By Glenda Boza Ibarra (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – Customers come from the other side of Las Tunas city. They never make the trip in vain. While some state-run markets might only have some 10 items for sale, at the Mercasa store, run by its leaseholder, there is plenty up for sale.
Customers come not only for the quality and appearance of fruits, vegetables and other food items, but also because of the appeal of being able to buy most products already washed and in packaging. At Mercasa, some prices are a little more affordable if you compare them to prices offered by barrow-boys and other state-run or private markets.
PLANTING IN MINDSETS AND LAND
Six years ago, this was a barren space, overrun with weeds. A plot of idle land on one side of the 30 de Noviembre Avenue in Las Tunas, in eastern Cuba. Just a few meters away, the state-run organoponics center, Los Vegetales, displayed a half-empty sales board.
“I asked to lease the land in 2013,” Argel Frank Fundora Acosta tells us. “As a farmer, I belong to the Calixto Sarduy agricultural cooperative in the town of Becerra (approximately 8 kms away) and I sell their produce here.”
Another 60 members of the CPA prefer to sell their produce at the store Argel runs.
“As well as fresh food products we also sell a wide range of products derived from the agricultural industry, such as vinegar, pickles, sauces,” one of the sales assistants says.
Mercasa not only supplies its retail store, but also meets its state orders to supply health and education institutions, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and MININT.
Which is confirmed by local media who say that they supply children’s homes, neighbors in critical situations and people with low incomes.
“We have to lift some of the burden from the State’s shoulders,” Argel believes. “We small businesses could take on a lot more responsibility and larger industries should be what the State manages. But, they also have to lose their fear of entrepreneurs,” he concludes.
ENTREPRENEURS ARE LIKE COCKROACHES
On his PC, Argel has over 50 videos saved about entrepreneurism. His favorite ones are by Carlos Munoz, a Mexican YouTuber who gives advice on how to get your business up and running.
“In one of my favorites, he says that we entrepreneurs are like cockroaches because in spite of all the obstacles, we survive and carry on trying,” Argel says, who has had to navigate many obstacles in order to get his business off the ground.
“I didn’t want to be a lease holder. I was the Head of Urban Farming in Las Tunas and I ended up with a piece of land that was later taken from me. I was going to hang up my gloves and leave for South Africa with my family, but I decided to fight and recovered this land by going to court.”
Argel lists every bump in the road, off the top of his head. He denounces them every opportunity he gets.
Equipment seized when entering the country, fines, slow bureaucratic procedures to get expansion licenses and even anonymous defamatory messages for allegedly trafficking drugs worldwide and money laundering… These all appear on the “background” of someone who was recently recognized as the best farmer by the Urban, Suburban and Family Farming Program (PAUSF) in Las Tunas, in 2018.
“I know that people don’t like me because I tell the truth, but I’m not offending anyone with my truth, nor am I afraid,” he points out.
Argel worked for many years in partnership with markets in Venezuela and South Africa. There, he learned a lot about how to increase yields and sales, depending on local conditions.
The constant stream of customers is important. Every year, they have approximately 80,000 visitors, even people who come from other provinces.
“Every time I come from Camaguey to visit my family, I come here and buy some packets of peppers, carrots or whatever else is being sold,” Maritza Torres says.
However, many of the projects that Argel dreams of are stuck in limbo because of delays by those who need to authorize them.
He has been dreaming of setting up a juice bar, for a while now. He has all the equipment he needs but redtape has stifled his efforts to launch this new venture.
Other problems appear when he make trips to other provinces, as an incentive from the Ministry of Agriculture. Argel compares how easy things are for other farmers like him in other places, and he loses heart.
“I have always wanted to open up a store in the city center, but obstacles always pop up. How can other people even sell in squares in other provinces, and it’s so hard for us to do the same here?” he asks.
From the moment Mercasa opens at 8 AM, customers constantly come and go. It’s in the morning hours that they make most of their sales. Regular customers cross the city to come here and buy their fruit and vegetables.
Rene Ortuno comes on her electric moped every week. She says that its worth making the trip from the La Victoria neighborhood, on the other side of the city, because she knows that she will always find something at this market to take home.
SAN TOMA AND SAN DAME
As well as the satisfaction of the beneficiaries, the store run by Argel creates jobs, supports local activities, pays for repair works at health and education centers, and nourishes the development of other urban agriculture centers.
This happened with the half-protected “Los Vegetales” organoponics, which has changed a great deal since it signed a contract with its neighbor Mercasa.
“Wages have almost tripled and are now around 1000 pesos (40 USD). Sales have increased a great deal. We eat lunch in the Mercasa dining hall and we can even put food on a tab until the day we get paid,” Manuel Ortiz says, who has been working at their for over six years.
