Deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest — reached by a flight into the jungle, a two-hour boat trip, a pickup truck transporting 31 people in the bed despite a downpour, and a half-hour walk — five Notre Dame MBA students and two faculty advisers are learning how to turn mandioca root into a local starch product called farinha.

Last year, another group of Viva Bartkus’ Business on the Frontlines students recommended changes in the supply chain for even more remote fishing communities that depend on the massive pirarucu lurking in the Amazon basin’s rivers and lakes. This air-breathing dinosaur of a fish can grow to nine feet long and weigh 400 pounds.

While the two products recall the biblical story of loaves and fishes, the students don’t have Jesus’ power to multiply their numbers to feed everyone. Instead, their goal is to figure out how the indigenous tribes and riverside communities living in the Amazon can reap a larger share of the substantial profits from their labor when these goods are sold in the bigger cities in Brazil.

These “keepers of the forest” are the last line of defense for the Amazon, sometimes called the lungs of the planet because the quantity of trees and water there boggle the imagination. The Amazon basin covers nearly 40 percent of South America, and the river exceeds in volume the next seven largest rivers in the world combined. The rainforest inhabitants thwart outside incursions by loggers, miners and ranchers, and their economic stability keeps them from resorting to slash-and-burn farming, poaching endangered species or selling out.

“This project is a combination our partner’s real understanding of the environment — and the needs of the community who protect that environment — with what Mendoza does really well, which is to ask more of business,” Bartkus said. “If they can make better livelihoods from the assets they have, they will have stronger communities, and that will help protect the rainforest.”

Complementary Missions

The semester-long Business on the Frontlines (BOTFL) course examines the impact of business in societies suffering from deep poverty or conflict. Graduate students, advisers and faculty from the Mendoza College of Business travel around the world to work in the field with humanitarian organizations.

“Never underestimate the inherent dignity in a good day’s work.”

Since Bartkus started the program in 2008, nearly 50 teams have gone to more than 25 countries. They have worked on a wide range of projects, including agriculture, infrastructure, mining, post-war reconciliation, health, human trafficking and child prostitution. They study a problem presented by the partner organization and make suggestions for business development.

A woman with a notebook and pen in hand talks to a family.
Viva Bartkus, founder of the BOTFL program, talks with a family in an Amazonian fishing community in 2018. Photo provided by John Dunbar.

Bartkus, an associate professor of management, likes to remind her students about the importance of commerce in developing relationships and social capital. “Never underestimate the inherent dignity in a good day’s work,” she says.

Entering its second decade, the program has advanced enough to use its own alumni as advisers on many of the projects. Mendoza plans to expand the program next year from 30 to 50 students, which means attracting more corporate and foundation sponsors to pay for these trips to troubled areas. Future expansion aims to double the number of students again. Recent grants from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and Ford Family Program will fund economic impact studies of some projects.

Two years ago, a Brazilian BOTFL student went to Bolivia and thought the program could help in the Amazon, where his father, Benjamin Sicsu, chaired the board of the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS). Sicsu and its director general, Virgilio Viana, agreed that the Notre Dame team might offer a different perspective and decided to launch a collaboration.

A man stands next to a tree cutting up a coconut and a cow eats grass next to him, a river in the distance.
A resident of an Amazonian riverside community cuts open a coconut to share with visitors from Notre Dame in March.

An expert in forestry and sustainable development, Viana advised Pope Francis on his environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. He helped found FAS in 2007 as a partnership between the government of the state of Amazonas and Bradesco Bank, and the nonprofit organization has since gained the support of large corporations including Coca-Cola and Samsung.

The mission of FAS is to promote sustainable development, environmental conservation and improvement in the quality of life of the river communities in the state of Amazonas. FAS is charged with implementing the Bolsa Floresta program, which provides direct financial assistance and support to communities in protected areas in exchange for their conservation measures. Many families depend on the Bolsa payment to buy goods they are not able to produce.

FAS has started about a dozen product lines to help the communities earn money. “They launch the idea, but we help them transition those ideas into sustainable businesses,” Bartkus said.

Making farinha

A key component of the BOTFL approach is hands-on learning about every step of the process: from production to supply chain to final sale.

Placeholder image for a video - a man sits on a dock and washes fruit in water, a boat floats behind him.
Making farinha in the Amazon

This March, indigenous farmers showed the Notre Dame students how they squeeze out the water used to soften and detoxify the poisonous mandioca root with an ingenious woven device called a tipiti — picture a 6-foot-long Chinese finger cuff with loops on both ends.

