Tag Archives: guatemala

Meso assists Mayan artisans in Guatemala

 “We had an objective but no idea how to get there. Agora taught us how to order our priorities, re-analyze our strategies, and achieve our goals.”

Marisa Umaña believes in the power of artisanal design to empower women and bring economic opportunities and development to rural communities. A student of international commerce and policy, Marisa moved her professional life quite naturally into the field of economic development. After acquiring a Masters in Belgium, she returned to Guatemala, deciding to take a job as the Director of the Handcrafts Division for the Exporters’ Association. As the leader of a USAID-funded project, she threw her energy into fostering economic development in rural areas and connecting the women to clients in international markets. It was there that she met Diego and Gonzalo, who, wanting to create contemporary handmade products with traditional techniques, had founded the Mayan Store in 2010.

With a fondness for art and design, extensive travel experience, and unmistakably strong Guatemalan roots, Diego Olivero had decided to create a diverse handcrafted collection to highlight his cultural tradition. Fascinated by the intersection between business and social impact, Gonzalo Pertile had worked in both the public and private sectors and was driven to create local development.

The two partners were impressed with Marisa’s experience with the handcraft sector in Guatemala and invited her to join their project in 2016. The first, a natural in topics of innovation design, the second, fluent in the language of international development, and the last, an expert on coordinating local handcraft artisans, the team steadily expanded their business.

Over the years, they committed themselves to the preservation of Mayan cultural heritage. They partnered with wool weavers from the Momostenango municipality, women beaders in the Sololá department, and glassblowers in a recycling-based cooperative, providing artisans who had lived in conditions of extreme poverty with a sustainable income and access to the international market. They diversified their products beyond their renown woven rugs, expanding to chairs, glassware, and jewelry, and eventually changed their name to Meso, identifying their target market as Central America.

Despite knowing that they wanted to access investment, the Meso team had no idea how to become investment-ready. They struggled with creating a clear financial plan that would list their cost structures accurately, and did not know which direction to move in. So, in 2017, they applied to Agora’s Accelerator.

In the retreat and months of consulting that followed, they were shown how to achieve their objective. They emerged from the program with a re-analyzed growth strategy, invaluable investment contacts, and a stronger financial plan. With a company restructured in accordance with their goals, the team divided the work amongst themselves, relegating grants, design, and operative administration to the expert of each field.

The Meso team today continues moving steadily toward investment-readiness and expanding their network. Starting with three artisans in 2010, Meso now works with over 500 individuals, most of whom live in the northern highlands of Guatemala. They’ve focused their expansion on empowering women, moving female artisans into an agricultural group previously managed solely by men. In the process, they have brought an increased income and improved living conditions to all these families. Marisa has worked consistently to perfect effective communication with her artisans, many of whom have never been exposed to the need for quality control or deadlines nor understood finances. She happily reports that the process has become much smoother, and that she and her team have ambitious goals for growth. They plan to develop workshops where their artisans will be able to separate work from home in a space safe for dyeing and weaving, and thus reduce certain health risks.

Marisa believes that the diversity of her team has been the key to their success, each individual contributing a unique skill set to the company and inspiring the others to persevere. Despite the many challenges of working with rural Guatemalan artisans, Marisa is encouraged to continue driving social impact by her sense of responsibility to herself, her team, and society.

Marisa, Diego, and Gonzalo run their company on the values of teamwork, perseverance, and creativity, and they are changing the world, one beautiful wool-woven rug at a time.

Learn more about Meso at https://www.mesolifestyle.com

Develop Link makes Guatemalan healthcare more efficient

“Being able to leverage Agora’s well-known name within this community allowed us to successfully acquire funding.”

Catherine Flatley believes in unlocking the potential of existing healthcare systems to provide more efficient care for Latin Americans. She was first introduced to the world of healthcare as an intern for PricewaterhouseCoopers. Immersed in the industry, she became increasingly fascinated by the communications problems that existed in the developing world and the opportunities to fix them. But she wanted to know more about the problem.

