Every weekend, especially on Saturdays, the “Wall Street of Quinoa” is seen spreading across the town of Challapata’s excessively wide streets. It offers a first-hand experience of the current market and economic status for the ‘newly’ arisen superfood quinoa. This grain-like ‘pseudo-cereal’ comes from the Andean highlands, and despite its new and exploding appearance across the Western world, quinoa has been a staple in the Bolivian diet for 5000 years, until however, more recently. Enthused by the situation revolving around quinoa and its benefits and dilemmas for the Bolivian population, I spent a month in Bolivia this summer researching the topic.
My visit to the Bolivian town Challapata provided me with an intriguing view of the ‘quinoa boom’. From a distance, the Challapata market appears like any other colourful, bustling, women-dominated Bolivian marketplace: full of food stalls from 6am until sell-out. However, despite Challapata lying at the heart of Bolivia’s key quinoa producing region, not one quinoa dish is served here. Neither are the characteristic, charismatic cries from market sellers heard by those passing by.
What is evident though, is a team of ‘quinoa police’ demanding IDs as proof of right of sale. The trade is strictly monitored by these ‘police’, drawn from ten different regulatory organizations. The atmosphere was curious and unlike any other market I have ever experienced. Apprehensively, I delved further to discover what all the fuss surrounding quinoa, aka ‘palm-gold’: rich pearls harvested from the earth once covered by water, was about.
The most striking impression was a clear obsession – even desperation – to handle the smooth, colourful, light-reflecting grains in one’s hands. Without asking, quinoa trader Estella Paire jabbed her hand into her sack of gold with an ore-extracting tool to channel a sample of the riches from her hands to mine. Then came the tricky part: she paused and cued me to move the grains around to verify their ‘premium’ physical properties. As a novice quinoa inspector, my quality check was far from thorough, and was limited to the grain’s colour and degree of roundness. The grain’s morphology is key: the ‘Real’ (‘royal’ in English) variety has near-spherical and large grains, boasting higher nutritive content than the more common “smaller and sweeter” varieties. Especially obvious is the higher saponin content of Quinoa Real, which is spread across the grain’s greater exterior surface area. This chemical is responsible for the ‘bitterness’ of the pre-washed grain, while also proving an invaluable product for future therapeutic and medicinal use, as current scientific investigation across the world is showing.
So how much money are we talking? Measured in ‘quintals’ which are equivalent to 100 lbs or 45 kg, one quintal of Quinoa Real has a value between 1,300 Bs – 1,900 Bs (£115 – £168) depending on current availability, i.e. after or before harvest season respectively. For comparison, Bolivia’s most premium rice costs a maximum of 390 Bs (£35). Bearing in mind that these are the raw market prices for large quantities, the gap grows even larger when buying commercialised quinoa and its many derivatives.
Does palm-gold have national gold mine potential? Absolutely. From the start of the ‘boom’ just before the millennium, quinoa export values rose in 10 years from $2m – $46m. Now, today, after the success of IYQ this total exceeds $80 m. However, despite the exploding rate of expansion this century, quinoa sales and exports currently only make up 1% of Bolivia’s GDP, making up 10% of the contribution of Bolivia’s agriculture industry as a whole.
These figures can only grow more positive, and rapidly so, if recent trends continue. As mechanisation and innovative cultivation techniques become established, further global promotion using the latest scientific knowledge will ensure that demand is at speed with supply. Bolivia’s Grano de Oro is not only a complete food, but is adaptable to different terrain and climates, promising security in the battle against climate change. Guillermo, is also convinced that quinoa as a food product, will be outshone by future development of its special chemicals, including saponins, which, as a medicinal and a more specifically nutritious tool, he predicts will have a market at least 100% more lucrative than quinoa itself. It’s as if, quite literally, the world is finally tapping into Bolivia’s ancient reserve of colourful, multi-purpose oil: Quinoa.
Written by Floren Villanueva Scrafton
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham