Building Blocks of Opportunity

The wooden block is probably one of the simplest and most played with toys.  However, this iconic block did something unexpected: it has been promoted amongst the complex toys of this generation and sure to last for many generations.  With a little entrepreneurial conservation, Tegu has created a block that surpasses most expectations of a toy.  It is educational and stimulates children’s creativity and unscripted play (as I mentioned in one of my previous posts), is heirloom quality, helps the planet and its citizens, and is so much fun that adults sneak off and play with them.

Tegu’s magnetic blocks are built to leave a legacy.  They are complex, yet they don’t require any batteries or instruction manuals, just an imagination.  The uniqueness of this toy is not just the functional (and inaccessible to children) magnet, but the series of events that follow each block purchase, called the Tegu Effect.  Tegu gives every buyer the choice to either donate dozens of trees or donate schooldays for Honduran children.  But it is not only the environment and children that benefit; as Tegu grows, the company creates living wage jobs for the Honduran factory workers, and with 65% of the population living currently below the poverty line Tegu offers the people a great opportunity. Continue reading

How Smart Can Wood Be?

Yesterday I met with Javier López, the forestry engineer for Agroforestal, S.A. This company covers the tree plantations at La Cumplida, Ecoforestal/El Aguacate (Morgan’s Rock’s finca), and El Eden; it is not to be confused with Cafetalera Nicafrancia, which manages the coffee (and the planted trees growing in the coffee fields) at La Cumplida, or MAPIINIC S.A., which administers the forests felled by Hurricane Felix in 2007 at a finca called Rosita.

Javier, often known simply as “Prófe,” [PRO-feh] which translates as “Prof” (a nickname for Professor), has worked to get certification from Rainforest Alliance’s forestry auditor SmartWood (and by association the FSC and RA itself)

In 2009 Agroforestal became certified for forest management. To do so the company had to go through the same continuous improvement process that I described a bit in my post about coffee certification. An initial evaluation is made, and subsequent audits over the next 5 years that the certification is valid provide the certifier with evidence of progress and room for improvement. From what I saw of a couple examples, SmartWood seems to emphasize explicit documentation, which makes sense given the nature of the forestry industry: extractive at its most basic, but also focusing on replanting trees as long-term investments.

Some of SmartWood’s requirements are as simple as Continue reading

La Cumplida’s Harvest Diversity

Part of the La Cumplida farm diversification involves growing crops apart from coffee. I’ve already mentioned the tree cultivation and bananas, and here I can go into more detail about the wood production and other harvests.

Ferns cover many of the hills in the upper ranges of the finca. Sheltered under black netting to block out the sun, these billions of fronds are handpicked and bundled in different sizes. The vast majority is sent to Netherlands, but other European countries and the United States receive the ornamental plants as well. Why is Netherlands the main customer? Because the country holds the largest flower market in the world at Aalsmeer, has long been the production hub for the European flower industry, and is a major international floral supplier. Many bouquets contain not only blossoms but ornamental leaves as well, and these ferns work well in many arrangements.

Wilfredo led us through the fern fields and told us a bit about its cultivation. One of the problems they have while growing the ferns is fungal disease, which turns them yellow and brown as they die; fungicide and physical culling are necessary to control the spread. About every two months they have new fully matured fronds that can be harvested, bundled up, washed, and bundled again under bags. Then they are boxed and sent under refrigeration to their destination (if I remember correctly, at 7 degrees Celsius). Below is a short and simple video that includes some of this explanation and process.


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Where Your Espresso Might Come From

Pierre and I went on a tour around La Cumplida’s coffee plantation with Wilfredo. La Cumplida is a huge finca of over 1,600 hectares (this includes 700 ha. for coffee and 600 ha. for protected reserve) situated in the region of Matagalpa, which is very well known for its coffee production. First we went to the processing plant, which is under repair because some of the machines were being too rough on the coffee beans. Despite the fact that none of the machines were currently working, he walked us through the bean process: loading, skinning, washing, and reloading the beans. The drying and roasting takes place at another location. If we had been here any time from October through February, the machines would have been whirring and red beans would come by the truckload to be processed, since over 2000 coffee pickers would be hard at work in the hills, collecting beans.

Below is a video of some of the coffee work we watched. Wilfredo’s explanation of the deshijo is translated in brief three paragraphs below.