The farmers stuff the wet root flour inside, then hook the loops through logs, which are pulled apart by a simple lever system of ladder rungs on the other end of the logs to stretch the tipiti. Yellow water squeezes out the bottom as they ratchet the logs in opposite directions.

A man stuffs the wet root flower inside a tipiti which helps squeeze out water to soften and detoxify.
A farmer stretches a woven tipiti to drain water from mandioca flour, one step in making a popular Brazilian food.

Then the dried flour clumps are pushed through a woven sieve and toasted on a large firepit frying pan. This creates the small yellow granules of farinha that are sprinkled onto other food or eaten as a starchy side across the region. Mandioca, or cassava, one of the oldest crops in the world, has been prepared like this for generations.

“We’re here to learn about the process, not to change it but to look at ways to increase their income,” said Nathalia Bauerfeldt (MBA ’19), a Brazilian who had never been to the region. “Think about the scope of the Amazon and generations of people needing food. They found a source that was poisonous, but they transformed it into something that is high in calories and carbs. Looking them in the eye and learning about their lives has changed my perspective completely.”

A man pushes dried flour clumps through a woven sieve.
Mandioca flour is pushed through a sieve to create separate granules.
A man toasts the dried flour on a large firepit frying pan.
Toasting farinha includes tossing it in the air to let loose flakes drift away.

She found the experience emotional at times because people from the big Brazilian cities like her native São Paulo sometimes look on the Amazonians as isolated and behind. These kinds of profound transformations are one of the major benefits of the program.

The students questioned one group of farmers after another about making farinha. Some communities invited them to pull up manioc roots and feel the heft of a filled basket carried for long distances on their backs. The students jumped in to peel the soaking roots, roll the flour into tiny balls, or stir the product with an oar during toasting.

Farinha illustration divided in three sections representing different percentages.

Farmers receive 64% of the total value of the farinha de mandioca (manioc flour) sale.

“Before we saw it for ourselves, we thought of mechanizing the peeling process,” said Taruna Thawani, one team member. “But it’s clearly a social event. We have to be very sensitive to culture when we suggest potential solutions.”

Nearly everyone in the Amazon basin makes farinha, which is the staple crop and means of survival comparable to rice in China or potatoes in Ireland of yore. Each community took great pride in their version of the product, whether it was made in a primitive “flour house” or a newer model aimed at improving sanitation.

A man climbs down a tree holding acai berrie that he just cut off, bystanders below him take photos and video.
An Amazonian farmer carries down acai berries just cut from the top of a tree.
A man holds a basket of farinha roots in one hand and a machete in the other.
Another farmer in the Ipapucu community harvests roots from mandioca plants.

Their hospitality, from demonstrations to answering questions to offering a juice made from acai berries just cut off the tree, was overwhelming. The students learned to limit their questions, lest the people immediately offer whatever was asked about — whether a local fruit or a Brazil nut.

Hunting pirarucu

One of the largest freshwater fish in the world, the pirarucu (or arapaima) was nearly hunted to extinction in the last century. Its boneless steaks are mild, tasting more like a pork chop than a fish, and highly prized throughout South America.

“I wanted to get a feel for it because it’s so different from anything you could ever imagine.”

Pirarucu are also somewhat easy to find, because they surface every 10 to 20 minutes to gulp air with a primitive lung they have developed over more than five million years of living in oxygen-depleted waters. When the waters recede enough in the dry season to hunt pirarucu in shallow lakes, traditional fishermen use harpoons to catch them.

Floating homes along the Amazon river.

The previous year’s BOTFL group did not get to see this process because the dry season runs from August through November. But Bartkus returned to the Amazon during a community catch to experience it for herself.

“I wanted to get a feel for it because it’s so different from anything you could ever imagine,” Bartkus said. “It’s definitely hunting, not fishing.”

She said the entire community packs up and walks a few miles to where a huge lake has dwindled to about the size of a football field during the dry season. They have a fish-cleaning house where the women and children hang their hammocks for about a week.

Two men carry a canoe on their shoulders through a wooded area.
Fishermen in an Amazonian village carry a handmade boat to a lake for the annual catch of pirarucu. Photo provided by Viva Bartkus.

