Nearly eight months ago, Raul Romero ’22 sent an email to the Kenyon community asking, “Are you aware of what’s going on in Venezuela and want to help out? Are you interested in working with a team … to deliver aid through a direct, and different strategy?”
Romero, who was born in Venezuela, invited students to learn about Yakera, a humanitarian aid platform that he founded while attending a Middlebury College entrepreneurship program.
Yakera, which means “gratitude” in the Venezuelan indigenous language Warao, strives to support families caught in the crosshairs of conflict and political instability.
“Our aim is to uplift Venezuelan voices and allow for direct transfers and humanitarian aid that actually reaches people and satisfies their needs,” Romero explained.
In 2014, Venezuela’s inflation rate rose to dangerous levels, and the country subsequently fell into a state of hyperinflation, causing food shortages. Additionally, the extreme levels of hyperinflation have rendered wages almost worthless.
“Right now, the minimum wage in Venezuela is about $3 per month,” Romero said. “The situation has really worsened over the past few years.”
At the same time, political turmoil has put people’s livelihoods at risk.
“I remember last year when there were some protests going on and there was some unrest and military uprisings … my family calling me at 7 a.m. telling me that they were going to go out when the military uprisings were happening.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the existing crisis: According to Romero, over 70 percent of all hospitals don’t have access to soap, and the official number of positive COVID-19 cases is unclear.
“The healthcare system has imploded,” Romero said. Although the U.N. and some international organizations have focused their efforts on Venezuelan refugees across the border in Colombia and Brazil, humanitarian aid organizations are not able to physically enter the country due to governmental regulations. “There’s no way that aid can be delivered in the way that it’s been conventionally imagined.”
This is where Yakera’s crowdfunding mission comes in: Yakera aims to facilitate a way in which Venezuelan families can receive anonymous, non-inflated financial transfers cashed into their local bank accounts. The current economic crisis obstructs families from benefiting from popular crowdfunding services like GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Yakera is a Venezuela-specific platform based on an accommodating model that eases those financial limitations and promotes an interactive yet secure dynamic between donors and applicants.
While at Middlebury, Romero received recognition for his humanitarian aid vision and won an Innovation Challenge award. He brought his idea to Kenyon, where his interest meeting connected several students with an interest not only in Venezuelan aid efforts but in general human rights endeavors as well.
At Kenyon, Romero and his team realized Romero’s idea. They started their work in early February of 2020, only a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic obstructed prospects of in-person interaction. Despite these obstacles, Romero and his peers continued to build the project — and expand the Yakera team — remotely. The team expanded internationally, gaining members from England, Luxembourg and many other countries.
Currently, Romero and his team hope to conduct a trial of their platform in December with a local partner, Nutriendo el Futuro. The trial will be conducted in the community of El Calvario, El Hatillo in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. It will support 12 families with a variety of expenses, including food, education, businesses and healthcare.
The team will monitor community impact and collect data which will later be used to improve the program. “We need to know how this is actually making an impact on people’s lives beyond their testimonies,” Romero said.
Yakera’s team is currently gathering donations to support their initial trial run via a GoFundMe page; Romero calls on those who are financially able to donate.