Catherine spoke to over 300 doctors who had participated in mission trips around the world, and realized that many encountered the same difficulties arising from their inability to coordinate patient care. As a healthcare consultant, she had worked with several pharmaceutical firms who were interested in entering emerging markets but struggled with the lack of data necessary to expand.

She was blown away by the extent of the problem and motivated to solve it. A decisive resignation and move to Guatemala later, Develop Link was born.

As a referral platform for doctors in Latin America, Develop Link helps healthcare providers search for specialists and labs, share information, and consult each other. The data collected through the platform is subsequently organized and sold to pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers hoping to expand within the Latin American region. Catherine emphasizes that Develop Link is not trying to reinvent the wheel. It simply serves as the link bringing together all the existing institutions to facilitate more efficient care.

Wanting to improve her company’s potential for growth and scaling, Catherine participated in several Accelerators, including Points of Light CivicX, Impact Engine, and the Fellow Irish Social Hub. However, she lacked both direct access to the Latin American network and consulting that would instruct her specifically on the Latin American market. So she applied to Agora’s Accelerator.

Through the four-month program, Catherine refined her launch strategy, strengthened the value proposition she would deliver to pharmaceutical firm clients, and connected with invaluable investor networks. The SOCAP experience, facilitated by Agora, introduced her to her very first client in Mexico.

Since the Accelerator, Develop Link has steadily progressed, entering Mexico by virtue of demand and planning to enter Costa Rica. Catherine has recently closed two contracts with investors and is on her way to closing her third, motivated every day by the number of doctors, NGOs, government organizations, and private companies all trying to provide better healthcare in Latin America with a clear need to better communicate.

She believes that the ability to be flexible and adjust existing plans to new circumstances has been key to expanding her company, and hopes to continue working towards halting the Latin American ‘Brain Drain,’ in which talented and promising individuals leave their native country to pursue a professional career elsewhere. Her company’s potential for expansion and promise for physicians and patients everywhere keep talented employees like Shaili Zappa, her director for Guatemala, working locally.  Develop Link, run on teamwork and collaboration, is thus changing the world, one patient at a time.

Learn more about Develop Link at http://www.developlink.org.

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.


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)


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.”


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”.


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.”

Agora Entrepreneur Turns off Lights, Aims to Innovate Solar Energy Sector in Guatemala

quetsol - out of the dark(GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA) Today, Juanish Rodriguez, founder of the Guatemalan solar company Quetsol, will be turning his lights off until he can turn lights on for millions in his home country.

Via the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, Quetsol is seeking the $50,000 it needs to launch a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) solar power kit. The new model bridges the gap between the high price of solar technology and the severe energy needs of Guatemala’s poorest rural communities without access to electricity.

To get a sense of this technology’s potential, do the following: Imagine a woman—let’s call her Juanita—lives in an indigenous community three hours by foot from an electrical grid. She wants power in her home so that her children can read and she can spend time with her family at night without inhaling kerosene fumes. She has heard that solar power can reach anywhere—she cannot access electrical lines, but the sun is within everyone’s access—but cannot see how she can scrape together the upfront cost to purchase solar technology when her family can barely afford candles.

Now imagine a scenario in which Juanita gets solar power into her home right away without needing to pool together her next six month’s savings. From each month’s earnings, she decides how much to contribute to her electricity and buys it only as she needs it. Imagine a solar company that allows Juanita to invest in a permanent energy solution at the speed that she can afford because they believe income grows after a home has electricity.

This last scenario is the one that Mr. Rodriguez will be unplugging his own lights to make a reality. The PAYG model is the innovation that the solar industry has been lacking when it comes to reaching the world’s poorest communities. It makes solar a realistic energy source for the 2.6 million Juanitas in Guatemala, and 1.6 billion throughout the world, who rely on candles and kerosene to light their homes. By eliminating the high upfront cost that prevents millions of people from purchasing solar, PAYG opens up renewable energy to thousands more. And by providing an easy financing option—pay-when-you-can vs. pay-on-this-date—it will get this solar into more homes, faster.

