Influencer Henny ‘Barba’ Barbolina
Interview March 2021
Could you share with us some information of your family life?
I was born in Curaçao in “Trai Seru”, I come from a family of four siblings and I was raised by my mother as my father died when he was very young. My mother used to work very hard and her drive has played an important role through out my career as she was a role model for me. I lived with my grandmother and she had a “kunuku” were they were farming in the traditional way, there is where my affinity towards farming started. I am 57 years old, I am divorced and I have a 31 years old son, that is now living in Holland, whom is also planning to step into my farming business.
Could you share something of you eductional background and your experiences?
I went to the elementary school at Groot Kwartier and finished my High School at Radulphus College. I went to study Laboratories Studies in Holland at a young age and finished when I was 21 years, too young according to myself and then decided to continue my study at the University of Utrecht and got my degree in Analytical Chemistry and Catalytic Process Technique. I was 25 years old when I came back to Curaçao and started working at the Isla Refinery where my career went very fast, soon I became head of the Laboratory, the head of Operation in one operational area, Project coordinator in the project to transform the existing Refinery into a super modern Refinery. But it turned out that PDVSA as the operator never could comply with this intention. I continued my career as the operation and plant manager at the BOO, two years ago after all the challenges with the Refinery, I became very much aware that the Refinery didn’t have a future. I decided to go back to my roots and decided to go full time into agriculture in Curaçao, where I could clearly see a future. I had started ten years ago to invest and put a lot of time into farming first as a hobby, then it became more than a hobby and now these past two years, I consider it to be a serious business opportunity. I started my own company.
I have a land lot that is large enough and I invested all my savings into modern agriculture techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. Apart from it being a serious business, I want to spread the knowledge I gained over the years to as much people as possible on the island. My son is preparing to step into the business and will in the course of time take over.
Mister Barbolina what comes to mind is that your ambition and confidence in the possibilities of farming in Curaçao is remarkable.
Yes, my ambition is big. I am convinced that within 10 years from now we can produce 30 % to 40 % of our own food on the island. In my life there aren’t a lot of things that I have put my mind on doing, that in the end I didn’t succeed in achieving it.
You work at the moment in Curaçao you are becoming one of the most known persons via Nos Kunuku on organic farming in a year where via the Corona virus crisis it became all the more clear how vulnerable we are on Curaçao in terms of our food. Can you expand a little bit on this more, when did you started with farming and where you always part of a cooperative in Curaçao?
“Nos Kunuku” is a private owned “BV”. It is not a cooperative.
I have noticed that lots of people involved in the local farming, love to pay lip service to the idea of a collaboration. With all the good intentions that most have at the beginning when the chips are ultimately down, it doesn’t happen. We tried with a cooperative of only organic farmers but it failed because of different reasons. Two reasons I like to mention, a lot of people see the farming as a hobby and not as a business and the support but local government institutions is lacking and this de-motivates some people.
To get the agriculture sector on a next commercial level, Financial Institutions need to change their mindsets regarding farming. Now they only see investments in cars and buildings as profitable loans that they will put their money in, while they don’t see the agricultural sector as a sector where one can earn a good income and get good solids jobs. The sector needs financial inputs, I am doing this by investing my own savings into my business. The sector needs investments in her infrastructure in the land development for example, to make this all feasible. I have identified 17 success factors that need to be in place for an investment in commercial agricultural projects to be successful. It way pass the level of hobbyism, it is a different level of thinking.
To mention some of these 17 success factors: One needs to have knowledge on “How to do business”, Financial resources, qualified people at least at a MBO and HBO-level, so they can handle hydro- and aqua-ponics technology required. You need water and land lots and as in all other systems, you are as strong as the weakest link of the system and if the weakest linked breaks, you will lose money. We need to be very focused into respecting a healthy bottom-line for projects in the agricultural sector.
I am working now on an indoor farm of 240 m2 that will use artificial light generated by solar panels, it will require an Ang 500.000,- investment and it did require a lot of talking to get the financing approved as this was too far out of the box for the financial institutions. But we are close to starting with the execution. And we will produce 500.000 heads of lettuce every single week. This will be 8 % of all the salads we import and it will be cultivated organically, meaning free from chemicals.