On the basis of cost-sharing, Los Vegetales sells some products from Mercasa and receives 8% of that sale. Fifty percent of total earnings go to the state-run company which they belong to and the other half is distributed among them depending on the work they each do.
“The more we work, the more we produce and sell, the more individual earnings are,” Argel explains.
Mercasa is frequently mentioned in local press. In spite of high temperatures and drought which affect their yields, it’s very hard to find the sales locale in short supply.
The products they sell don’t only come from Las Tunas. Fruit and other food items in the store also come from Holguin and Santiago de Cuba.
“Argel’s management is commendable. It’s a lesson to state-run bodies who are unable to keep regular supplies in the city’s markets,” says a retired MININT Lieutenant-Colonel.
El Tunero and El Mambi are the main agro-markets in the provincial capital. The latter, which hasn’t been open a year yet (400m2), is already receiving criticism for its regular shortages.
A buyer confirmed this: “Shelves are empty a lot of the time. Now, there are just tins of marmalade and bananas. The first few days were the days of great splendor, and on certain dates, like when President Diaz-Canel came to visit it in March.”
Months ago, a report on the local Periodico 26 newspaper noted that “perhaps the challenge for responsible authorities lie within El Mambi’s four walls, not only in terms of supply, but also in terms of organizing its internal operations.”
“Give it to me and they’ll see how its shelves are always full,” Argel says, half-joking, half-seriously.
Even though he doesn’t have a contract with Acopio (Cuba’s State purchasing entity who is responsible for supplying agro-markets), Argel claims to have the conditions and contacts to stock Mercasa and any other market they want to give him.
He says that in order to ensure supply, you have to work more than eight hours per day, every day of the week. Then, this sacrifice translates into profit and personal satisfaction.
“I always say that San Toma and San Dame are my saints. Without a sense of belonging, without the desire to do things properly and to keep them as they should be, you can’t move forward.”
CUSTOMER CONVENIENCE IS MERCASA’S OBJECTIVE
People prefer products at MERCASA because of their value for money, how clean and well presented they are, as many come in clear plastic packages. This is how the market gives extra value to their sales.
Plus, the self-service system allows customers to choose the foods they want to take and to put them in a basket until the checkout.
In order to avoid damage to foods by customers, Argel chose to buy very few ripe items. “People can take our produce home and wait for them to ripen at home. Ideally, we’d package them and freeze some… we have fridges and the equipment to do that, but licenses have taken ages to come through,” he says.
His best-selling items include cucumbers and vinegar produced by mini-industries belonging to associates of the Calixto Sarduy cooperative. The latter is hard to come by in Cuban stores, and here you can always find different types in different packaging. Other products are sold in ways that facilitate consumption at home.
Packets of peeled garlic cost 20 CUP and sell out in the first few hours in the morning. Many people prefer these because they save time in the kitchen and don’t have to deal with peeling them.
Some customers choose to buy cassava bread, as there is a shortage of breadflour, to replace their morning or mid-morning snack.
According to sales records, cassava bread used to only be a regular fixture in stores in the last few months of the year because people eat it with roast pork in Oriente.
“However, the current boom coincides with breadflour shortages and people haven’t stopped buying it,” Argel says.
In order to keep it in stock, the entrepreneur extended the contract with his suppliers and now they sell cassava bread in different sizes. They also have packets with leftover toasted bits of cassava bread.
Argel dreams about setting up a national and international agro-tourism business; labeling every package with the product’s nutritional information; setting up a home delivery service, first for bar and restaurant owners (who buy in great volume) and then, gradually, for the rest of the population.
Over 10,000 workers tend to the 300 hectares of land in Las Tunas for agricultural use, as part of 19 programs of urban and suburban farming. Every year, tens of thousands of vegetables are sold in these markets.
The main criticism about this national program refers to the need to concentrate greater efforts in vegetable production, the production of seeds and fertilizer.
Argel knows what the shortcomings are and is working to overcome them. In this way, using left-overs from the harvest, sawdust and other components, they are producting the fertilizer they need. They even sell fertilizer for decorative plants.
With the intention of expanding his business, he has sought out two other organoponic centers with abandoned land. In just a few months, his son Franklin Fundora Padro recovered the 60 rows that the Las Brigidas organoponics center weren’t using, on the road heading out of Las Tunas.
“When I finished my military service, I asked for land under Resolution 449/2013. My father’s position at the head of Mercasa, and the store’s success, inspired me to do the same thing with this land. I have his unconditional support, although I know he’s gone through tough times to get his business off the ground,” he explains.
It was maybe his days looking after lions in South Africa that Argel learned how to deal with blows, obstacles… where he learned never to give up.
“Nothing can get me down. There are still many obstacles for the self-employed, but I am an entrepreneur in every sense of the word.”