Volunteering with Comencemos has been a very different experience than I’ve had so far. As a new NGO, they suffer from something all new companies/organizations suffer from – lack of funds. From Rene’s point of view, I think he just wanted me to come and share ideas given my MBA and traveling experience. I think I was able to take that one step farther though.
Comencemos has four objectives/focuses at the moment:
- Develop low-cost housing
- Eco-municipalities (making Morazan/El Salvador more sustainable and more environmentally friendly)
- Rural libraries (currently none exist)
- Changing the attitude here and empowering people
All four focuses are different and from the start I said we needed to focus on something. After about a week of really great and enjoyable conversations, and the heartbreaking experience of visiting the local school, I told Rene that my Peruvian roommates in Spain had a phrase for what we were doing – “rascando juevos”. The direct translation is “scratching eggs”, but eggs is slang for balls in Spanish. I was looking for something more concrete despite all the great ideas we had come up with.
And then we finally kind of put something together that came about piece by piece. He needs a way to make Comencemos more financially sustainable. He wants to help the people of Morazan (the poorest state in El Salvador and where the organization is located). The organization I’ll volunteer with in Nicaragua funds itself selling local coffee to cafes and stores in Pittsburgh. The cooperative I volunteered with in Honduras is fair-trade. Piece by piece things fell into place.
As I mentioned before, Morazan has tons of agave and is great at making products from it – chiefly hammocks. Rene knows women who make hammocks at home. We decided we’d try and make Comencemos sustainable by selling fair-trade Morazan-made hammocks to the U.S. We can leverage the gigantic Salvadoran community in the U.S., which is conveniently concentrated in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington DC, and Texas. The community already in the U.S. will help us get started as they’ll be eager to help a Salvadoran organization help itself.
In Morazan, pretty much every family has members working/living in the U.S. There is a strong base of support there already, and they’d presumably make great first customers as we scale up. Hopefully someone there can act as a distributor to get the products from here in stores and online there.
Comencemos would pay each hammock maker the price they want, then add on its take before sending it off to the U.S. We’ll have a card included with each hammock with the picture of the woman who weaved the hammock, how the purchase personally helps her economically via fair-trade, and how the purchase helps Morazan via Comencemos’s projects. It’s a win-win-win situation. Let’s see if it works!
I think there’s lots of potential, the story is great, the Morazan connection is a bonus, and hammocks are a severely under-utilized product in the U.S. But the idea of an NGO striving to fund itself by directly helping the local community and then reinvesting its profits into the community are, to me, the most important element of the story. Donations are fine, but being active shows another level of commitment.
In addition, I helped Rene with some research into low-cost solar power solutions that he could provide to families and the government here. For example, solar-powered street lighting since most remote areas have no street lighting at all. Similarly, many rural homes have no electricity and a low-cost solar solution could provide them with enough power for basic household needs like lighting and refrigeration.
I still feel like I didn’t help them much. But if this works out and allows them to grow as an organization I’ll be thrilled beyond words. And if Rene can get some solar projects up and running I think it’ll be great for Morazan and El Salvador in general. Rene has big goals and a little funding will go a long way to realizing them and improving lives here.