Traditionally that are few people interested in farming how come you choose farming to earn a living?
Well I have a theory about this. Before the Oil Refinery started its operations over more than a 100 years ago in the 20th century in Curaçao, almost everyone was involved in agriculture. So there is where people were indoctrinated to believe, that only “dumb people” were the ones working in the agricultural sector. So almost everybody stopped working in the agricultural sector and started working in the Oil sector at Shell. As a young boy it was impossible for me to even consider working in the agricultural sector. So I arrived at twenty when I went to Holland during my first years and saw that farmers were driving Mercedes-Benz. And I thought, well “dumb people” don’t drive Mercedes- Benz. Until this day the word agriculture was erased from our educational system and our vocabulary. We need to change this very quickly and re-install this sector it’s prestige and the status of farmers. We need highly qualified people to practice modern farming and I totally disagree with the concept, that new farmers need to be recruited from the pool of unemployed people. It makes totally no sense to me, to see unemployed being recruited and prepared to go and work in the agricultural sector. Because after their training, they refuse to go and work in the sector because, it isn’t their passion. I am a firm believer in a larger scale business like approach in Curaçao, where the return and investment and bottom line are the ultimate criteria for success in the agricultural sector in Curaçao.
Where did this interest in the agricultural sector started?
Because of my training, educational background and my experiences, I told myself three things:
First of all, we can continue to stay depended on what is happening in the world and wait and see what happens next as a lame duck or I believe we need to do something about this. As I like to be practical and I like to take action and I don’t like to talk a lot. I for myself decided to take action and look at the investments in the agricultural sector as a serious business proposition. During this Corona Pandemic it became very clear that we are very vulnerable as an island from sea and air connections.
Secondly, with my background, we can with an open mindset, do a lot differently. We can use modern technology and be as cost-efficient as possible. Like if we use conventional wisdom to build a concrete water container to store groundwater of 25 cubic meters for irrigation purposes, it will cost between Ang 12.000,- and Ang 15.000,-. A blue plastic swimming pool with the same cubic meter content costs about Ang 800,-. I will use the plastic swimming pool container if it will work the same as a concrete water container, as I want to think as cost-efficient as possible.
Another example, a tomato is a tropical product, right. Holland is the biggest exporter of tomatoes in the world, as they through greenhouses they are capable to create an artificial tropic climate and thus are able to grow tomatoes that they export. We can even use greenhouses to cool the temperatures in the greenhouses and cultivate products that we export to the world. All of this because of the opportunities that technology offers.
Thirdly, by lowering the dependency of imports for agriculture products, I am going to hopefully be an example to make other entrepreneurs follow suit. This has become relatively easy because of the possibility’s technology offers and if you invest in the right projects. I am an entrepreneur and I want to add value to my investments, that is my mindset.
I will start with a pilot project and proof that what I believe in, is really possible. Hopefully when it succeeds, this will have a positive spin-off effects for others, because “Seeing is believing”.
Do you use perma-culture in your ventures?
Yes, it is my starting point as it is a philosophy. Within that philosophy, there are different application forms.
What is your BIG WHY or driving motivation to be whom you are right now?
I want to prove that in Curaçao we can have large scale commercially run agriculture, And yes we can do it. My grandmother had “kunuku” and her brother also. We used to work on it. I got involved again in farming first as a hobby later on as a serious business venture.
How are you trying also to keep up with your personal knowledge and skills levels?
I use to follow at least 1 or 2 seminars on agriculture a year before the Corona crisis Pandemic. I am part of an online network of like minded people interested in farming that share their experiences with each other. I follow it and aplly what I learn in a responsible way, as I don’t copy paste solutions, I test what I take notice off and try to learn how it works in our local circumstances. Why? Because all circumstances are specificall local, even between Banda Abou and Banda Ariba in Curaçao there is a difference in the amount of rainfall. So I test and learn the lessons.
How do you create a Ripple effect with the ideas that you are promoting and trying to implement?
