By: Frank Giustra.
I have never experienced hunger. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a parent to see their child suffer from malnutrition. I try to picture my own children in that state, but I find it unimaginable. The thought of my own kids suffering was the catalyst that motivated me to turn my attention to the Venezuelan refugee crisis in Colombia. Two decades ago, I spent a considerable amount of time doing business in Venezuela and toured the country extensively.
I remember a beautiful and geographically diverse country. Angel Falls was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen, and I have fond memories of fishing in the waters around Los Roques Islands. I met many wonderful people who celebrated life in a way only Latin Americans know how. So it breaks my heart to see the country in such despair.
Venezuela has been in political and economic turmoil for a while, but the situation has gotten progressively worse over the past two years. Nearly 90 percent of Venezuelan families do not earn enough money to buy the food they need due to hyperinflation and domestic food shortages, leaving many families no choice but to flee Venezuela. As a result, 4.5 million have fled the country with approximately 1.6 million of them resettling in Colombia. Thousands are still crossing the border each day. It’s one of the largest and most rapid flows of people globally. This flow of refugees is putting an enormous strain on local shelters and host communities in Colombia. As the crisis continues to worsen, women and children are arriving at border locations malnourished and in dire need of assistance. Fresh food is scarce to the organizations serving this population. As I watched this tragedy unfold, it occurred to me that one of my philanthropic initiatives might provide part of the solution.
Acceso Colombia is just one of the social agribusinesses that grew out of the poverty alleviation initiative I co-founded with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Fundación Carlos Slim in 2007. Launched in 2015, Acceso Colombia was designed to improve yields and incomes of 1,200 smallholder farmers and fishermen by providing training, access to inputs (seeds and fertilizer) and, most importantly, guaranteed connections to high-value, stable buyers such as Colombia’s largest grocery chain. It also created 90 jobs at the business and processing level. Our goal is to become the largest and premier smallholder sourcing agribusiness in Colombia.
Since we already had access to the produce and the ability to deliver large quantities, I personally funded buying $200,000-worth of produce—everything from potatoes to pears—from Acceso Colombia to donate to three organizations, Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, the Colombian food bank network ABACO, and The Wayuu Taya Foundation founded by Patricia Velasquez. With the donation, we have provided the ingredients for more than 3.9 million meals since launching the program last April. That’s a whopping 415,000 kilograms of produce. It’s been a win-win for everyone. Our smallholder farmers have seen an increase in revenues of more than $150,000 in that same time period. This program has been so successful that we are now looking for ways to expand it to other areas of Colombia and Venezuela. I always try to put these kinds of commitments and results into context. Consider that for $200,000—an amount of money that some wealthy person might spend on a luxury car—we will have helped feed hundreds of thousands of refugees (most of them women and children) over a six-month time frame.
Sometimes, I wish more people with the means would stop and picture their own families going hungry. We are looking for funding partners and are currently running a campaign—with future ones planned—to make this program truly significant. I hope many of you will join me to support this important cause.