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Poor service wins?

BAYAN CHINA- let me begin this post by a set of questions and answers that might blow your mind, so please be cautious and ready before you read on…

“So what bank do you use the most?” Asked our interviewer Xue Wang.

“Postal Saving Bank (PSB).” Answered Mr. Fu, one of the five farmers in this focused group interview.

“What do you think of PSB’s service?” Asked Xue Wang.

“Their service is poor and their customer service is very bad. The cashers chat with each other just ignoring customers at the counter. There is always a crowed of people in the bank. Sometimes, I waited for a long time but when it came to their close time, they just close all the counters…” Mr. Fu continued to pour out the bitterness he has received from PSB, as the others began to raise voice to add their own complains.

“If you want to get faster service at PSB, you have to buy a bag of fertilizer from them, or you buy a lottery ticket from them, which never gives anything…” complained Mr. Liu, “it is unfair for people who don’t want to spend money to jump the queue.”

“So why do you still use PSB the most?” Asked our Xue Wang and I’m sure it is also your curious question by now.

“Because we can only get the grain direct subsidy from PSB.” Explained Mr. Liu, “The big boss of PSB was lucky to win service for this policy from the government, before that, no one goes to PSB.”

focused group interview with five farmers from Huashan Village, 07/07/2011

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IKATU – The Four Committees

The IKATU event of September 4th was a source of inspiration for all of us that attended. The atmosphere was full of laughter, joy and hard work that left anyone in doubt motivated for what is coming ahead. Women from different areas were brought together for the one main feature they have in common: the desire to overcome poverty.


A very early morning start introduced the pilot committees Divino Niño Jesus, Ñañopytyvomba, Fortaleza and La Esperanza to each other for the first time since IKATU has been implemented, giving them the opportunity to see other women in similar situations to their own. The event took place in the San Francisco Agricultural School, which also allowed the women to learn about the varying projects Fundacion Paraguaya invests in. The day began with a fun icebreaking activity of capture the flag where the spirit of the woman shone, doing everything they could (and I mean everything) so that their group would win. The strength and motivation of the teams was visible from start to finish, reminding us how it was purely thanks to their aspiration to succeed that our microfinance projects are possible.

Ice Breaker

After finishing to set up and to get to know each other better, the women presented their businesses, experiences, and aims for the future. IKATU encourages each committee to have a group business to increase the sources of income of the women, whose profits go towards two savings funds, the caja grande and the caja chica (big safe and small safe). The savings may be for general needs at the end of year or specific goals, such as group investment, like an oven!


Divino Niño Jesus

Each committee has different activities: Divino Niño Jesus makes chipas and cakes (the chipa recipe came from them), Ñañopytyvomba makes cleaning products, Fortaleza sells fruit and La Esperanza makes typical Paraguayan foods. Over the two first months of the project, the women have raised up to $200 for their savings just through group businesses. The women also presented the different community projects they organize. Divino Niño Jesus for example plans monthly chocolate snacks for all the kids of the neighbourhood, in remembrance of the Child Christ who has always kept the committee united. Throughout my stay at the Fundacion, this is probably the aspect that has striked me the most: the pure generosity of the women in these committees, their genuine desire to help not only themselves but anyone who may find themselves in constraining life situations.




Speeches on positive deviance were the next activity of the day (see Farah’s previous post) followed by self-evaluation of the women of their poverty levels. We divided into four groups (one for each committee), each led by an employee and an intern from IKATU. I personally was helping La Esperanza with Fabiola Cantero (the IKATU loan officer). Each woman was given a visual questionnaire with about 40 poverty indicators of the total 50. They had to answer what category they felt they belonged to for each of the indicators while Fabiola and I explained them in more detail with the help of posters. They then had to choose three indicators that they felt were priorities to fulfill. A large portion of the priorities concerned the living space, the wider community’s development and health. I will develop this further in a future post.

La Esperanza

The purpose of this latter activity was to test the sustainability of IKATU in the future, experimenting whether it is more reliable to let the women assess their own poverty levels or the loan officers. The difficulty with this has been that some of the women can only measure poverty from their perspective, which can lead to an underestimation of their poverty level. In fact, the results tended to be quite different from the initial surveys done by IKATU staff; overall the women tend to place themselves in a richer category than they were previously placed in, particularly for housing, infrastructure, health, and environment.[1]

The day ended with a presentation on the microfranchises that the IKATU team has been researching and preparing. This was useful for us to get the clients’ perspective on the possible success of the differing kits we plan on selling. After being given gifts from the school (including dulce de leche, yogurt, marmalades, and vegetables), the women had time to do business with the students and each other!


