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No ordinary solution: Afro-Colombian ingenuity in the fight against COVID-19

© IFAD / Panos Pictures / Xavier Cervera

The story of the Afro-Colombian community has always been one of resilience. Historically, this group has faced the country’s highest rates of poverty and food insecurity, and has lacked access to many basic services.

Nevertheless, they have always come together to share resources and advocate for their culture and community. One example is the ACUA Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2007 that supports Afro-descendant peoples in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

Not surprisingly, over the last couple of months, the IFAD-ACUA partnership has been focused on helping Afro-Colombians counteract the economic, social and health impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here, too, the hundreds of communities involved with the partnership have shown their creativity and determination.

Getting the word out

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Government of Colombia, like many countries, disseminated information on how to counteract the spread of the virus. Yet information like this doesn’t always reach ACUA’s partner communities, many of which are very small and located in isolated areas, where the government has little presence.

Faced with the prospect of potentially life-saving information passing them by, the members of the IFAD-ACUA programme sprang into action, adapting the official government communications into a number of simple, concise bulletins written in plain language.

These bulletins cover a wide range of information on the virus and the many ways it can impact daily life, from the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to prevent transmission, to advice on applying for government compensation, to health care hotlines, to advice on avoiding – or dealing with – domestic violence. All of these easy-to-understand materials have been distributed by grass-roots organizations in nearly 400 remote communities.

Going local: Small producers provide supply-chain solutions

The IFAD-ACUA programme has also been active on the economic front, seeking ideas that allow Afro-Colombian communities to maintain some of their existing links to the market – or to create new ones. Many of these efforts also have the positive side effect of either helping to combat the spread of COVID-19, or maintaining food production and distribution through small, local supply chains.

As in many parts of the world, alcohol-based hand sanitizer has been in short supply in Colombia. This is especially true for the remote parts of the nation’s Pacific coastline, where the majority of the Afro-Colombian population is concentrated. Not to be deterred, however, a number of producers of sugar cane–derived alcoholic beverages have begun making some of their own.

Onésimo González, one of the most respected traditional alcohol producers from the Soledad Curay community, pioneered this process. He has also helped ACUA prepare a simple nine-step guide to the procedure, which has allowed other producers up and down the coastline to replicate his experience.

The IFAD-ACUA partnership has also been searching for new products to market while also mitigating COVID-19’s impact. They’ve found one such opportunity in a homemade soap from the communities of Guapi and Buenaventura. This soap, made of coconut and native plant oils, is now being sold in local markets with considerable success.

Other local organizations have begun contributing their skills to the effort, too. The group Tejedores de Sueños (Dream Weavers), an initiative supported by the IFAD-ACUA partnership, has stopped producing traditional costumes and started making masks and other components of personal protective equipment. Other youth and women’s groups in Bogotá and Chocó are expected to produce around 25,000 additional masks, some of which have been sent to San Andrés and Providencia islands, two remote areas chiefly inhabited by Afro-American people.

Class is in session: Traditional cuisine goes digital

To avoid a potential food supply crisis, the partnership has stepped up family farming initiatives to strengthen the local production and trade of vegetables and herbs.

Their support extends along the entire length of the supply chain, too. One example of this is Kumé, an IFAD-ACUA initiative dedicated to promoting traditional Afro-Colombian cuisine. Kumé’s beneficiaries, most of them women, have recently been forced to close up their restaurants and shops due to the lockdown – but instead of stopping their business, they’ve simply changed their approach. They are now delivering their products to customers’ homes and giving online classes. 

Such is the case for Ana Beatriz Acevedo and Bacilia Murillo, community leaders from Chocó, and Lucia Solis, a wise connoisseur of medicinal plants from Valle del Cauca. All of them are also afro-traditional cooks, and recently, each of them has been holding online sessions where their virtual guests can learn how to cook traditional dishes. The hosts also share their stories and traditional Marimba songs and dances, and they discuss the cultural importance of the ingredients.

All of these activities are made possible by the IFAD-ACUA programme, which promotes and organizes the events, collects registration fees, manages the online platform where the sessions take place, distributes the income to the communities involved, and markets a package of traditional products required to prepare the recipes.

Looking ahead: Getting ready to support neighbour communities

The COVID-19 pandemic is sure to impact many more lives in the coming months – and, similarly, the IFAD-ACUA partnership is determined to extend the reach of its support. Bolstered by the successes it has seen in Colombia, the partnership plans to replicate these programs in similar communities in Ecuador and Peru.

What makes initiatives like these so successful? Perhaps one answer is that they are, without doubt, a powerful display of the richness of Afro-American people’s cultural heritage as well as of their outstanding resilience – and these are exactly the two assets that the IFAD-ACUA programme aims to promote, whether in the time of COVID-19 or not.

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