In fact, Quetsol expects to see sales increase by 1700%, distributing 100,000 kits and reaching over 505,000 people in the next five years. While Quetsol’s current solar kits save clients 20% of their previous candle and kerosene costs, the new model elevates this to 44% savings. The most promising aspect, though, is that a Pay-for-Service model like this one have the potential to be replicated as easily and successfully as telecommunication companies have done so throughout the world.

So, one last scenario to imagine: A new generation of utility companies that drive rural development and protect the environment at the same time.

The first prototype is currently being tested, but Indiegogo is the critical next step forward. Contributors will be able to directly sponsor a family if the campaign goal is reached. The minute that the campaign goes live, Mr. Rodriguez will sit in a pitch-black room and refuse to turn on his lights until the goal is reached. Visit Quetsol’s website and Indiegogo page to help them turn on the lights for Juan and, more importantly, for thousands of Guatemalans.

WHO: Quetsol
WHEN: February 18, 2013
WHERE: http://www.indiegogo.com/Quetsolturnliveson

  • Founder and CEO of Guatemalan solar power company Quetsol to sit in a dark room until crowdfunding goal is reached via Indiegogo
  • Campaign goal will allow Quetsol to launch Pay-As-You-Go solar technology to Guatemala’s poorest communities that lack electricity
  • Quetsol intends to distribute over 100,000 solar kits to Guatemalans in the next five years and pioneer a sustainable utility company movement for the world’s most marginalized communities
  • Visit www.quetsol.com for more information
  • View the following pitch Juan gave at the 2012 Unreasonable Institute –http://www.vimeo.com/47107967

In Search of Early Stage Impact Entrepreneurs: Agora in Guatemala

Left to right, Neela Pal, Maria Rodriguez, and Sara Lila Cordero during a campus visit to the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, a leading private university in Guatemala City.

I joined Agora Partnerships for this summer, tasked with answering the question (more or less): Where are all the women impact entrepreneurs?

This seemingly simple query led me to…Guatemala. Over the past month, I designed and implemented a series of recruitment presentations for Guatemala—the country that has yielded two of Agora’s most successful and charismatic women business owners: María Pacheco of Kiej de los Bosques and María Rodriguez of ByoEarth (“the Marías,” as we affectionately call them in-house). My recruiting team included: the effervescent Sara Lila Cordero, who heads all things marketing and communications in Agora’s Nicaragua office, and Rodriguez, an Agora Class of ’12 entrepreneur who is locally known as “the worm girl,” thanks to her on-the-rise organic composting business.

During our week-long “roadshow” in Guatemala, we spread the word of Agora’s 2013 Accelerator program, making stops at the major metropolitan—and entrepreneurial—centers of the country: Guatemala City, Antigua, and Quetzaltenango. The level of individual activity and collective energy we encountered during our visit far surpassed expectation.

At the HUB in Guatemala City.

In five action-packed days, we met with: international NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance and Counterpart International; regionally-focused investor groups like Grupo DNA; and dynamic local change makers, including Nikki Bahr (founder of CSR consultancy Sustainable Strategies), Daniel Buchbinder (founder of rural entrepreneurship group Alterna), Gabriela García Quinn (Guatemala director of Central American social change outfit Glasswing International), and Ivan Buitrón (leader in AGEXPORT, which supports, literally, thousands of export-ready Guatemalan businesses). We also met with prospective entrepreneurs, paying a visit to the ultra-cool Campus Tecnológico in a gritty corner of the city, as well as presenting at the up-and-coming, “green” HUB space.

Sara Lila presenting to 120 rural women at a Vital Voices conference in Quetzaltenango.

