Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala

by tuftsigl
Jul 03

Alex Zorniger will be a junior this upcoming fall, majoring in International Relations, and was a member of the 2012-2013 EPIIC Colloquium this past year.

Update #2

I’m going to be honest: going down to Guatemala, I really had no idea what exactly I was doing. Social Entrepreneur Corps (the organization I interned with) was pretty poor at pre-trip communication to say the least. After my month long journey in Guatemala, I can proudly say this portion of their program is by far their weakest link. Sitting on the plane right now I feel as though I was able to learn and grow as a person and a social entrepreneur as much or more than in many of my semester long courses. So, what did I do?

Social Entrepreneur Corps is a support network for local entrepreneurial endeavors all over the world. In Guatemala, SEC’s flagship program, they provide support to Soluciones Communitarias. Soluciones Communitarias is a local organization that employs local entrepreneurs to deliver products with a social benefit to Guatemalans all over the country. They do this through what they call the “microconsignment model.” Sound familiar? Probably not.  That’s because they developed the model. It’s founded upon the simple belief that the people of the developing world have the power to purchase. And this makes all the difference.

The microconsignment model is not an innovative concept. It was developed many years ago under the title of “consignment” in the United States  The premise is that a central organization creates the business model and acquires the products in order to “consign” them to sales people. If salespeople sell the item they get a cut of the profits. If not, they can return the products back to the central organization at no charge. The model opens the door wide open for entrepreneurs by taking the risk out of starting your own venture. If things don’t work, the entrepreneur can return the products, rather than taking a financial loss on the entire unsold inventory. The microconsignment is this same model, only applied to developing world populations.

And this model can be applied to so many of the problems that face us. Around a billion people don’t have access to clean water. Our mainstream solution to this problem has been to give these people water-purifying systems free of charge. The thinking behind this is that many of these people can barely afford food or clothing, how would they be able to pay for a water purifying system?  Because of this perspective, the bottom billion have been neglected. This mindset is where we are making our mistake. Look at Coca-Cola. Many of the people in developing countries make less than a dollar a day, but you’ll find them drinking a coke. These people are consumers. And what happens when you treat them like consumers, rather than helpless people? Well, that’s where things get interesting.

The key benefit of treating the bottom billion like consumers is that it puts everyone on the same level. How many stories are their of aid projects that were well conceived, but undermined by a lack of cultural understanding. We give them beautiful solutions, free of charge, and then we realize a year later that they’re not having any impact. That’s because people will take ANYTHING if it’s free. They may never use it, but if it’s free, why not? But, when you treat people like consumers, they’ll tell you if your product sucks. They’re not going to buy something that doesn’t work for them. It creates an accountability mechanism to the business or organization that forces them to create a solution that will actually fix the problem or the organization won’t survive. This idea is one of the key reasons for the ineffectiveness of our current aid. The accountability mechanisms for development organizations are to their donors not to the people they’re actually serving. If we can structure organizations to begin being accountable to their targets I think we would see a great increase in the effectiveness of our aid. Social Entrepreneur Corps may not be the biggest development organization, but before you can affect the masses you must have a model that can consistently change one person’s life. Social Entrepreneur Corps is able to effectively change individuals’ lives. The next step? Scaling.

Update #1

The time on the plane is slowly ticking by, but at least it gives me an opportunity to mentally prepare myself for the journey ahead. Through all of the different ideas running through my head, one thread remains constant. We have poured billions of dollars into international aid with very little to show for it. Many of our conventional strategies have been ineffective as long-term answers to some of the world’s most pressing problems. However, recently there has been a wave of creativity and innovative solutions to hit the developmental sector and I believe many of these represent solutions truly that have the potential to make a difference. Social entrepreneurship is providing new opportunities and mechanisms to affect problems deeply seated in cultural sensitivities. As outsiders, there is no way to understand the culture as well as the native populations does. I once read about an organization that worked on latrines in Ghana. They built these beautiful toilets, with fantastic intentions only to find upon their return the following year that no one was using them. After one simple question, they realized that they had dug these latrines on top of an ancient burial ground for the village. It’s these types of problems that well-intentioned foreigners have trouble foreseeing and the impetus and value I see in my internship with Social Entrepreneurship Corps (SEC). Their goal is to facilitate local entrepreneurial opportunities for products with a social, environmental or health benefit. In Guatemala, where I will be spending my internship, and in most developing countries, the markets for products like these are underdeveloped. Products like eye glasses, cook stoves, solar heaters, all have a vital purpose in these areas, but without an established market it can be extremely difficult for local entrepreneurs to remain in business. SEC provides the necessary support to shelter these burgeoning markets, including mechanisms to reduce the risk of the local entrepreneur and support the production and distribution of the product. The Guatemalans understand better than any of us what they need to improve their lives and SEC is simply facilitating the process for them to provide it for themselves.

If a strategy has the ability to pull one person out of poverty in a sustainable manner, the only thing stopping it from being worthy of implementation is scalability. You could read everyday about a different approach to solve a development problem that has been astoundingly successful. However, year after year we find the same problems repeating themselves. We aren’t making any progress on malnutrition, people all over the world don’t have access to clean water, economic opportunity in many parts of the world are seriously lacking, etc. Where is the disconnect? I truly believe the answer resides in scalability. While the importance of changing the life of one individual should never be underestimated, if we ever want to make a marked change on these problems, our solutions must be able to expand beyond one person, one family, or one community. Our programs must have the ability to evolve, grow and reproduce just like a living organism. With SEC in Guatemala I’m looking for insight into what characteristics can make that happen.

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