by Tyler Clark
I walked out of the Guatemala City airport and scanned the familiar mass of people and color. Edgar, a trusted taxista, was on time as usual, leaning casually against the railing. He caught my eye and off we went, ascending Westward from the congested city and into the highlands where farmers carve a hard, peaceful living from the steep hillsides. We passed iconic, wildly-decorated chicken buses, landslide blockages – a consequence of widespread deforestation – and makeshift, tin-roofed homes clustered together as if to defend against the harsh economic and socio-political reality around them.
Guatemala enjoys a stunning natural landscape, rich volcanic soil, and the largest economy in Central America. Yet the distribution of wealth and consumption is profoundly lopsided. 79% of Guatemala’s indigenous majority lives below the poverty line and more than 50% of children under 5 are chronically malnourished. The national government, embroiled in serial corruption scandals, is unable to extend basic social services to the remote rural communities that represent half the country’s population.
Five years ago, I heard about Friendship Bridge, a non-profit microfinance organization that uses its loan fund as an economic engine to provide women in Guatemala with social services like education and preventive women’s health care in communities where governmental programs fall short. Not long after that, I met Karen Larson, President & CEO of Friendship Bridge, at a pull-off near a sweeping section of highway. Client meetings were the agenda of the day which, I assumed, meant visiting small businesses near a town center somewhere. Karen hopped out of the car and approached a hand-built kiosk where she was greeted with hugs. These women, who walk narrow paths down the maize-covered mountainside to sell snacks and sundries to travelers, were the clients.
I’d passed this particular spot frequently while working for an impact-first agricultural lender but had never stopped, much less internalized the daily reality of these entrepreneurial women selling their wares by a remote roadside. This woman’s business earned $1-$4 per day. Her first language was Kaqchikel, though she’d learned enough Spanish to describe her goods and complete transactions, and she had less than 3 years of formal education. In addition to her loan, she also had access to small business training and periodic mobile clinic visits made possible by Friendship Bridge partner, Maya Health Alliance. It was clearly apparent that she was empowered and blossoming as a microentrepreneur and stabilizing force for her household.
Over the past four years as a board member, it’s become clear to me that this woman wasn’t a hand-picked, feel-good example. She’s simply one of the 25,000+ women that benefit from this unique model every year. The 2014-2016 Client Outcomes Report includes some exciting findings from a recent evaluation of Friendship Bridge’s field work. 90% of the clients have provided more or better food for their families, 88% reported stable or increased incomes, and 70% have increased savings. The longer a client is with Friendship Bridge, the better off she and her family will be.
In light of the systemic development challenges facing Guatemala, I’m encouraged by the outcome of this report. It’s a small but important leading indicator on the potential for empowered women to effect grassroots change. I hope you enjoy it.
Tyler brings extensive experience in social enterprise, impact investing, and development finance, most recently through a new venture in the conservation finance space. Formerly, he was the global head of Advisory at Root Capital – a nonprofit social investment fund that invests in small and medium agricultural businesses – where he was responsible for operations in 30+ countries across Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Tyler holds an M.A. in leadership and a B.A. in international business from Bethel University.