Turning a Dream into a Reality

Maria Pacheco has a Dream:

Maria Pacheco

“That all communities have houses…that all houses have a window…that from all windows a garden may be seen…that in all gardens there is a ball…that all balls belong to girls and boys that go to school…that all the schools have PTA’s with parents that work…that all who work, may reach the markets…that markets multiply houses with windows…that in the new windows birds and trees are multiplied…so the sky may be blue and the sun bright for everyone!”[1]

Maria has been working for the better part of her life to turn this dream into a reality. Her aim is to provide these communities with a source of income, enabling them to invest in their own futures. Maria spent years working with various communities, trying out a variety of ways to help them produce income. In 2003, she combined the lessons she learned from her many projects, partnered with the talented Queta Rodriguez and Ligia Chinchilla, and founded Kiej de los Bosques, a social enterprise with the goal of connecting rural artisans to the global market, thereby creating a sustainable source of income.

Wakami Jewelry [2]

In order to create lasting impact within the communities, Kiej partners with the NGO, Communities of the Earth. The NGO serves as a business incubator, providing the training necessary to turn a group of rural women into a legalized business. The incubation process takes 2 years and costs a total of $25,000. Communities are selected based on a vision and desire to make money and change their own lives.The training begins with dream workshop where the women share their dreams and visit successful business women. Kiej then sends in a fashion design team to teach the women how to make Wakami branded products which Kiej sells in national and international markets. Over the course of the 2-year incubation period the companies are aided by local technicians and provided with periodic business training courses.

As soon as a community begins to make and save money, they begin the Wakami Village Methodology, a 3 part combination of goods and services to transform their lives.[3]

  1. Wakami Family: 5 important indicators are monitored: income generated, taxes paid, weight and height of children, school attendance, banking and savings accounts.
  2. Wakami Home: sustainable products that can significantly improve health, the economy, and the environment are presented to the communities at affordable prices. These products include: Ecofiltro water filters, Onil stoves, rain water collecting systems, Quetsol solar lighting systems, and organic garden kits.
  3. Wakami Community: programs are created to encourage community participation. These include: solid waste management programs, recreational parks programs, participation in local decision making spaces, girls clubs, school improvements, and medical and dental missions.

Kiej currently works with 17 rural companies (16 in Guatemala and 1 in Panama), 12 of which are comprised of mothers and 5 of young people working to pay for their education. The Wakami products are exported to more than 14 countries around the world.

This rural development project seems great on paper but it wasn’t until visiting one of the villages and hearing the leaders of the rural companies speak about how their lives have been changed that I was able to truly appreciate the incredible level of sustainable development that Maria and her team have instigated. What stood out most, as the business leaders spoke, was the new-found sense of empowerment and pride they had in themselves, their skills, and the life-changing products they were able to provide for their families.


Francisca, the leader of the San Rafael based company, dreams to own her own land someday. Although she cannot read or write, she has a very keen business sense and was elected to lead the Wakami company in her village. She had never worked before because she had to stay home to care for her family. At first, she told us, she thought the idea of starting a business was much to difficult. She was also wary of the idea because she had seen so many development projects come and go. However, she took the risk, and as soon as she earned her first paycheck she began to believe in the project. She is able to work from her home and is currently learning to read and write. She also takes a bus into Guatemala City once a week to deliver the finished products, pick up new supplies, and learn how to make new designs which she then teaches to the rest of the women in her company. She told us, with tears in her eyes, that her company’s paycheck last month (for 4 women) was 7,700Q, almost $1,000.


Maria, the leader of the Ixil based company, admitted that in the beginning she didn’t believe in the business. The women in her community were accustomed to staying at home all day and no one wanted to do extra work. However, she said that as soon as they began to make a little bit of money they became encouraged. Now they all want to work so much that they stay up all night when a big order comes in. Before they started their company, none of the women had ever been to the bank and had no idea how to deposit checks. Now, Maria proudly proclaimed, dealing with money is easy for them and most have their own savings accounts, separate from their husbands. Last months paycheck for the Ixil company (for 16 women) was 49,000Q, almost $6,300.


Alejandra, the leader of the Candelaria based company, said that in the beginning her husband was not happy about her work. During the first four months of training, he was angry that she spent so much time working but had nothing to show from it. The husbands in her village expected their meals at a certain time and the chores to be done a certain way. They were not used to their wives being busy and it took a while for them to become more flexible. As soon as Alejandra began to make money, her husband started to appreciate his wives job. In the community of Candelaria, the income earned from the company was especially important because the husbands worked on a coffee plantation and had little or no source of income for the majority of the year. Alejandra said she felt empowered that she was able to play such an important role in providing the main source of income for her family during the non-coffee season. With the money, she has been able to purchase a water filter, a solar energy system, and a stove. She no longer has to burn wood to purify water or to cook, purging the 1-room, dirt floor home that her 6 person family shares of harmful smoke. Now she also has a source of light so her children can study in the evenings and she can work to produce jewelry.

