02 October 2006

Day 2 Field Based Training

On the second day of field based training, we went to a nonprofit organization in Santiago, an aldea of San Lucas, Sacatepequez. The entire area was known as El Teja, which means (roofing) tile. The dirt there is heavy in clay and is ideal for making the classic clay roofing that you can see in lots of architecture in the parts of Central and North America where there was Spain held a sphere of influence and there was a lot of clay. El Teja was supposedly named during the mid-1500s as Antigua was being built because it served as the source for the needed tile.
The center was originally opened by a European development organization in order to serve as a model to show the community methods of living that were more environmentally sustainable and healthful and provide a source of income for women.
One of its primary 'products' was the improved stove. In many poorer parts of the world, food is cooked over an open wood fire, often indoors. This causes numerous health problems because people (usually women) cooking over these fires suffer lots of respiratory problems because of all of the smoke. The second demographic affected is children. In addition to prolonged smoke inhalation, children frequently are badly burned from the fires. To remedy this, there are campaigns in many areas to have people switch to using 'improved stoves -- woodfire stoves in which you build a (usually concrete) casing and put a metal top that resembles the tops of traditional woodstoves. While the health concerns serve as a convincing measure for developers, the most convincing aspect of these stoves is that they use approximately 1/2 as much wood as the traditional way of cooking. The cost of these stoves is about the same as a month's supply of wood in Guatemala, which means that families make the money back on the investment within the first two months.
The method of community involvement is excellent: the center tries to make itself known both to people involved in development and to communities it hopes to serve. Usually they are approached by groups neighboring the communities they have already served. If a group can round up at least eight people interested in getting a stove and paying for the supplies, a trainer sets a date to go to the site. Often the people interested in the stoves are asked to acquire the concrete, lime, and stovepipe needed on their own. If appropriate to the area, some people make their own brick beforehand or use some other masonry technique common in the community. The one component they cannot easily acquire, the stovetop, is brought out by the trainer. The trainer spends 1 1/2 days at the helping them build their stoves. This usually simply entails either using a lime & stone mortar to stack cinder or adobe blocks or making the cement walls and making a hole in the roof for the stovepipe to go through. Trainers work to ensure that people are confident enough that they could make their own again if they needed to. This is so that if other people in the community desire to make their own as well, the only dependence on outside help is to acquire the stovetop. Contact information is given to anyone who will take it.
A less successful subject are above-ground dry latrines. Urine & feces don't actually stink as bad if they're kept separate, so the latrines have 2 compartments for feces and urine in a bottle. After defecating, you drop a few of ashes down the toilet. Once one compartment of feces is full, you switch to the other. About 4 weeks after being full, the feces has decomposed into incredibly rich fertilizer. In addition, the urine can be diluted and used to balance the pH of the soil, creating a latrine with zero negative impact or health risks.
Environmentally-conscious development agencies fell in love with this technology a couple of decades ago and promoted their use in much of Guatemala. Many agencies went to communities all over and set these up (often for free) for families.
The problem with the latrines is that they're a bit more work than regular latrines, and really not worth the effort for most people. The bulk of the reward for the work is the personal pride some people may feel for having zero negative environmental impact -- a trait found much less often in farmers than environmentally conscious development workers.
NGOs often didn't spend enough time explaining why ash was needed and what to do after four weeks, how to dilute the urine, and why it was worth the effort. In addition, since these latrines were put up for free by agencies, communities were indifferent to the success of the program. In the end, many of these latrines ended up getting filled once and never used again. Even worse, some farmers that weren't properly taught dilution of the urine ended up just spraying straight urine on their fields, which can kill or stunt some of the more delicate seedlings.
Eventually most organizations scrapped the above-ground latrine model and accepted that the old method was more practical for normal life. The primary lesson learned is that what sounds like a good idea to a bunch of helpful people can be a bad idea for people who live in the slightly harsher real world. At this particular organization, the above-ground latrine is still used by staff and is a source of pride, and some members seem to not understand why the rest of the campo isn't using them.
The Center also also has a garden of endemic medicinal plants frequently used to cure various ailments. Most Mayan families living in the country have a small garden of medicinal plants used non their own, and Mayan women grow up learning the uses of each plant. Natural antiseptics, antacids, analgesics, antihistamines and hydrocortisones are grown by each family in small quantities. Women in the community often go there to purchase more when their families are running low. The plants serve the same purposes as most over-the-counter drugs, but cost one-tenth or one-hundredth of the price. (Pharmaceutical companies maintain unreasonably high prices in lower-income markets on both prescription and non-prescription drugs for dozens of reasons that I won't bore you with here.) The most interesting component of the medicinal plant project is that it actually pays for itself.
The final and most relevant project was that of shampoos. Another common knowledge to many women here is how to make your own shampoos, pomades, and soaps. By combining this with the medicinal plant garden, the company began making its own shampoos. It began selling them at the center for Q15 per bottle (US$2) and planned on selling its shampoos to a big-box store here (purchased by Wal-Mart on Jan 1 2006) called Paiz. To sell to Paiz, they had to obtain a Registro Sanitario (Sanitary Certification) for their manufacturing techniques.
In Guatemala, most people buy most of their goods in open air markets and tiendas (general stores). Neither of these venues require a Registro Sanitario. As a result, most small companies don't bother to go through the government hoops to acquire such a thing. This results in two markets of products -- the 'informal' market where most transactions occur for medium quality, low-priced goods and a formal market full of regulations where you generally higher-priced and high-quality goods. Transactions are usually smaller on the informal market: producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers all purchase on smaller scales.
Because most small businesses don't bother with a Registro Sanitario, the rules for Sanitary Certification have reacted by setting qualifications appropriate for large-scale companies: separate rooms for various procedures, capital-intensive investments such as connecting to sewage lines, etc.
In the case of the shampoo business, they were a tiny organization that ended up investing thousands of dollars to obtain certification. After six years of inspections and fundamentally changing their facilities, they have obtained their certification. In the past six years, however, the business has never profited due to the enormous cosn ts to meet certification. They finally are at a point where they may make a profit, but they can hardly pay the electric bill.
The mistake made by the organization is that it tried to move from a tiny market to an enormous one. Had it maintained its smaller markets and sought to increase its size to sell in, say, 25 tiendas before it even considered getting its Registro Sanitario, it may have been able to make it. As it stands, the shampoo business may not be able to enter Paiz due to its financial burdens.
The financial situation of the entire organization is also a great case study for one of the most common mistakes made in development in the past 20 years. A European agency and several expatriate development workers came to the area and paid in full for the building of the agency. Afterwards, they paid a mix of local and expatriate staff well to maintain the program for roughly ten years. Partly because so many things appear cheap compared to life in Europe, they supplied the organization with most everything that they needed to thrive as an organization. As years trudged on, the European organization realized that the local nonprofit wasn't making adequate steps towards self-sustaining, and tired of footing the bill, so it terminated funding of the project. The program managed to stay alive but has shrunk considerably and, years later, has yet to have a year it didn't have to shrink.
The good news is that now that they have their Registro Sanitario, have pared down their costs to a bare minimum, an employ entirely local staff, and have one full-time volunteer whose job is to expand their markets and turn a profit, they have a pretty good chance of reinventing themselves.

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