Thinking Outside the Box in Latin America

“There has never been an example of an economy that has suffered as a result of giving women access to capital, knowledge, networks, and entrepreneurial tools. The only places where women don’t add as much to the economy as men are places they aren’t allowed to. The world has too many problems to only have half our brains working on them.” – Anne Welsh McNulty

Business has provided billions of people around the world with endless opportunities. From personal laptops to affordable air travel, innovative business models have provided us with a wealth of comforts the world over.  However, there are still those who live day to day without products, services, and opportunities that so many take for granted.

More than 20% of Peruvians (6.5 million) do not have access to electricity. 35% (16.7 million) of all Colombians are unbanked, as is 65% of the population of all of Latin America. (1) Nearly 54% (8 million) of Guatemalans live below the poverty line ($1.25/day), while 75% (11.3 million) of the population participates in the informal economy. (2)

Though these statistics may seem daunting at first, three regional innovators are successfully tackling these challenges – Alicia Kozuch, Founder of Buen Power (Peru), Ana Barrera, Founder of Aflore (Colombia), and Sophie Eckrich, Founder of Teysha (Guatemala). These entrepreneurs are harnessing the power of business to electrify remote rural communities, build trust in often uncertain financial systems, and create a direct connection between artisans and customers – all while making a profit and shifting the way their respective industries view success.

Alicia, Ana, and Sophie are all 2014 McNulty Fellows, an annual scholarship award funded by the McNulty Foundation. Each year, the McNulty Foundation selects three outstanding women entrepreneurs accepted into our Accelerator program and funds their participation in an effort to amplify market-driven solutions to pressing issues in Latin America.

LIGHTING UP PERU

IMG_5211 (1)In Peru, the combination of the Andean Mountains and Amazonian Jungle creates a complex geography that often prevents entire communities from connecting to electrical grids. It’s these conditions that motivated Alicia to look beyond the problem and look to a solution.

Buen Power doesn’t just provide an affordable and sustainable source of light to off-the-grid rural communities; the company has built a business model that creates local micro-entrepreneurs by integrating teachers as distributors of dLights. “We are utilizing teachers – since they are going to these remote communities anyway. While they are back in their home cities on the weekend, we train them in solar energy, and provide them with sample lights and specially created picture books which we have designed. They then hold community meetings in the communities where they work – and teach the community members about solar energy and its benefits and offer the lights for sale. These teachers earn a commission on sales. We are also creating other micro-entrepreneurs – by supporting about 50 other locals who buy our products at wholesale and sell at retail in their very distant communities.”

Q'ero girls with dlight - Buen powerAlicia recently received an email from a friend who works in remote Peruvian communities that stated, “Last week, we arrived in Q’ero well after dark. We saw a light in the distance which slowly moved towards us. These three beautiful girls came to meet us with you will never guess what – one of your dLights! What an amazing sight – never before have we been greeted in the dark.”

Alicia recalled, “The story brought tears to my eyes as I could clearly see, from an outside source, that our work was touching lives that we didn’t even know about. What an incredible feeling! It’s these moments that keep me going through the hardest days.”

Buen Power is currently in the process of opening 6 new locations in Peru. Next, the companies plans to replicate this distribution system country-wide. They recently received a $100,000 grant from USAID to pursue their “radical new distribution method for rural electrification”. (3)

BRINGING TRUST INTO FINANCIAL SERVICES IN COLOMBIA

IMG_4547 (1)Ana is thinking big. “Within the next 5-10 years I would like to see that Aflore has revolutionised the way of addressing the unbanked [adults who do not have bank accounts], in such a way that it has inspired others to innovate and develop other products and services to serve them properly.  After spending so many years working at the forefront of financial innovation in large investment banks,  I now believe that it is actually in this market segment where innovation should really happen, and most likely, the only segment where it really matters.”

Besides the unbanked, Ana has found that many of the people in Colombia who do, in fact, have bank accounts withdraw their money as soon as it lands in their accounts. She believes that this problem of financial inclusion is not an issue of access but rather one of engagement. Ana explains that, “Aflore’s main innovation is the channel: distributing financial products through a network of informal advisors. These informal advisors are people that are already trusted in their communities and who are seen as financial role models. We leverage these existing trusted relationships not only to get people to engage in financial services but also to access information about our clients (personal and financial) that allows us to do risk assessments of a demographic that the banks are not attending.”

Jeny, one of Aflore’s first clients, illustrates the success of this business model. Jeny has been unable to get a loan from a bank in the past because she withdraws her minimum wage salary each month as soon as it is deposited. In steps Yaneth, an Aflore advisor.

In addition to being an advisor, Yaneth is also one of Jeny’s closest friends. Yaneth has built a small but successful clothing manufacturing business from her home and has become a trusted source of financial advice for Jeny and other women in her community. When Jeny’s mother fell ill, Yaneth offered Jeny a $100 loan to visit her family. When Jeny repaid this loan, she was then extended a $500 loan to buy a washing machine. Jeny has also repaid this loan and is considering borrowing an additional $1,000 to invest in her husband’s business.

“This year, we are focusing on proving and building the channel. We aim to finish the year with a network of 120 advisors,” Ana concludes. “We aim to put in place an operation that will allow us to scale our business significantly during 2015.”

HUMANIZING FASHION IN GUATEMALA

IMG_5312 (1)The Teysha team “wants to see a fashion industry that values the creators of the goods just as much as the design and look”. They believe “that in order to create a more vibrant and prosperous world for all, we need to know each other better and value each other’s talents more”.

10250257_644211412316537_6710091512219631956_nWith this philosophy in mind, Teysha has built a business model that creates social, environmental, and economic value for all stakeholders, every step of the way. Sophie explains the Teysha business model: “We work directly with groups of artisans to connect them to our customization platform, combining the forces of textile makers, leather workers, shoe makers, to make one of a kind goods. Our customers are able to customize their goods by learning about the various villages and techniques we feature. Through this model, we create a direct connection between the customer and the maker, and create a bridge between cultures.”

10155167_640971995973812_3946401823499050900_nThis model has the potential to revolutionize artisanal fashion in the region because rather than simply analyzing market trends, producing a product, and selling it – Teysha is building a platform to connect the producer and the consumer and empowering them to work together to create a product that uses the skills of the artisans and satisfies the desires of the person purchasing the product. By bringing this human element to the fashion industry, consumers consciousness and product transparency is reaching an entirely new level. Sophie affirms that “we are working to make ethically and authentically made goods the norm within the fashion industry”.

IN CONCLUSION

These three women have overcome countless barriers in incredibly difficult business environments. The McNulty Foundation recognizes the importance of this type of innovation, values the passion, endurance and leadership these women have shown, and is committed to supporting the growth of these game changing businesses.

Anne Welsh McNulty, co-founder of the McNulty Foundation, believes “Women don’t need to be told to be leaders or to find solutions to economic and social problems in their communities. All they need is access to the economic tools and networks traditionally denied to them and they will build the solutions on their own, because that is a human desire, not a gendered one.”

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