The visit with these incredible women ended with a circle of light in which everyone linked arms, lit candles, and listened to the inspirational words of Maria Pacheco,

“An individual dream is very powerful but you can’t stop a collective dream from coming to life.”


[1] http://www.kiejdelosbosques.com/kiejDeLosBosques_dream.html

[2] https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151165456283868&set=o.10406620986&type=3&theater

[3] http://www.comunidadesdelatierra.org/metodologiaDeTrabajo_en.html


Measuring Impact

Measuring impact is one of the most important as well as one of the most difficult aspects of social business. Social and environmental impact has been measured for years, so why is it still so problematic? Why hasn’t anyone created a formula or database that spits out a list of simple metrics based on categories of data? The answer is that impact goes far beyond numbers or anything that can be calculated or inputted into a computer.

Violeta is 2nd from the right

Byoearth (How Worms Can Change You Life) is a great example of a social enterprise whose impact cannot merely be measured numerically. I had the opportunity to speak with Violeta, a member of the female co-op that owns and runs one of Byoearth’s vermicomposting plants in the rural community of San Bartolome, Guatemala. When I asked her how working at the vermicomposting plant has changed her life, she told me it is a distraction from the other hardships she has to deal with. She said although it provides a source of income, she does not see it as a job; it is a place where she and her friends can come and work together. In less than a year, Violeta told me, they had built a community and a network of support. In addition, working at the plant gives them hope for the future. The women are currently in the midst of planning multiple projects, including expanding the vermicomposting plant as well as a community-wide bottle recycling program.

Byoearth’s impact could easily be portrayed by the amount of trash turned into fertilizer, the acres of soil restored to health, and the number of local Guatemalans employed. However, it is stories like Violeta’s that depict the true impact of Byoearth. Even in the socially-aware world of impact investing and social enterprise, these types of stories are not always heard. In the current age of technology, business-people have become accustomed to an incredibly fast-paced work environment where information is reduced to twitter-length fragments and e-mails are responded to within seconds. The Mulago Foundation, a well-known social impact focused foundation recently published a guide to thinking about impact. Their advice focuses on concise messaging, carefully chosen indicators, accurate numbers, impact-related data, and honest cost calculations. Although these are all incredibly important aspects of measuring impact, it is important to realize that numbers do not show the whole picture.

Personal antectodes are what truly matter in the world of social business. They add a humanistic element to a topic generally depicted solely by numbers and help forge an intimate attachment to the matter. Just because these stories make impact much more difficult to measure does not mean they should be ignored.  We must take a step back from our fast-paced lives, accept the fact that social and environmental impact cannot be measured by a simple spreadsheet, and listen to the stories of women like Violeta that depict the true impact created by social enterprise.

How Worms Can Change Your Life

For the past month I have had the pleasure to work alongside an incredible social entrepreneur,  Maria Rodriguez, who is often referred to as the “worm lady”. Maria started a vermicomposting business called Byoearth in 2007, at the age of 21. Vermicomposting is the practice of using worms to transform biodegradable waste into 100% organic fertilizer. Maria stores her worms at a production plant which she built herself at her family’s coffee plantation. The worms are fed coffee pulp and cow excrement and the fertilizer they produce is sold to farmers and to NGOs who distribute it through various projects. Maria also runs programs in which she works with rural women and the impoverished women who live near the trash dump in Guatemala City and teaches them how to feed the worms themselves and produce their own organic fertilizer. These programs provide a sustainable source of income for many women.

Maria has utilized many of the resources that the world of social enterprise has to offer in order to help Byoearth develop and succeed. In 2009 she participated in Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Incubator. In 2011, she was accepted into the Unreasonable Institute’s fellowship program and in 2012, she participated in Agora Partnership’s Impact Accelerator program.

The following is an interview I conducted with Maria Rodriguez:

Why worms? “I think that we owe part of our ability to survive to worms. Worms are the most magnificent and important creatures in the creation of topsoil and therefore in the creation of everything we grow and eat. Worms are the only animals that produce vermicompost, a product that provides many benefits to agricultural soil, including increased ability to retain moisture, better nutrient-holding capacity, better soil structure, and higher levels of microbial activity (among others).[1]

How has creating Byoearth impacted your own life? “Creating and developing this business has radically changed my life in every possible way. Not only it has given me independence to build and live my dreams but also a way of contributing to my country’s development. Founding a business has helped me to learn so much about economic and social development in Guatemala and around the world, it has opened my eyes and heart to different cultures and it has given me the responsibility to be a good example for others. Byoearth and worms have introduced me to a new way of thinking, to a world where anything is possible, where dreams come true when you work hard and surround yourself with positive minds.”

