The Agricultural School San Francisco in Cerrito, Paraguayan Chaco – a region ofter referred to as “the green hell” – lies just an hour and half away from the traffic and smog of Asunción. The school, founded in 1964 by a group of german missionaries, host today about 150 boys and girls between 15 and 18 years old. They come from low income families all over Paraguay (as well as from neighboring countries). When Fundación Paraguay took over the administration of the school in 2003 the mission was to transform it in a self sufficient institution. After five years the dream came true and now the school is financially self sufficient. Every year 50 kids graduate with a Technical Agriculture-Livestock High School Degree. They do not learn just agriculture, as classes include also accounting, psychology, administration, computer science. For this reason some of them are been hired by Fundación Paraguaya as loan officers; today is not uncommon to meet some 18-19 years old loan officers recently graduated from one of the agricultural schools. A very important aspect is that the students learn how to become agrarian entrepreneurs and after finis
The infrastructures of the school include, a part from the classrooms, an hotel (from which a large part of the earnings of the school come from), a pigsty, a stable for cows, a hen-house, a fish farm, a dairy plant and of course – we are in Paraguay – soccer fields.
The dairy plant in particular, is a golosos (sweet tooth) paradise: the most successful products are dulce de leche, vanilla yogurt and jam, sold in the shop on the highway just outside the school, as well as in the agro-shopping market in Asunción.
The success of the self-sufficient agricultural school is leading to the replication of this model both in Paraguay, where two other schools are active, and abroad. There is a plan to implement a partnership that will bring students from Mali to study in Cerrito.
Mi Pequeña Farmacia (My Little Pharmacy) is one of the projects currently being developed at the Fundación Paraguaya. Microfranchise is a tool that is being used to reach the goal the Fundación Paraguaya has set to itself: eradicate poverty, in its multiple aspects.
This project consists in the selling of a kit containing basic pharmaceutical products to clients of the entrepreneurial women’s committee program. The kit will contain first-need products such as disinfectant, Band-Aid, antifebrile, headache medications etc. Fundación Paraguaya is trying to supply those women with quality products at a low price, by getting pharmaceutical companies involved in the project. The women that will decide to participate in the program (called Promotoras de Salud – Health Promoters) will receive a loan to buy the products and a training on how to use the kit from the Fundación Paraguaya’s loan officers. The women can then resell the kits to their peers in the committee or in their local community at a higher, yet still competitive, price and make a profit out of it.
The project serves a dual goal: give a new source of income to the members of women’s committees and increase their health level as well as the health level of the people to which they will re sell the kits.
Healthcare is still a big issue in Paraguay, where 81.6% of the population doesn’t have a health insurance and only 31% of the population in the lower income quintile seeks medical advice when ill. This project will not only provide drugs and other pharmaceutical products, but also a first aid training on how to use them properly and how to heal wounds. This is expected to have a strong impact in areas where health services are scarce or not affordable.
The intensive training that “Health Promoters” will receive will stress the importance of seeking medical advice in the event of sickness.
This week Nadia and I left Asunciòn for a two day trip in the countryside with the aim of learning more about the activities of Fundación Paraguaya.
We had the opportunity to assist to the reunion of “Comités de agricultores” a program that involves 21 groups countrywide. This groups, that differ in composition from one to another, are formed by men involved in agricultural activities. The purpose of our visit was to meet with these groups (based about 290 km from Asuncion) that were in the process of re-schedule their microloans. These farmers live in an isolated area, meaning that they cannot have a frequent interaction with the Fundación Paraguaya officers (but there are plans to open a new office in the area) and have difficulties to access the agricultural markets to sell their products, as many colleagues worldwide.
One of the groups we met, formed by sesame cultivators, was struggling both because the market price for their product dropped in the last few year from around $1.5 per kilo to $0.4 and because one group member was facing health problems. Their main activity is the cultivation of sesame on fields whose size is on average 10 hectares per family, as well as breeding animals for family consumption.
In the next video we see Lourdes Aguero from Fundación Paraguaya explaining and translating for us from Guarani to Spanish the issues emerged during the meeting with this committee.
Earlier this week along with the other ACCION Ambassadors we went to visit a women’s group not far from Asunciòn. Arriving in the city of Luque you immediately feel the pride of its inhabitants, as the loan officer accompanying us pointed out, often referring to their city as the “Republic of Luque”. After a bumpy ride on the local bus (naturally all blue and yellow – the city colors) we arrived in the neighborhood of Itapuami where the local women committee called Kuña Guapa – which in Guarani means “working women” – was waiting for us. Finally we were completely immersed in to the paraguayan countryside’s atmosphere. The en plain air meeting was surrounded by chickens, cows, dogs, pigs and by children playing soccer. The meeting, called “renovacion”, is a very important moment for the life of the group: it’s held every four months and it’s the moment when all the members discuss their problems, elect the president and treasurer, decide whether to continue with the next loan, accept new members, and most importantly, decide on the amount of the next loan.
The meeting was very informal and although some of the ladies were talking in a mixture of Spanish and Guarani (the local language spoken by 90% of the population) we were able to understand their many jokes.
While Mercedes, the loan officer, was busy with the paperwork we were able to meet five señoras. They told us about their work, their experience of forming a group and the role the loan from ACCION International’s partner, the Fundación Paraguaya, has in changing their lives and that of their families.
In the next two months I will be posting from Paraguay, where I will follow the activities of Fundación Paraguaya, one of the members of the ACCION Network. Along with the other ACCION Ambassadors in Paraguay, I will travel with loan officers in order to collect client stories.
We will measure the impact of microfinance loans on their lives, their experience of working with the microfinance institution and how their economic situation has changed.
Also we will follow other projects of Fundación Paraguaya, in order to see their impact on the lives of people involved.
The activities of Fundaciòn Paraguaya cover a wide range of aspects of the needs of loan income people: along with microfinance there are projects that develop entrepreneurial and agricultural activities.