The men first drag the lake with large nets to herd the fish into a smaller area. Then they go out in hand-hewn canoes, one steering and the other holding an eight-foot spear with a barbed tip. The tip hooks in the fish and is attached by a length of rope to the spear, which the fisherman recovers — aiming to hold on without tipping.

“I couldn’t see anything, but they see the pirarucu through the water,” Bartkus said. “Without even standing, they throw the harpoon. It thrashes and jumps, going one direction then the other. They hold onto the rope, and it’s almost like the boat is water skiing behind the pirarucu.”

To complicate matters, Bartkus said she counted at least seven caiman (like an alligator) in the same lake. “Imagine the human beings competing with the caiman for the fish,” she said. When the fish finally tires, they drag it to shore where others club it and carry it to the cleaning house. Finally, younger men throw a fish weighing at least 100 pounds on their backs and carry it several miles to boats waiting on the riverbank.

A caiman, a relative of the alligator, peeks out from the top of the water, only its eyes and snout are above water.
A caiman, a relative of the alligator, rises ominously from the Amazon River. Photo provided by John Dunbar.

The pirarucu population has begun to rebound because Brazilian scientists and groups like FAS have taught the fishermen how to survey numbers and limit their annual catch to create a sustainable population. While illegal fishing is still problematic, size limits (nearly 60 inches) and bans on gill nets have helped.

Traditional fishing communities rely on the pirarucu for about half their yearly income, but the economic boon was limited because the profits were going largely to middlemen who transport the fish to the big city of Manaus and to the big companies there that process and sell it. The fishermen were receiving just 3.5 reais (about $1) per kilogram, less than 15 percent of the end cost of about 25 reais per kilogram.

A truck full of hunted pirarucu lay on ice.
Massive pirarucu are stacked in ice at a cold storage facility in an Amazonian village. Photo provided by Viva Bartkus.
Two freshly caught fish, one a small pirarucu, lay on top of a piece of cardboard on the ground near fisherman.
A fresh pirarucu, likely illegal, and a tambaqui are offered for sale at river's edge.

What’s remarkable about the Notre Dame project is that their research did not turn into a stack of papers resting inoffensively on a shelf. Instead, FAS helped the communities sidestep a cartel that controlled the transport of goods and set the prices. They collectively bought eight cold-storage boats capable of transporting a perishable good on ice for the trip downriver that can take four or five days to go hundreds of miles.

Microfinance has come to mean the institutional provision of financial services, such a micro-loans, to those who would normally lack access to capital to invest in their businesses, such as poor entrepreneurs and farmers. But in the Amazon, by contrast, many poor communities pooled their limited capital together with FAS to make transformative investments, giving up a portion of their Bolsa Floresta payment so that FAS could buy ice boats for different regions.

As a result, the fishing communities increased their share of the pirarucu profits. Bartkus said a preliminary study found that the fishermen are receiving 30 to 50 percent more even after including their operating costs, such as ice and diesel fuel for the boats. FAS has been selling their fresh and frozen catch at its own markets and fairs in Manaus, sometimes for as much as 15 reais per kilogram for the best cuts.

Supply chain illustration of a Pirarucu, certain sections representing a percentage. 15% communities, 35% middlemen, and 50% frigoríficos.
Pirarucu supply chain, Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, Amazonas, Brazil.

“The purchase of the boats has been a success,” said Edvaldo Correa, the Bolsa Floresta coordinator for FAS. “The community associations have stocked 3.2 tons in a refrigerator to sell at high prices in a fair in April, which was one of the recommendations.”

Amazon experience

This year’s student team spent their first week in Manaus, a city of about 2 million, trying to understand the largest market for Amazon farinha. In the second week, they set out by boat each morning from Tefé, a much smaller city near the Mamirauá Reserve, for communities along the river that make farinha.

The river is the only highway in the Amazon, with tributaries and flooded areas as its side streets. The river rises 30-50 feet and covers three times as much land in the rainy season as in the dry months. It contains about 20 percent of the world’s total river water and can swell to more than 100 miles across in spots. To adapt, inhabitants build their homes on stilts or directly on floating rafts. Trees survive despite being partially submerged for long periods.

During the wet season, the Amazon river covers three times as much land as in the dry months.

The lush jungle hangs over both banks, interrupted occasionally by a small group of homes, their residents spilling out into small boats or washing clothes along the riverbank. Children in smaller villages bus to school by boat. Tropical flowers and river dolphins conjure a watery paradise, until you swat the bugs and remember the unseen caiman and piranha.