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Where They Simply Sell Wood

The Simplemente Madera store is full of furniture and wooden objects that are rarely purchased directly from the Managua venue, but more often selected as part of a furnishing package for a whole home. These furnishing contracts, which sometimes include interior design, are mostly for Nicaraguan houses and hotels, but also many projects in the US and Costa Rica, and normally last from one to six months, depending on the scale. Unless the project can fill one of their shipping containers, which are 20 ft2, Simplemente Madera doesn’t send furniture to the US. One of these containers can fit enough material to furnish a three-bedroom house, so the company is mostly concerned with high price-tag clients.

Simplemente Madera Group

What a US homeowner will normally do is send SM a blueprint of their house and select from a line of products in the SM catalogue (Mombacho is currently the most popular, with natural deformations in the wood). Then the designers at SM will fit the furniture to the house and the style and send the homeowner some sketches. Some people want a more hands-on approach and pay to bring a designer to their house in the US. Simplemente Madera designers also often make custom designs for clients according to their requests.

Drying Wood at Simplemente Madera

Pierre and I left Morgan’s Rock on Friday to go visit the Simplemente Madera factory outside of Managua. It is a huge facility that receives wood almost entirely from fallen forests on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua that were destroyed by Hurricane Felix in 2007. We took a tour with one of the quality inspectors, who showed us around the plant and explained every process the wood went through from log to rocking chair (most of these steps are for another post). The following video covers the initial drying the timber must go through to make it the highest quality wood available. The best part of this process is that it is completely sustainable — it only uses open air and scrap wood! Please give the video’s subtitles some time to load, unless you speak Spanish.


Here is an additional picture of the scrap wood and a view of the six closed drying ovens, which are often rented by other woodworking companies to dry their wood, since nobody else in Nicaragua has the drying capacity of Simplemente Madera.

More Wood

The finca connected to Morgan’s Rock, part of the Agroforestal forestry business whose owners also run MR and SM, is in the process of clearing the brush covering a large swath of land where new trees will be planted. The trees are going to be more separated than in the past so that more of them can grow to full potential faster. Some of the previous plantation plots have suffered from underdevelopment as a result of too much competition between cramped trees. As a result, these confined trees grow straight up and don’t mature in width as quickly, staying thin and branching upwards to reach the sun. One of the positive effects of this growth is that the branches are very straight instead of curvy, but there is less wood. Over the years the finca has planted over 1.5 million trees for harvesting, and 100,000 for reforestation.

When I arrived at the new plot of trees, Israel, supervisor of the workers clearing the land, showed me the distance difference between saplings, marked by long wooden stakes in the ground already cleared. There would be about a meter more between each tree and row. He pointed to the plantations on our right and started saying the names of different trees interspersed in the endless rows. “Caoba Africana, roble, cedro.” African Mahogany, oak, cedar. Other semiprecious-wood trees in the plantation are teak and pochote, which is covered in stubby spines from top to bottom. Every now and then I could see a tree with a yellow line painted on it, marking it for cutting in the coming months. Israel told me that at the moment they are culling about 20% of each tree plantation to promote the growth of healthy trees and cultivate wood for Simplemente Madera. This amounts to roughly 500 trees for each plot where healthier trees are busy growing to optimum maturity. A potential project would be following one of the trees marked for culling through the steps of cutting, processing, preparing, and buying; in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan followed a calf from youth through fattening, slaughtering, processing, and the final consumption.

Just Wood

Simplemente Madera,” which means “just wood,”  is a Nicaraguan sister company to Morgan’s Rock that primarily uses sustainable wood sources—one of them is the tree plantations at Morgan’s Rock—certified by SmartWood according to the criteria set by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international NGO that sets standards for sustainable forestry worldwide. Providing furniture and architectural services, the company helped design and furnish Morgan’s Rock, and provided most if not all of the woodwork in several Nicaraguan houses and hotels.

Collaborating with the World Wildlife Fund and International Finance Corporation, in 2005 SM worked with a Nicaraguan indigenous community to develop the inspiringly magnificent One Tree program influenced by a similar project in the UK. SM is also attempting to salvage wood felled by Hurricane Felix and provides wood and carpentry services to the eco-surfboard company Ocean Green (which now offers 15% off your surfboard if you book a stay at Morgan’s Rock).

Based on fairly thorough browsing, the SM website hasn’t been updated since 2008. Keeping the information current would help make SM a more relevant member of the online carpentry community and generate further popular publicity for Morgan’s rock.