Everywhere, we shared our vision—to be a one-stop shop for early-stage impact entrepreneurs serious about scaling their business and, in turn, their social impact. And everywhere, we heard the same story: while there are many one-off interventions, there are no comprehensive solutions like Agora’s Accelerator that gets small to mid-sized enterprises ready for growth capital and connect them with a growing network of impact investors.

As I met with actual entrepreneurs, I was struck by their hunger for additional resources and supports. At Quetzaltenango, for instance, Sara Lila presented on the Accelerator to a group of 120 rural women, largely micro-business owners, affiliated with the Vital Voices network. We had the enviable position of presenting right before lunch. However, the interest lasted far beyond our ten-minute “pitch.” Dozens of women approached us afterward. Hidden in their questions, I heard hope—that the Accelerator would be the solution for their businesses.

In Guatemala, the market of scalable social enterprises may be finite, but the vision and collaborative attitude of its leading players is anything but. Take, for example, Philip Wilson’s award winning company Ecofiltro, which is popularizing a simple yet effective clay filter as an ecological solution to water filtration. We toured his factory at the base of Antigua’s volcanoes, which he hopes will serve as a model operation for emerging countries globally.

“The Marias” are generous-spirited leaders, who when they encounter problems or gaps, create smart solutions. In addition to her innovative business venture, María Rodriguez is in the process of helping to incorporate the HUB in Guatemala City, which will provide much-needed convening space for start-up talent. And, María Pacheco brought international women empowerment non-profit Vital Voices to the country to tackle economic disparities along gender lines. The secret sauce to Agora is its people, and the human potential in Guatemala last week felt limitless.

Neela Pal joins Agora Partnerships from the Yale School of Management, where she is studying social sector management and organizational behavior. For her summer internship, she is helping Agora develop a recruitment strategy to increase women-owned and managed business enterprises in its Accelerator program.

Guatemala: 2013 Recruitment Begins

Agora Partnerships’ Marketing and Communication Manager, Central America Sara Lila Cordero presents to Vital Voices Guatemala last week while promoting our Impact Accelerator.

After months of work, we are delighted to announce that we are opening up our application process for the class of 2013. We are looking for outstanding early-stage impact entrepreneurs who have the potential to create significant positive impact in their communities, but need some support to reach that potential.

We define “early-stage” as companies with revenues between $25k and $2M – companies that have shown some proof of concept, but that need growth capital in order to grow. We define “impact entrepreneurs” as for-profit entrepreneurs managing their business to create positive change in the world.

Recruitment efforts officially got underway this week with a weeklong stop in Guatemala, home to four of our past accelerator entrepreneurs – Quetsol, Recelca, Kiej de los Bosques, and ByoEarth. In Guatemala, Agora representatives visited Guatemala City, Antigua, and Xela and met with entrepreneurs, NGOs, universities, government bodies, business leaders, and women’s groups spreading the word about our Impact Accelerator.

Guatemala represented the first stop on a tour of Latin America. Through these country roadshows, we aim to both raise the Accelerator’s profile and spread the word on impact investing, as well as dentify partners to further our work and impact. Our goal is to recruit 30 companies from an assortment of industries stretching from Mexico to Chile.

If you know of great impact entrepreneurs who might benefit from our program, please forward them this email and encourage them to apply. Thank you for helping us spread the word.

Guatemalan Leaders Attend Agora, Communities of the Earth Fundraiser

Agora staff pose with Prof. Carol Lancaster, second from right, during the "Building Sustainable Communities" fundraiser Wednesday night at the Guatemalan Embassy in DC.

The Ambassador and the First Lady

Guatemalan Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Villagran de Leon and the Guatemalan First Lady Rosa María Leal, were in attendance Wednesday night for “Building Sustainable Communities: An Event Honoring the Power and Potential of Women Entrepreneurship in Central America.”

The fundraiser, held at the Guatemalan Embassy DC, benefited both Agora Partnerships and Communities of the Earth, a unique non-profit headed by visionary entrepreneur Maria Pacheco, a member of Agora’s Class of ’11.

