As a young woman in Bolivia’s male-dominated cacao industry, Mery Avircata stands out. She labors alongside a dozen men at the Alto Beni Cacao (“ABC”) Company’s processing plant, fermenting and drying cacao beans. She drives around with four others in the company pickup truck, collecting 50 kilogram bags of cacao from farmers. And she works with two more in cultivating the company’s small but growing demonstration farm. As the company’s Manager on the ground, she supervises them all.
Raised by her parents on a coffee farm and educated in agronomy, Mery previously served two terms as President of the organic coffee cooperative in her native province of Teoponte. Three years ago, she joined ABC’s coffee export business based in the city of La Paz. However, Mery’s agricultural expertise proved more valuable than any office responsibility, and the company soon asked her to move to the rural town of Palos Blancos to oversee farmer outreach at its new cacao operation.
The first few months were a challenge. Mery had grown up cultivating coffee, not cacao, and while the crops had much in common, they also had unique characteristics. Despite the differences, she dove in headfirst, learning as much as she could. Mery’s dedication made an impression. When problems arose with the former manager, she was asked to take the reins.
Since taking over the operation a little over a year ago, Mery has made numerous improvements. The operation is collecting between two and three times as much cacao from the farmer network. The fermentation and drying process is more precise and consistent. Perhaps most importantly, the team’s morale is much improved. The changes are obvious. What is less apparent is how Mery has made them.
In fact, when watching the ABC team in action, it is nearly impossible to know who is in charge. The team works well together, talking and laughing but focused and coordinated at the same time. Instructions are rarely given, and they are as likely to come from a peer as from Mery when they are. Only by carefully observing the operation over several days does one begin to appreciate the dynamic.
Mery does not bark orders; she asks questions, listens carefully, and connects with those around her. Mery does not publicly reprimand; she gives feedback directly but discretely. And Mery displays virtually no ego; she does whatever needs to be done, inspiring her team through the confident example she sets. In these ways and others, Mery is a truly remarkable leader. In commanding her team’s respect, Mery does more than guide ABC. She creates space for other women in Bolivia’s cacao sector.