Inside the high-stakes game of whack-a-mole at a food business in the COVID-19 era

Juan Peña, a Northeastern graduate, plays a high-stakes version of whack-a-mole every day with a series of unpredictable obstacles manufacturing and distributing food products in Venezuela. Photo by Sunil Thakkar for Northeastern University

MUMBAI, India—When the COVID-19 pandemic stranded Juan Peña on his way home to Venezuela, he had to improvise to ensure the food products his family business manufactures and distributes would still reach the people who need them most. Peña, a Northeastern graduate, quickly arranged a satellite office in a small town in the Dominican Republic, from which he plays a high-stakes version of whack-a-mole every day with a series of unpredictable obstacles.

The challenges typical to food manufacturing and distribution within Venezuela have grown exponentially following the spread of COVID-19. Suppliers have been changing their terms and asking for payment months in advance. And the company has had to shift where it sources its produce based on global market fluctuations, from importing Indian rather than Guyanese rice to competing with other nations for access to Canadian lentils. 

“It’s a different world,” Pena said of the situation of the food supply chain around the globe. Speaking in the wings of Northeastern’s Global Leadership Summit in Mumbai, India, he added: “But it’s also interesting—it’s not your typical nine-to-five. Every day, you wake up and get ready for anything to happen.”

After Juan Peña graduated from Northeastern in 2014, he worked as an accountant in several U.S. cities before moving back to Venezuela in 2018.  There, he manages the finances for the company his parents and uncles founded, which manufactures, processes, and distributes food staples such as rice, beans, sugar, and milk. For Peña, the work comes with a much larger purpose: contributing to his family legacy and giving back to the people of Venezuela. 

“Helping this company get food on Venezuelan tables is the most important thing right now,” he says.

The uneven supply of gasoline and fluctuating prices is “a huge issue” that has affected his company’s entire supply chain, Peña says. 

Peña says that when COVID-19 was first sweeping the world, his company experienced a boom in sales as people stocked up on goods. Now, he thinks people may be running low on funds after months of being in lockdown. 

Peña keeps a close eye on these highs and lows in sales, which is a more intricate task than meets the eye: The Venezuelan bolívar lost 99% of its value against the dollar in 2019, and nowadays, there is a free flow of alternative currencies that circulate within the country, including dollars, euros, and Colombian pesos. 

Despite the difficulties of navigating the economic circumstances in his country, Peña finds the work deeply meaningful. When he first made the permanent move back to Venezuela two years ago, the company was struggling and in need of support.

“The company was like a ship without a sail, going around wherever the water would take us,” he says.“In this case, the water was the volatile circumstances of the global economy.”

Now, even in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, Peña is excited about the possibilities for growth that lie ahead. 

“I truly believe in what I’m doing,” he says. 

Peña predicts that more people of his generation who left Venezuela to gain an education will find ways to return to their country, just as he did. 

“I am someone who believes my generation will come back. All of my friends want to return,” he says. “It’s our home. We want to help it grow.” 

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