Guatemalan Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Villagran de Leon, left, and the Guatemalan First Lady Rosa María Leal, right, were in attendance Wednesday evening.

Ambassador Villagran de Leon opened the event by discussing the importance of fostering a healthy, robust entrepreneurial ecosystem throughout Guatemala, in particular among women in rural communities. Georgetown School of Foreign Service Dean Carol Lancaster followed the ambassador by focusing on the critical role that women entrepreneurs play in international development efforts. After an introduction by Agora founder and CEO Ben Powell, Maria Pacehco detailed her pioneering brand of poverty alleviation.

From Business to Development

Maria Pacheco links Guatemalan artisans in indigenous rural communities to international markets, transforming, in her words, “cycles of poverty into cycles of prosperity” and empowering women to be agents of change in their families, homes, and communities.

Pacheco grew up in war-town Guatemala City and was exposed at an early age to the debilitating effects of poverty. After working as an organic farmer in the mountains of Guatemala, Pacheco became inspired by the untapped potential and talent of her country’s indigenous women.

Maria Pacheco
Maria Pacheco addresses women in a rural Guatemalan village

As a result, she formed Kiej de los Bosques, a company that draws on the talent of rural artisans to create the stunning products of the Wakami brand. Kiej organizes rural women groups through her company’s non-profit arm, Communities of the Earth, and helps them develop the skills necessary to create products ready for global distribution. Rural Guatemalan women are given the opportunity to earn an income, while, in the process, linking rural communities to markets around the world.

A New Approach

The partnership of Communities of the Earth and Kiej de los Bosques represents a new, market-driven approach to tackling critical social, economic, and environmental challenges in Guatemala; a model with the potential to spread to communities throughout Guatemala, Central America, and beyond.

Impact Road Trip: How Market Forces are Changing the Lives of Women in Rural Guatemala

Over the course of the next two weeks, I will be traveling throughout Nicaragua and Guatemala visiting “impact entrepreneurs,” a relatively new term that describes men and women who are using the power of private enterprise to solve social, environmental, and economic problems in their local communities. These entrepreneurs are members of Agora Partnerships’ Accelerator Program.

Josefina Quinac

“He Was Angry”

“He was angry before,” Josefina Quinac states with a smile referring to her husband’s demeanor prior to her beginning work, “but now, he’s different.  Things have changed.”

Things are changing in the dusty Guatemalan village of Pastores about 10 km outside the picturesque colonial tourist town of Antigua.  Josephina, 44, is a member of the Wakami value chain, one piece of a complex economic development puzzle that starts with a non-profit, is fueled by a business, and ends with real change in the lives of rural women.


Maria Pacheco
Maria Pacheco, Kiej de los Bosques

Bracelets, Necklaces, and Wakami

In 2003, Guatemalan entrepreneur Maria Pacheco started Kiej de los Bosques (“Kiej” is a Mayan term meaning “harmony between earth and people)” with a focus on empowering women in rural areas of her native country. According to Maria, Guatemalan women typically invest 80-90 percent of their income back into the household. This domestic investment paves the way for improved educational opportunities, healthcare access, and sanitation within rural communities.

The process begins with Communities of the Earth, a business incubator that targets women in rural villages throughout Guatemala by teaching them how to make bracelets and necklaces. The women who receive the training work together in small groups (called “Wakami Value Chains”) to craft products for Kiej de los Bosques – a Guatemala City-based business that produces an assortment of handicraft products for both national and international consumption.

The women of Pastores, a rural village in the mountains of Guatemala

These groups, comprised of more than 300 individuals, 90 percent of whom are women, receive a monetary stipend based on the amount they produce per order. The products they create are then sold under the increasingly visible Wakami brand to buyers in Central America, the United States, and Europe. The brand will next expand to markets in South America, Asia, and Australia.

