(A Few of) Our Favorite Guatemalan Social Enterprises

As many of you know, Katie and I traveled to Guatemala in December for an investigative research trip. Our goal was to expose others to important cultural vantage points and find and spotlight meaningful travel experiences, bridging the gap between people situated in different contexts and cultures. Meaningful travel is important for a variety of reasons, namely helping to put money into local economies, engaging an empathic vantage point, and revealing systems, ideas, and insights that are focused on human beings and their unique situations and environments.

We recently published a post about our time with Y’abal Handicrafts, an organization based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala doing amazing work to support female artisans and families all across the country. Here are a few others we discovered in our time exploring Guatemala.

Let us know if you are interested in getting in touch with any or all of these organizations. We have contacts at all and would love to connect you if you know of a way your skills, talents, or resources could be helpful in supporting these initiatives.   

Alma de Colores, San Juan La Laguna

Alma de Colores (Soul of Colors) is a social inclusion and occupational development project for youth and young adults with disabilities from San Juan La Laguna and other communities on Lake Atitlan. The organization employs and trains young people in the community, giving them access to valuable skills and training workshops, one a bread-baking workshop and the other, a handicraft workshop. Both initiatives are used to sustain their growth--the bread is sold weekly to interested community members and also sold in their lovely restaurant in San Juan and the handicrafts are put on sale for holidays and special events. 

Alma de Colores is a collaboration between Centro Maya in Guatemala, and Educative Orientation Center Association (COE) in Italy. Centro Maya is a nonprofit that offers non-discriminatory services in special education, physical therapy, speech therapy, psychology, animal assisted therapy, occupational therapy, and music and recreation therapy to disabled people in San Juan and the surrounding communities. Their mission is to significantly boost the quality of life for people with disabilities and give them the tools to succeed and prosper.

An association of Christian volunteers in Italy, the COE is committed to international development amid forms of cultural dialogue. They have supported projects all over the world, in places as far as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Bangladesh, and Papua New Guinea. While the focus of Alma de Colores is towards the improvement of the quality of life for disabled youth and young adults, the COE’s reach has also extended to the fields of education, social development towards health and traditional medicine and cases of sustainability such as the conservation of natural resources, biodiversity protection and rural development and nutrition security.

We ate in their beautiful restaurant a few times, getting to know the owners and their objectives. The space is sunny and cheerful, and boasts bright and vibrant colors that make you feel alive and at home. My favorite thing? The homemade papaya jam and fresh baked bread!

Alterna Impact, Quetzaltenango (Xela)   

We had the great pleasure of meeting with Tyler Hollenbach, Director of Impact Investment at Alterna Impact in Quetzaltenango. Tyler left a corporate job a few years back for the opportunity for a fellowship with Alterna. While the fellowship was only planned for six months, he fell in love with the community of Quetzaltenango and business model of Alterna, and has been with the enterprise for now over two years. We sat down for coffee with Tyler to learn more.

Alterna was founded by Daniel Buchbinder, who, prior to founding Alterna, was working for an NGO focused in technologies for rural productivity. He saw a need for an entrepreneurship-based enterprise in Xela due to the lack of financial and business support services and the need for innovative community members to have access to the best avenues for business commercialization.

Tyler explained to us that Alterna takes a ground up/bottom up approach to their entrepreneurship model, working to first identify entrepreneurs and businesses that are creating social and environmental value within their communities and then providing them with a robust and extensive mentorship program. This includes basic financial literacy courses and business model development, as well as access to new and helpful resources. Next, they help these entrepreneurs create and launch their business ventures and integrate community needs into their strategy, advocating for not only strong development long-term, but also a healthy and prosperous integration into the community. Alterna then provides highly strategic methodologies to these entrepreneurs to help them scale their business model and present it to potential funders who can provide financial resources to help these business grow significantly and prosper in the long term.

We learned as well about the cultural barriers that Alterna has faced since its inception. These cultural barriers occur on both sides--Alterna’s team must be sure that those they are working with entrepreneurs and business leaders who are up for the challenge and committed to involvement with their program. On the flip side, community members have seen other examples of involvement with foreign aid, and are sometimes skeptical of the influence of Alterna and their development process. Tyler comments that the way this challenge is overcome is through a dedicated commitment on Alterna’s side to seeing that involved parties needs are met and sustained long term. “We really focus on getting to understand what drives people’s behavior and how we can connect them to the resources that will serve their growth long term,” Tyler comments.  

From coffee, we were able to meet a few other team members and see the beautiful space where the work and ideas are conceptualized and grown. I especially appreciated the sense of community within their internal team, and their ability to integrate their solutions directly with community members on the ground. They have great aspirations for the future as well, beginning to expand to other Latin American countries in the near future.

Maya Chik, San Juan La Laguna

For the week we stayed in San Juan La Laguna, we lived in a small eco lodge, called by the name of Maya Chik. Owned and operated by an Austrian woman named Evelyn, it was apparent to see her passion for—and commitment to—making San Juan a more sustainable community. The property boasts four residencies, with options and accommodations for any type of traveler. All toilets are compostable, and she is working towards building a water tank that will function as an ecological cleaning facility for grey-water and rainwater.

Nearby gardens grow herbs, seasonal vegetables, coffee, and some fruit, which all go directly into supporting the vegan/vegetarian restaurant on the property. We ate there a number of times, enjoying huge fresh salads, coconut curry, and the occasional sweet (carrot cake, anyone?).

Evelyn’s inspiration for Maya Chik came from her upbringing in a small village community in Austria, where sustainable practices such as recycling and composting are deeply embedded in culture and community. She was always intrigued by the idea of a hostel that is also part community center. In the restaurant, she hosts weekly brunches with the community and she puts on workshops with community members who are skilled in a specific craft, such as weaving or cooking. She hopes to perpetuate the idea that everyone can be a volunteer in the community—even the local people. She comments that sometimes, volunteering is seen as a foreign thing and that native community members don’t always see the value in it. By exploring these ideas, she gives the people in San Juan the opportunity to teach and grow initiatives they are passionate about, therefore facilitating the preservation of culture. She also puts on demonstrations and discussions about sustainability, teaching children about gardening and farming, how to reuse garbage, and the benefits of treating the earth with respect.  

Even more, Evelyn works passionately to integrate and share her intellect with community members. She teaches an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) class once per week, and has conceived an innovative business incentive model to encourage her (mostly adult) students to commit to—and maintain involvement in—the classes. Her model? She charges 80 Quetzales (about $10) up front for the 8-week class. If the students come to a minimum of six classes, pass the exam, and do all of the homework, they get the 80Q back. She says that this model has greatly increased the amount of students who stick with the class and commit to the full eight weeks, and has also seen a greater improvement in their test and homework scores. Pretty innovative, right?

We have great appreciation for Evelyn’s work and the influence that Maya Chik has on the community of San Juan. While Maya Chik could be generalized as “foreign-run,” Evelyn is sensitive to the needs and aspirations of her community. She has totally immersed herself in the local culture, even occasionally adapting the typical Guatemalan dress, and hiring local Guatemalan people to work for her—giving them not only jobs but also a voice in how they think the hostel and community center should be maintained and managed.