Ecuadorian plantain business survives earthquake … and thrives

Man and woman with plantains (© Margarita Bajaña/Revista Zonalibre)
Yadira Martillo, right, holds plantains. (© Margarita Bajaña/Revista Zonalibre)

When a 2016 earthquake destroyed the impoverished Manabí province in Ecuador, Yadira Martillo’s plantain chip business came to a halt. The roads were blocked, making shipments difficult. People coping with the natural disaster would not be available to sell her products, much less buy them.

Not only did sales plummet, but Martillo’s friends and family members had lost their property and, in some cases, their lives. (The 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed 700 people and injured 6,000 others.)

“We didn’t sleep well, because we were afraid that it would happen again,” Martillo said in written and translated remarks. “After it, our production decreased.”

At the time, Chifles del Campo, Martillo’s nascent family-owned business, which grows Barraganete plantains and turns them into chips, operated from a simple plant shed — made of zinc and cane — in Paján, a town in Manabí province.


But things turned around, thanks to an innovative idea from a fellow entrepreneur.

Following the earthquake, Martillo applied for what was known as Mission Manabí, a program that teaches small-business owners from the province the accounting, marketing and management skills they need to take their operations to the next level. The program’s goal was to get small-business owners back on their feet after the disaster hit.

Launched in the fall of 2017 in response to the earthquake, Mission Manabí is the brainchild of Marco Mendieta, an alumnus of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, or YLAI, an exchange program that helps Latin Americans develop their business skills. Mission Manabí — now known as Mission Ecuador to cover the entire country — manifests what Mendieta learned with YLAI in the United States. The project is supported by the U.S. mission to Ecuador.

By the time Martillo applied for Mission Manabí in July 2017 — more than a year after the earthquake had struck — she was exhausted from taking on too many duties at her burgeoning business, which only employed five (herself, her husband, her daughter and two part-time workers).

Woman holding bag of plantain chips and standing next to rack of chips in grocery store (© Yazmín Bustán/Revista Zonalibre)
Yadira Martillo poses with her plantain chips at a grocery store. (© Yazmín Bustán/Revista Zonalibre)

Instead of parceling out some of the work, Martillo had put herself in charge of sales, purchases, accounting, collections, marketing and, in many cases, packing the plantains. She was delivering her chips more than three hours away to street vendors, fast-food outlets and stores in Guayaquil.

For all of her efforts, the company was earning only $40,000 in annual sales.

But in October 2017, she joined Mission Manabí and started to learn new sales techniques, how to delegate work so as not to burn out, and how to secure a small-business loan. (The program gave her the confidence to apply for a $100,000 small-business loan that allowed her to build a new food processing plant in her hometown. It is a far cry from the shed where she started the business.)

In 2018, Martillo increased production and distribution and more than tripled her annual earnings. Today, a local distributor and large supermarket chains sell her chips nationwide.

Next steps

“It is possible to move forward in the midst of adversity, and it is possible to find new ways of doing something,” Martillo says. “I learned to believe in the possible and to picture my goals and plan for them.”

Martillo used her Mission Manabí experience to better her business in specific ways. She began to use distinct packaging for various versions of her product. She increased the emergency stock kept on hand in order to supply the plantains on demand.

And because she estimates that 80 percent of what she produces could be exported, Martillo plans to focus on selling in new markets around the world. (She already has shipped to the U.S. and Belgium.)

As her business grows, her community prospers. “Plantains give me strength and courage to build a decent future — not only for my daughters and for my family, but for the community around, which benefits from the employment opportunities we created,” Martillo says.

This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.