The Source of Prosperity

“I have worked with a lot of development organizations,” said Ligia Chinchillas, the general manager for Kiej de los Bosques. “They were all very afraid of the market, even resistant to it. But so much is based on the market. The market is a source of prosperity.”

Kiej has openly embraced the market… and fashion. The company has just completed a bold rebranding of its products. Once defined by “development friendly” images of rural women working on handcrafted products in the mountains of Guatemala, Kiej now embraces glossy modern images of young Central Americans sporting Wakami products as integral pieces of their progressive, fashionable wardrobes.

“He Helps with the Cleaning”

Back in Pastores, Josefina is making her daily 15-minute walk from the center of the village to her three-room, cement brick home at the end of a winding dirt road. When an order reaches the village from Kiej, she collects her supplies from Matilda, the leader of the Pastores women’s group, then spends her afternoons crafting on a wooden table next to her bed. She has been braiding, beading, and threading Kiej products for 6 years and makes, on average, about $122 a month, but it’s enough.

“When I started with Wakami,” Josefina explains, “we [her husband and four children] lived in a small wooden house. We couldn’t afford to send our kids to school, and everything was dependent on my husband. Now, we have this better, concrete home, and my children are all in school.” Josefina pauses. “Other things have changed too.”

Before joining Wakami Josefina said she was timid and shy, turning to her husband for permission to leave the village.

“Now, I am confident and open. I can go into Guatemala [City] whenever I chose, she said. “Before I had to do all the cleaning and housework,” Josefina continues. “Now my husband helps with the housework. My children, especially my girls, look up to me. They even help me with some of the work I do for Wakami.”

Partnership, not Charity

Josefina works from home making products for the Wakami brand.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, you help all those women out in the country’,” said Chinchillas from the conference room of her Guatemala City office, “but that’s not how it works. We work with these women. They are our partners and help us produce all of these wonderful products that are then sent around the world.”

Once these women have an income,” Maria adds, “so much changes for them and their families. They become stronger, more independent. They become more involved in local politics because they are earning a wage and paying taxes. They demand things from their governments. The incomes they earn give them the power to make their dreams come true for both their families and themselves.”

Agora Entrepreneur: Kiej de los Bosques in Guatemala

Image: Kiej de los BosquesAgora entrepreneur Kiej de los Bosques is a social company established in 2004 with the objective of generating income for artisans – 90% women –  who although they have great abilities, are disconnected from markets, and are not able to live up to their potential. Founder María Pacheco says:

“We think poverty is a circle that starts with an unequal distribution of income generating opportunities between the rural and urban areas of underdeveloped countries. This leads to weak rural economies, where education is not a possibility. Lack of education has great incidence in high birth rates and low income, and these two circumstances combined will become low-income homes where food is not enough and education will once again, be beyond the possibilities of the next generation, thus perpetuating what we call, the ‘No Change Circle’.”

Pacheco’s experience working with rural communities since 1993 working with small groups of farmers and artisans in Sacalá Las Lomas in the Guatemalan highlands and Jocotán in the Guatemalan Dry Corridor indicates that this “No Change Circle” can be changed — if at least one of the variables is addressed. In both cases, the main objective of Kiej de los Bosques’s intervention was to increase the income of the beneficiaries – and it was like igniting development!

The income generated by this two productive chains – Wood in Sacalá and Natural fibers in Jocotán – have both impacted directly in the nutritional and educational indicators of the artisans’ children, and have also empowered the producers, formed new businesses and created a bankable saving capacity in the communities.

To create revenues, Pacheco decided to put the artisans’ products on the market under a new brand.

“When we saw how this circle changed dramatically in the communities we were working with, and we measured the role markets have had in the generation of prosperity in these rural initiatives, we decided to create an umbrella brand to consolidate the productions of several artisans’ groups and add value to the handicrafts that are traditionally made in Guatemala and in 2006, Wakami was born!”