What do you say to the women who are grossed out by the worms? “I usually say: “No! But look at their beautiful yellow tail!!” and that seems to get women’s attention and notice that they are not the regular earthworms. Most of the time I find myself in the task of communicating the greatness of worms because they are immediately associated with slimy ugly creatures.”

How does it feel to be a female entrepreneur in the male-dominated field of agriculture? “I think it’s a great challenge to have and a way of differentiating me from the usual masculine figure in agricultural business. Female participation in agriculture is increasing every year and that gives me a lot of hope. Nevertheless, I am prudent and cautious not to expose myself in any situation that can be dangerous; I recognize that there are some security challenges that Guatemala has to overcome.”

What do you feel is your role in the impact investing ecosystem? “Entrepreneurs are a very important part (but not the only) in the impact investing ecosystem. Personally I like to participate in spaces related to impact investing. Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from investors and field experts and vice versa. As an entrepreneur I feel the responsibility to share insights and field work experience and also the need to ask for help to the different actors in the ecosystem.”

How do you balance the social versus the financial returns? “Social impact builds economic returns and vice versa. The more fertilizer we sell, the more social and environmental returns there are and that creates more demand. Vermicomposting has the virtue of building strong social, environmental and economic impact. Worms really do all the work and they don’t ask for a raise…. (joke!) Worms add so many beneficial bacteria and nutrients to waste, they add a lot of value and that produces cost effectiveness and high margins, unlike many other products.”

What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? “I would advise them to work hard everyday with joy and passion and in the hard times to be patient because when you do things the right way there are always great outcomes. Also I would advise to never be afraid of asking for help, to build and integrate values into your business and just enjoy the ride. Social entrepreneurship is the best adventure in life!

What does the future of byoearth look like? “I envision Byoearths production model and programs in Latin America and the rest of the world. In Guatemala, we are getting ready to scale up our production plant, to develop more products, to reach the most remote subsistence farmers and to introduce vermicomposting as a sustainable practice in urban and rural communities.”

Doing Good and Making Money: too Good to be True?

All throughout college I struggled with the fact that upon graduation, I would have to choose: do good or make money? Should I find a minimally-paying job with an NGO where I could leave the office each day feeling satisfied I had made at least a little bit of difference in someones life but then be stuck at home on the weekends because I couldn’t afford to go out with my friends? Or should I enter the world of banking or consulting where I would count down the seconds until my job ended and my social life began? Lucky for me, while I was dealing with this dilemma in the back of my head for four years, the market was creating my perfect solution: social business.  The three main actors in this new market sector – impact investors, accelerators, and social entrepreneurs – all shared the desire to harness creative talent, serve those in need, and make profit while doing so. These goals combined everything I loved about business and philanthropy, creating a fast-paced competitive environment, constant innovation and improvement, profitability, and best of all – a focus on social and environmental impact. Furthermore, as a liberal arts grad, my mind has been trained to switch between multiple subjects and topics on a daily, even hourly, basis. Since the social business sector is still developing and has yet to diverge into distinct specializations, I can refrain from attempting to figure out exactly which aspect I want to focus on and can continue to stimulate my mind with a multitude of subjects.

After spending the past 3 weeks working with a social enterprise and scouting for a pair of impact investors, I have stopped to ask myself, “is it really possible to do good and make a profit?”. The answer I have found is that it is possible but it is not easy. There is a reason that business and philanthropy have traditionally remained separate. In the developing world – the focus of the majority of the social business sector –  the investments are risky, the returns are low, the market lacks data, corruption is common, and transparency is a major issue. In order to overcome these obstacles entrepreneurs must find a creative and competitive edge, accelerators need to aggressively scout, and investors must remain flexible, patient and dedicated to the targeted impact.

In my experience, I have found that some of the most successful social enterprises are those with the most simple products. Creating something at a low cost does not mean you must forgo quality. Ecofiltro is a perfect example of this. They produce clay filters that make water from virtually any source 100% safe to drink. The product is so simple that Guatemalans were afraid to buy it at first because they did not believe it could work. The product creates an enormous health, environmental, and social benefit and is very profitable. Byoearth is another social business with a very simple product. Byoearth creates impact and profit by feeding garbage to worms who then naturally produce organic fertilizer. Both of these companies have been able to make substantial profits and enormous impact by utilizing creative but simple solutions to very relevant problems in Guatemala. These are the types of organizations that prove it is possible to do good and make money.