trip would offer so much more than just testing sessions.
The journey commenced with a typical user feedback session, albeit with the delightful addition of exceptional ANEI coffee. We began with a group session, where a short demo of the story mapping feature was presented, accompanied by an explanation of how the testing sessions would unfold. Subsequently, I engaged in one-on-one sessions with various members of the ANEI team, each lasting an hour. During these sessions, participants interacted with the new tool, completing various tasks while providing real-time feedback. This immersive experience allowed me to observe firsthand how they interacted with story maps, see what made sense to them, and identify areas that needed improvement. In comparison to our previous “Zoom” user tests, the in-person sessions provided a much deeper understanding as we didn’t have to rely solely on self-reporting and screen sharing. The feedback gathered during these sessions provided invaluable insights, enabling us to gain clarity on what needed to be done to prepare the story mapping tool for public release, and it has continued to help guide our work.
As day two dawned, it seemed like another ordinary day of user feedback sessions. However, it transformed into an extraordinary and profoundly meaningful experience. While the morning was devoted to one-on-one sessions, the afternoon brought an unexpected invitation to join the ANEI team in the field and witness their work firsthand.
We embarked on a 45-minute journey from Valledupar into what I can only describe as the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where we arrived at a small indigenous village inhabited by the Arhuacos people. The purpose of this meeting was for ANEI to come together with a cacao collective (based in Canada but with local Colombian representatives) and the Arhuacos village, in order to establish a cacao growing initiative within the community. Typically, the Arhuacos have been growing coffee, but the adverse effects of climate change, including rising temperatures, have posed challenges to coffee cultivation. Recognizing that cacao thrives in higher temperatures, ANEI and the community are trying to introduce cacao as a complementary crop. This strategic shift aims to enable the indigenous population to sustainably generate income while adhering to eco-friendly and organic practices rooted in their heritage and culture. Additionally, the benefits of this project extend beyond the immediate community, as the land designated for cacao will serve the surrounding communities as well. While this project is in its infancy, the meeting I was privileged to attend marked the establishment of a shared understanding, enabling
While visiting Colombia, I was introduced to a new organization, ALDEA. Located in Quito, Ecuador, ALDEA is a nonprofit organization with an unwavering commitment to building an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable society. Their mission is to collectively design strategies for sustainable change with groups of people, communities, or even entire territories. The changes sought are typically focused on human rights, gender, and equitable cultural co-existence and contribute to the creation of a sustainable local culture through capacity enhancement processes that allow communities to be in charge of their own well-being and improve living conditions in their territories.
While virtual meetings have their place, there is nothing quite like immersing oneself in a new organization’s environment, engaging in face-to-face conversations that transcend the limitations of a screen. Thanks to some logistical magic, my journey didn’t end with Colombia. Instead, I found myself hopping on a plane to Ecuador, eager to meet ALDEA in person, learn about their work and get their feedback on Terraso.
I must admit, a twinge of nervousness accompanied me on this unexpected trip. Unlike my familiar relationship with ANEI, my interaction with the ALDEA team had been limited to a single Zoom call. I was about to ask them to dedicate two precious days of their time to explore an unfamiliar tool, with only brief notice. It wasn’t the ideal setup for unbiased and comprehensive feedback, or so I thought. Little did I know that the warmth and hospitality exuded by the ALDEA team would erase any concerns about less than perfect circumstances.
Joined by one of my engineering colleagues, a native of Quito, we embarked on a series of four one-hour user testing sessions with different members of the ALDEA team. Their insights ran deep, their openness and specificity inspiring us to act swiftly. Overnight, we implemented changes based on their feedback, refining the tool’s localization just in time for the next day’s testing. With their invaluable comments and our observations of their interactions, we were confident that our product launch would showcase the best version possible, while their ongoing feedback will continue to shape our work in the future.
But it didn’t end there. The time spent together forged a bond that transcended borders. Even after my return to the United States, our collaboration endured, thriving in the virtual realm. Already, we have convened multiple times, eager to explore new avenues of partnership. Additionally, the ALDEA team has since created a beautiful story map showcasing their work.
As I reflect upon this whirlwind of a journey, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities bestowed upon us. From ANEI in Colombia to ALDEA in Ecuador, the richness of these experiences has reinforced the profound importance of face-to-face interactions, the power of genuine connections, and the transformative nature of collaboration. We stand poised to make a lasting impact, fueled by the knowledge gained, the relationships forged, and the unwavering dedication to shaping a better, more sustainable world.