Hopefully through “Seeing is believing”, just like the “snack”-effect when people copied a success formula to start their own snack, people will copy the proven technology when are creating and by doing that we can create a Ripple effect and prove to ourselves that “we can”.
When do you consider that you have been successful in your personal and business/professional life, let us say 5 years from now?
Within 5 years from now we need to have 20 to 25 % of our agricultural needs, including for our Tourism sector, locally produced.
What are the challenges that you are dealing with? And how are you dealing with these different challenges you confront?
My biggest challenge in practicing agriculture on a business like manner is that in Curaçao this is infancy. To build a house you will find relatively easily all the materials supplies at the local hardware stores. Material supplies for the agricultural sector are simple not available. If you want it, you will have to take care of it yourself, meaning import it yourself. What we are seeing now is that the number of greenhouses on the island are growing, and this could entice suppliers to provide in the material supplies needed. Furthermore, agriculture in the early stages of its development it is subsidized in a lot of countries, not here in Curaçao (yet).
Do you use your inner voice to evaluate when dilemma’s show up? How does that work for you?
When I have to take a decision, I will maximize the information required to take a decision and put all the options beside each other. Then I will take my time and sleep over it and follow my gut feeling. I also like to talk with other people that don’t have a lot of knowledge of the subject that I am reflecting on and they would trigger me to find “out of the box” answers and break out of the walls of the box I have created.
What are your strengths?
I work hard, almost close to being a workaholic. Of late I have slowed down a little. When I set my eyes on doing something, I will do it and I will be very focused in the process.
Do you have hobbies or interests that you are also passionate about?
If you as Henny Barbolina would meet a stranger in the bus (let say in Mexico or the US) and they would ask you to introduce yourself what would you answer in one word or one sentence?
My name is “Barba”, that is it, as simple as that. I don’t like to brag and I am a very reserved person. If there is a click I would after long open up a little more.
Whom are the persons that have inspired you the most in your career?
What is a trait that is still work in progress?
I have strond character and I don’t like to add water to the wine. This is not always appreciated by others.
What was a defining moment in your life?
I lived in Trai Seru and because of a small twist in terms of choices of which High School to go, Radulphus which I attended because a good friend of mine was attending Radulphus, impacted the friends I made during those years and ultimately and the study choices I have made. If I had attended Peter Stuyvesant College my friends and maybe also the study I choose to follow would have been totally different.
Where do you want to be 15 to 20 years from now with your career?
My management style is very enabling and I like teaching. I would be a kind of a coach and mentor.
What would you want your Loved Ones, family, friends and others to say about you let’s say 20 years from now?
This guy worked hard to arrive at where he is right now.
What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao as we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, recession and in the middle of growing environmental challenges because of the global warming consequences?
That we have a lot of highly educated and motivated youngsters, that one day will take over and change the island for the better.
One of the 250 Influencers of Curaçao
Henny “Barba” Barbolina is visionary, strong willed entrepreneur and investor in the agricultural sector that thinks big and considers investment in the agricultural sector pure as a business opportunity. Living by the rule that “Whatever I set my mind on, I will achieve it”, makes him a remarkable change driver in the agricultural sector in terms of agricultural projects on a larger scale than usual and at the same time will be organic. Within 10 years from now he firmly believes that we will be growing 40 to 50 % of all that that we import in agricultural products. Considering his past training, education, experiences, focus, business mindset and use of modern technology, which requires also higher educated employees’ involvement, is surely priming him for success in spite of a lack of an alignment of all the factors to make the agriculture sector a success in Curaçao. Through continuous learning from seminars and his international network, whilst not “copy pasting” but “testing first” attitude, he stays knowledgeable of the latest in terms of technology in the sector. All of this is definitely setting him up for success in his ventures. By modelling successful pilots, “Barba” Barbolina hopes to create success stories that will help others locally to follow his example, thus creating a “Ripple effect”. Because of all this, we are convinced that his ventures will be a big boost for the agricultural sector on the island. That is why we dearly love and deeply respect Henny “Barba” Barbolina and consider him part of the 250 Influencers of the island representing the Sustainable Agriculture sector.