Salt, shrimp and tropical fruit: it’s not a typical product range. But after 35 years of business, Costa Rican farmer’s cooperative Coonaprosal has grown to encompass all three products. The successful cooperative is one of 288 cooperatives funded by Oikocredit, an international social investment cooperative. It was 1974 when Carlos Bonilla took the first steps to bring salt farmers together to improve their market positioning. The now general manager of Coonaprosal, returned from his university studies that year and found his father with sheds of unsold salt. “He was waiting for a shortage in the salt market,” Carlos said. But new salt making techniques combined with a common market agreement in surrounding countries meant Carlos’ father and neighbours were being forced out of business.The situation was not helped by farmers still ‘cooking’ their salt in large kilns – an outdated, labor-intensive and inefficient process. “It is a very rustic system, it didn’t allow them to grow or compete. While they were burning wood, other countries were using solar energy,” Carlos said. He began to build the cooperative by training 48 farmers in solar-drying their salt. Soon after, the cooperative refused to accept traditionally produced salt and many more farmers made the change. Years of steady success followed, but in 1995, a Free Trade Agreement between Costa Rica and Mexico meant Coonaprosal farmers were again faced with strong competition. As a result, the cooperative diversified and half of the farmers turned their salt plants into shrimp farms, marking the start of production, training, marketing and financing shrimp under the name, ‘Camarones del Sol’. At the same time, the cooperative also asserted itself as the leading salt importer in Cost Rica, turning the market threat into an opportunity. While the production of mangoes, papaya and pineapple had always been present, operations were expanded in 2006. It was with Oikocredit’s loan that Coonaprosal was able to further develop fruit production with a frozen fruit and pulp division. A second Oikocredit loan disbursed together with the Schokland Fund (from the Dutch government) will allow Coonaprosal to double production of fruit, and employ another 35 workers. They will receive training in manufacturing practices, water treatments, labour security and environmental issues. With the support of Oikocredit, the new environmentally friendly production plant will use all remaining fruit peel for animal feed, and water used to wash the fruit will be recycled and re-used on site. “Our members have a sense of ownership, a sense of community. They won’t sell their shrimp or mangoes or salt to anyone else – they’ll defend their cooperative because of the support, good prices and community services,” Carlos said. The cooperative also facilitates women’s groups, dance events, technical training and other educations. He says respect and a supportive community are the key to a successful cooperative. “With the social programmes, people need to feel that they are supported in all aspects of their life, so a community develops,” Carlos said. “I couldn’t have ever imagined 35 years later we’d be doing so many different things.”
About Coonaprosal: Coonaprosal has had its own 1000 acre forest for 20 years, in which at least 60 trees are replaced each year. Oikocredit’s first loan of CRC 194,220,000 (€ 263,000) to Coonaprosal was disbursed in April 2006, followed by another of CRC 665,950,000 (€ 902,000) in conjunction with the Schokland Fund in 2009.