Notre Dame has some tangential history with the Amazon. Rev. John Zahm, C.S.C., organized a 1914 expedition there with former President Theodore Roosevelt, who nearly died during a dangerous boat trip down an uncharted tributary known as the River of Doubt. Rev. Julius Nieuwland, C.S.C., in the 1920s discovered a type of synthetic rubber, an industry that eventually supplanted the natural rubber boom that brought economic development but also terrible exploitation to the Amazon in the late 1800s.

A student sits on the back of a moterbike making a terrified face as others in the back smile and laugh.
MBA student Sarah Chandler hitches a ride out of the jungle on a motorbike.
A large group of people sit on the back of a truck in an open field.
The BOTFL team gets a ride on a pickup truck with half of an indigenous village.

In this new century, the Notre Dame MBA students are essentially consultants studying how to improve a business. If this year’s group can engineer results similar to the pirarucu success with farinha, fishing and farming could finally become the communities’ primary source of income.

Yet the travel experience for the pirarucu and farinha teams was very different. Last year’s group took a 21-hour boat trip deep into the rainforest reserves and spent their nights in hammocks either aboard a boat or in the fishing communities. They interviewed dozens of community leaders to gain an understanding of the communities’ lack of power over the supply chain.

Two people on a boat in a flooded area carry bags full of farinha.
Amazon residents take advantage of a flooded area to transport their farinha to market.

This year’s team visited communities making farinha near Tefé, but they had the advantage of experiencing the production process in person. The closest they came to the full jungle experience had been the rain-soaked trip on a truck and motorbikes to a remote farm. But then in the larger village of Puná, they met the Amazon in its full glory.

Beside a nearby flour house, some women were washing pots and pans while their children jumped off a raft into a flooded area of half-submerged trees. Butterflies swirled on the bank and shafts of sunlight peeked through the canopy, while bright red flowers floated down and dusted the dark pool’s surface. The kids shimmied up trees to cannonball off high limbs, and they beckoned the students to join them for a dip.

A mother washes dishes and clothing in a flooded area as her three children sit nearby.
A family washes clothes and dishes in a flooded area where their kids will swim.

“This one time, when I was in the Amazon,” joked team member Sean Gwaltney about how to describe the trip to people at home, “and I saw a dead alligator an hour after I was swimming in this swamp, just because some kids jumping out of trees said it was safe.”

Chasing facts

An inherent challenge in any consulting process is trying to understand a particular business practice in a short period of time. Each farming community cited different reasons for why it couldn’t get a better price for its farinha, from lack of a transport boat to an oversupply of product in certain markets.

“There is so much more good work to be done in the Amazon.”

Conflicting answers were common. John Dunbar, a faculty adviser who spent 25 years in private equity, said his five BOTFL projects have taught him the importance of triangulating information from sources who may not track income and expenses with the same precision or even values as Americans.

Student Stephen Meehan put it another way: “It seems like everything we learn raises more questions than answers.”

The final destination helped bring it all together. At Campo Novo, the students toured a packaging facility that FAS helped to organize for an association of 68 communities. The facility takes farinha made in those communities — boated there in jute bags of up to 80 kilograms — and fills 1-kilogram plastic bags printed with their brand, Ribeirinha, to sell in city markets.

A smiling woman at a market holding a clear bag of farinha surrounded by other farinha bags and fruits.
A vendor at the city market in Tefé sells fruit and different quantities of farinha.

At the end of the trip, the students returned to Manaus to present their preliminary suggestions to FAS in an upscale business office. They confirmed that the Ribeirinha brand successfully increased the farmers’ income, but they questioned whether FAS wanted to continue to subsidize the farmers’ prices to the tune of 25 percent — or reinvest in the packaging company. 

“The producers are getting the majority of the profit, unlike pirarucu,” Meehan said. “The best way to grow is market share, not cutting out the middlemen.”

People in a conference room sit around a table talking. Laptops, notepads, and other miscellaneous items are on the table.
The BOTFL team presents their preliminary suggestions to the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation, their environmental partner group in Manaus, Brazil.

With a PowerPoint transition, Business on the Frontlines travels the distance from the rainforest to the board room. Professor Bartkus said Notre Dame and FAS are committed to many more years of collaborative projects, from acai berries to jungle tourism.

“There is so much more good work to be done in the Amazon,” she said. “That is a high compliment that one week after having a group return, our partner says we’d love to have the next round of students, and we already have a project for them — it’s cacao.”