2020 was a very difficult year, but despite the challenges Mano a Mano continued with our mission of creating partnerships with impoverished Bolivian communities to improve health and increase economic well-being. Over the next few weeks we will be sharing reports on each of our major programs and its work last year.

Mano a Mano’s Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA) in 2020

The Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA) began its eighth year in operation with expanded training plans. While 385 farmers attended classes at the CEA in 2016, that number increased to 2,139 in 2019! In addition to farmer training, CEA staff gave guided tours and training demonstrations to another 3,220 visitors in 2019. Given this level of interest and need, CEA staff prepared to train even larger numbers in 2020.

Giving a tour of Mano a Mano’s Center for Ecological Agriculture, pictured here in late 2019.

COVID derailed their plans and led them to consider this question: what does a training center do when it can’t do onsite training – when the country is under stay-at-home restrictions? CEA staff responded by reviewing what their program had accomplished during its seven-year history, what they had learned, and how they could use the period of restrictions to build on that learning.

The First Seven Years of the CEA: 2013-2019

What started as a 2 ½ acre plot of packed dirt with almost no vegetation has been converted into a productive demonstration farm, through application of regenerative practices.

Working on clearing the site for the Center for Ecological Agriculture – 2012

The same land pictured above – 2019

For more on why Mano a Mano decided to take on this daunting project: read this November 2012 post.

What Had CEA Staff Learned From Their Seven-Year Experience?

Bolivia’s Andean subsistence farmers have experienced crop and livestock loss due to increasing drought. Farming practices that deplete their fragile soil compound the problem. CEA staff have learned that, when they involve farmers in hands-on demonstrations (the benefits of composting, for example), the farmers will apply these practices on their own fields.

The CEA has experimented with various types of greenhouses: from 220 square-foot, family-sized adobe structures with translucent corrugated plastic roofs; to community-sized rebar-reinforced structures; to 550 square foot plastic-sided construction. CEA staff have learned which designs best support increased food production in differing elevations and climates.

A Mano a Mano greenhouse built in Jironkota, Bolivia (the yellow-topped building)

Given the small size of farm plots available to most subsistence farmers, CEA began to experiment with hydroponics in 2019. CEA staff learned that, using this method, they could raise more food in less space at lower cost than with in-ground planting.

How Did CEA Staff Use the Period of COVID Restrictions to Build on What They Had Learned?

Throughout the past year, the CEA has continued its experiments with hydroponic vegetable production, focusing on lettuce. It houses this project in a plastic-sided, four-section greenhouse with a solid translucent roof. Seedlings are planted in small cups, sprout in about 2 weeks, and are then transferred into the hydroponic tube openings. 1,208 plants grow to full size in about five weeks. By planting on a rotating schedule, the CEA can produce lettuce on a continual year-round basis.

While the CEA could not train farmers in 2020, it did provide 2-6 month internships for 17 agronomy students from Cochabamba’s Universidad Mayor de San Simón and the Instituto Tecnologico Eterazama located at the entrance to the department of Cochabamba’s tropics. Interns perform essential tasks required to care for CEA’s gardens, animals, and hydroponic projects. And, they conduct experiments under the supervision of CEA staff.

One of the Instituto Tecnologico Eterazama interns, Franz Fernandez Sanchez, compared the maturation time and ultimate weight of hydroponically raised corn, wheat, sorghum and rice. He found that sorghum produced the largest crop yield, that both male and female guinea pigs showed normal weight gain when fed any of the four hydroponically raised grains, and that females delivered more and larger offspring than expected.

Study by Mano a Mano Intern Franz Fernandez Sanchez, a student at the Instituto Tecnologico Eterazama

Franz’ study notes that 35,000,000 guinea pigs are being raised in the Andean region of South America (Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador). Because they provide an excellent source of protein for subsistence farm families, require little space, use minimal water, and reproduce quickly, raising guinea pigs can lead to sustainable improvements in food security.



We send a special thanks to CEA staff and interns who remained present daily (often staying overnight at the training center), ensured that its plants and animals continued to thrive, and found productive ways to further its mission, while complying with COVID-related restrictions.

Learn more about the CEA’s 2020 projects at the links below: