Smart Business - “Baskets of Solutions” and the Millennium Development Goals

Social Entrepreneurship and Leadership by Example in Guatemala – An Interview with Greg Van Kirk – Part II
Jun 25, 2010 11:34 AM ET

The Acacia Group - Socially Responsible Leadership

This blog is the second in a series that captures a conversation I had with Greg Van Kirk, Ashoka-Lemolson Fellow and author of “The Microconsignment Model – Bridging the “Last Mile” of Access to Products and Services for the Rural Poor. You are encouraged to click the previous hyperlink to get a sense of the profound difference Greg makes in his work.  As a teaser, consider the following excerpt that begins to portray the value of the MicroConsignment model.

Until recently, Carolina Amesquita, the principal at La Escuela Ramona Jil primary school in Chimeltenango, Guatemala lamented daily the her students were drinking contaminated water directly from the tap, often contracting gastrointestinal illnesses that kept them out of school. Others in the community were suffering too. Juana Ramirez, an expert weaver in the village of San Mateo, could no longer see well enough to sort her threads by color.  Her productivity had plummeted, further stressing her already struggling family. While preparing meals over an open-pit fire in her home, as Guatemalan women had done for generations, Alva Rios was inhaling harmful smoke for hours each day. Julia Garcia was spending more and more of her family income on electricity bills, while Benito Ramirez had no electricity in his home and at night had to study by candlelight.

These and similar problems confronting thousands of rural Guatemalans have now been solved through the hard work of two Guatemalan women. Yoly Acajabon and Clara Luz de Montezuma, local homemakers in their mid-40’s, started their own enterprises in 2004 with no entrepreneurial experience of start-up capital. Working within the MicroConsignment Model (MCM), these extraordinary women are providing low –income villagers with essential products and services that help improve their health, nutrition and economic situations – and they are earning incomes for their own families while they doing so.

La Escuela Ramona now owns a water-purification device. Juan Ramirez got a free eye-exam and bought low-cost reading glasses. Alva Rios now cooks on fuel-efficient stove with a chimney. Julia Garcia has installed energy-efficient light bulbs in her home, and Benito Ramirez owns a solar panel and LED light that brightens and entire room.

By providing access to needed but previously unavailable products, Yoly and Clara are “bridging the last mile” in the supply chain of products needed by the rural poor in an appropriate and sustainable way. In the beginning they simply sold reading glasses, but over time their “basket of solutions” has become a growing enterprise…….

With support from university students, recent graduates and a permanent field staff, Social Entrepreneur Corps ( SEC) provides training in business skills, access to products and seed funding.  To date they have provided training to over 200 women entrepreneurs and broker organizations such as community libraries who can also then provide business support and skills to the ranks of entrepreneurs.

DH - Greg, you have indicated that you don’t see yourself as a volunteer program per se, but as a development program.

GVK – That’s right. We see our role as creating something that is sustainable, that creates a scenario whereby if Social Entrepreneur Corps were to disappear overnight that the program could still run. Skills and resources are created that we contribute to but we don’t own them. They would still survive. It is just smart business to create sustainable infrastructure – to create strong development work.

DH – I know we are all guarding against the creation of dependency and a neo-colonial approach to development, how do you avoid this?

GVK - We work best when we all work together – we bring strengths and weaknesses, and we are constantly curious about our role and we interact with beneficiaries.  Ultimately we  will leave when we don’t add value anymore. We want to create self-sustainability, we are constantly looking at driving costs out of the equation, but having said that we need to do everything from development to departure at the right pace, a timing agenda creates an urgency and – velocity of our interaction should introduced as a factor.  We build trust – this takes time, but creates a sense of cooperation and achievement. If we insist on a transactional relationship only, then there will be no trust and true sustainability becomes elusive if not impossible.

The final section of the interview will run next week and Greg will discuss how young learners experience the program as interns, and what the future holds for him and this model.

As the subtitle of this blog indicates, there is a real connection to Greg’s work, the work of Yoly and Clara and the Millennium Development Goals.  This week and next the G8 and G20 will meet in Ontario, Canada to discuss their way in the world and featured on the agenda are the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).  While leaders and bureaucrats pontificate and navel gaze about actions to support already agreed upon commitments, now and again in September in New York, Greg, his team of interns and Yoly and Clara using their “basket of solutions” are already taking a bite out the MDG.  Moving to eliminate poverty, creating a better, cleaner and sustainable environment, achieving primary universal education, and promoting gender equality and empowering women are tangible products of the work being done in Guatemala. One can assume that success in these goals will also impact the remaining goals through true systemic impact.  It is curious to note that this is not being done via aid or hand outs but rather smart and effective business leadership built upon the back bone of trust, leading to sustainability. 

The Acacia Group is proud to be working with Greg and Social Entrepreneur Corps in Nebaj, and is offering an opportunity for individuals or groups to participate in, observe and learn from SEC and the citizens of Nebaj.  This experience is combined with personal and group leadership development coaching before, during and after the trip for up to three months.  Interest is building, so book soon at or join us on one of our upcoming webinars to get more information.