For more information on Kiej de los Bosques and other Agora entrepreneurs, come join us at our Impact Investor Conference in Nicaragua.

Vital Voices Conference In Guatemala

by Sarah Hiller

Hello, readers. On May 25, Lissette and I were grateful to have the opportunity to attend “The First Summit and Dialogue of Central American Women,” hosted by one of Agora’s partners, Vital Voices. This day-long event was inspirational and critical to the advancement of women in Central America. We traveled to Guatemala City to attend this conference because of the intrinsic importance of the subject matter, but also to form a foundation for Agora’s women’s program and to spread the word about Agora’s new flagship initiative called the LiderES Fellowship Program, in which we aim to have significant participation by women.

This conference was no small affair. We’re talking 550 attendees, including notable figures like Guatemala´s First Lady Sandra Colóm and Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner and political activist Rigoberta Menchú; hundreds of female entrepreneurs; and representatives and sponsors from public, private and civil sectors, including USAID, United Nations, Guatemalan government, Citi, FedEx, Walmart, Tigo, el Periodico, Avon, and many more.

The event kicked off the night before at the Embassy of France, where Ambassador Michèl Ramis-Plum hosted a lovely reception for about 100 of the conference participants. The next day, the conference centered on developing solutions, with a focus on women´s role, to five thematic areas: economic development, health and education, violence and crime, employment and social security, and public administration and institutions.

Lissette and I naturally focused on economic development, where solutions ranged from improving access to information and networks, to advancing the business climate, to increasing the visibility of products made by socially responsible businesses. The real value of the conference wasn’t so much the solutions that we came up with, but more in the convening of hundreds of women to share and reinforce their common experiences, form relationships, and through joint problem-solving of important issues, reveal the limitless capabilities, power and importance of this group of women. I think everyone at the conference left feeling validated, empowered, more connected to women, encouraged to contribute ideas and speak her mind, and more willing to take calculated risks, such as growing her small business.

A few of my key take-aways from the conference follow:

  • Women must speak their mind. It´s a vicious cycle of self doubt or low self-esteem, which causes us to not stand up for ourselves, which feeds the stereotype of women being submissive, which reinforces male dominant behavior or just the idea that women don’t have anything worth contributing in the workplace and at home. Women have so much to give, and it is up to us to contribute our intelligent ideas to resolve—together with men—the gender issue and problems in general.
  • Many women entrepreneurs feel debilitatingly underequipped to run and grow their business. I´ve read in reports that this was true, but I really understood it better when I heard it from entrepreneurs themselves. Many wonder if they´re doing things the right way, doubt that they have what it takes to grow their micro or small business, aren´t sure they want to grow it in the first place, and worry that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. This indicates that a women´s entrepreneurship network would provide an astronomical bang for the buck.
  • Public policy plays a critical role and has a long way to go. Public policy reform was part of the solution to every single one of the five subject areas. During the break-out session, my 10-person group, comprised of entrepreneurs, NGO representatives, and academia, spent about half of our time talking about the role of public policy, and I was in the Economic Development seminar, not the Public Administration seminar.

Lissette and I had the pleasure of meeting multiple women who are stars in their fields—real innovators. We informed them about Agora Partnerships and the LiderES Fellowship Program, and hope to collaborate with them and their organizations on this, or another Agora project in the near future. A few of the people we spoke with include: Beth Brooke, who is Global Vice Chair of Public Policy, Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement of Ernst & Young, and has been named by Forbes as one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” for three years in a row; Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, María Nelly Rivas, Co-Founder of Vital Voices Nicaragua; Carmen Irene Alas, Publisher and CEO, Estrategia Negocios and Co-Founder of Vital Voices El Salvador; Marisanta Donoso, Director of J. Marchers Inc.; Lourdes Ortiz de Chutá, Assistant Executive Director, Sierra Madre Foundation. We look forward to contacting Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Program as well.

It was a very successful trip, and I’m thrilled that we had an opportunity to attend the conference!