Finding new markets for a pre-Columbian potato product in Peru

Potato farmer Luzmila Jinez doesn’t often leave the region of Puno, high in Peru’s southern Andes, but she recently travelled 24 hours by bus from her village, Yaurima, to Lima, the country’s capital, to sell freeze-dried potatoes. For Jinez and her neighbors in Yaurima, the trip was part of a group effort to find new markets for a traditional product that is their primary source of income.

Though it was 35-year-old Jinez’s first trip to Lima, known for its colonial churches and sweeping ocean views, she didn’t have time for sightseeing. She spent the better part of three days at an annual culinary festival called Mistura selling bags of snow-white, bone-dry tubers called tunta in her native Aymara language, and chuño blanco in Spanish. Farmers in Puno’s highlands have been freeze-drying potatoes since pre-Columbian times, and tunta is the staple in that region for much of the year, but it is relatively rare in other parts of Peru.

“I’m happy to be able to come here and look for new markets for our product,” says Jinez as she holds a bag of tunta out to passing shoppers. She explains that she and her neighbors sell most of their tunta in the nearby city of Ilave, south of Lake Titicaca, where the market price is usually seven or eight Peruvian soles (US $2.20-2.50) per kilo. Shoppers at Mistura, on the other hand, were happy to pay 15 soles (US $4.60) per kilo. “I feel that I can find a better market for our tunta in Lima, and that’s what I want.”

Jinez and other members of her farmers’ association joined farmers from other regions in selling their potatoes or potato products at Mistura thanks to the International Potato Center (CIP, for its name in Spanish). CIP is helping smallholders access better markets through projects to improve livelihoods and diets in rural communities of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Those efforts build upon CIP’s decades of experience helping smallholders in the Andes region to produce more potatoes, earn better money from their crop, and improve their families’ nutrition by eating nutrient-rich potato varieties and more diversified diets.

As part of a project called INPANDES – funded by the European Union through the Andean Community – CIP has focused on improving tunta production in Puno, where it is potato farmers’ principal staple and cash crop. Few potato varieties can be grown in the hills around Lake Titicaca, which sits at more than 3,800 meters (approx. 12,500 feet) above sea level, and the varieties that thrive in that harsh climate tend to be bitter, so they are best suited for tunta.

Luzmila Jinez tells potential customers about her product.

Improving an ancient process

Puno’s indigenous farmers use a freeze-drying process that their ancestors developed centuries ago. Farmers harvest potatoes in May, at the end of the rainy season, and take advantage of the dry winter climate from June to August to freeze dry most of their potatoes. After leaving covered piles of potatoes in the mountains to freeze every night for a week, farmers soak them in water for 20 to 30 days, which washes out the compounds called glycoalcaloids that make potatoes bitter. They then dry them in the sun for a week.

The resulting tunta is packed with calories, as well as calcium and phosphorous, and has a shelf life of at least five years. After boiling for 30 minutes, it is ready to eaten with meat, a sauce, in a soup, or mixed with cheese in a sandwich called tunta puti. Over the centuries, tunta has saved countless lives after crops failed,

since the Incas stored and transferred large amounts of tunta to areas threatened by famine. And because it is light – six kilos of potato produces one kilo of tunta – it was a field ration for soldiers of the Inca empire.

Jinez and her neighbors produce tunta much as their ancestors did, soaking their potatoes in the Ilave River and drying them on its rocky banks, but with CIP’s guidance, they’ve adopted best practices for a more hygienic product. When farmers remove the potatoes from rivers or lakes, they traditionally step on them in bare feet to squeeze the water out and knock off the peels. While colorful, this part of the process has discouraged some people outside the Andes from trying tunta. CIP technicians have consequently taught farmers a series of best practices such as placing potatoes in a thick netting and twisting it to squeeze the water out, drying them on tarps instead of the ground, using a machine to peel them, and washing them in chlorinated water before a final drying. This results in a bright white, sanitary tunta that is fit for urban markets and export.

With the support of CIP Luzmila and other tunta producers have learned to make a business plan and follow best practices.

Betting on the future

“We now have a business plan. We’ve learned best practices,” says Jinez. “We want to improve our product so that we can export it or sell it in Lima.”

As she explained the process of making tunta to shoppers at Mistura, Jinez emphasized the sanitary practices that her association has adopted. “I like to explain and sell people our tunta, so that they know about it here. I was surprised that most people in Lima aren’t familiar with tunta.”

That annual Mistura festival is part of boom in Peruvian cuisine that has fueled a proliferation of novoandino restaurants, gastronomic tourism and new agricultural exports. CIP has worked with an array of partners to ensure that potato has a prominent place in this culinary renaissance, resulting in higher per-capita potato consumption in Peru and a growing demand for native potatoes that were only consumed in the Andes two decades ago. By helping smallholders gain access to new, better-paying markets, CIP contributes to improvements in communities that have historically suffered high levels of poverty and malnutrition, while empowering women in the process.

Jinez and her neighbors sell much of the tunta they produce to middlemen who export it to neighboring Bolivia, but they would prefer to export their product themselves, or sell it in Lima. She and her cousin Ester sold hundreds of bags of tunta at Mistura, where they spoke with the owners of restaurants or shops about the possibility of supplying them with tunta.

Though her trip to Lima marked the first time she spent nights away from her husband and three children, who she missed terribly, Jinez was thankful for the opportunity to promote her community’s tunta in the big city.

“I’m doing this for my children,” she says. “With this product we pay for our children’s studies. We use the money to buy them school supplies and clothes.”

Jinez says she hopes to return to Lima to participate in future Misturas or other markets, noting that the sales were brisk. However, she stresses that her ultimate goal is to find a stable market for her association’s tunta that pays well enough for her and other members to improve their homes, their children’s education and their community.

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