Speaking to the women after the event, we learned that the day was a big success. They all had a lot of fun, got the chance to learn new ideas, and finally were inspired. I think the same went for everyone at the event, including team IKATU!

A selection of pictures from the event can be seen at the beginning and end of the video!

[1] Not all the women were present at the event, causing the results to vary somewhat. 

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Junior Achievement Paraguay

Paraguay is country that thrives when it comes to entrepreneurship. All the side streets are filled with family run restaurants, Paraguayan crafts and clothes boutiques, and of course the many corner shops. Because of this variety and competition, it is important that future entrepreneurs learn from a young age how to make their business special and successful. As a foundation that promotes the entrepreneurial spirit, that is exactly what Fundación Paraguaya does.

Last week I had the chance to fill in for a fellow intern while he was absent. The area of interest was Junior Achievement, a field that tries to bring the entrepreneurship of young people of Paraguay to the forefront. Junior Achievement is one of the three main branches of the Fundación (alongside Microfinance and the Agricultural Schools). The aim of this initiative is to teach young people about business, applying the business skills to their work place, and finally about the importance of contributing to the development of their communities.

Banks in Action


Junior Achievement works with young people from all over Paraguay, adapting the workshops to the type of community they work in. The students are taught about the economy in an interactive method, with a wide range of activities to tune into. The idea is to motivate the students to think as entrepreneurs so that when they graduate from high school or university, they will have the necessary skills to enter the workplace with the right frame of mind and understanding as to how things function. Depending on the activity, they are taught a vast array of tools, such as how to set interest rates, administration, marketing and publicity.

I participated in one of the Banks in Action workshops, which is a simulator programme in which students from all over the country form groups of three to set interest rates based on a few preset figures concerning savings, credit, and deposit certificates in the short and long run. The goal is to generate as high an income as possible based on these rates. From each school or city, the group of students who makes the most virtual money moves to the national round, in Asuncion (takes place in October). The national winners then go to the finals, in Costa Rica. The importance of this activity is teamwork toward achieving a goal, and the development of an understanding on how banks can generate profits.

The winners of Banks in Action - Caacupe


Another one of the main projects that Junior Achievement engages in is the Cooperative, the Company and Community Leadership. Bringing these together, Fundación Paraguaya has developed a six-month competitive project in which students from high schools around the country have to create their own innovative business from scratch. The final activity is a day in a shopping center where they get the opportunity to sell their products to the public and discover who the overall best business was (the best wins a few prizes). The businesses ranged from making gingerbread cookies and chocolate, to boxers and bamboo products. This past Saturday, the company “Nutripar JA” from Ybycuí who makes roasted coffee, flour and bean biscuits won the first prize.

Check out the ‘Feria de Emprendedores’ at which Nutripar JA’s products were presented.


Positive Deviance – IKATU!

(Please click here for an earlier ACCION Ambassador blog post offering a detailed explanation of the IKATU project. )

The basic concept behind the IKATU project is to improve the living conditions of the women through dedication and hard work, tackling all 50 indicators. While IKATU focuses on 6 different dimensions, a substantial amount of attention is still given to the question of ‘income’ and how to raise the family’s earnings. To achieve this objective, one of the approaches the Fundacion Paraguaya uses is to look at their most successful clients, those women who have improved their life style quite dramatically. The key is to observe their behavior and to understand what they are doing differently from others in order to understand how they became examples of Positive Deviance.

A fundamental concept of ‘positive deviance’ is to look and identify the details, the minute variations that the positive deviants display, which differ from the behavior of the others; that way, these successful women entrepreneurs can share WHAT it is that they do which makes them successful. Although an argument I repeatedly heard expresses that “well, some women just have the know-how, they just carry the entrepreneurial spirit,” IKATU doesn’t see life in such deterministic terms. While some of the actions of the positive deviants may come naturally, these women can teach the other committee members their skills and methodology. What I appreciate about the idea of positive deviance is the encouraging approach it takes, focusing on what works, rather than harboring on all that is woe and bad with micro-entrepreneurs. It builds on the notions that you can learn from best practices and from each other, as opposed to introducing a foreign style of business administration. The purpose of the IKATU workshops is to take the many years of micro-business practice the women accumulated and to transform them into entrepreneurs.

The women from the IKATU pilot project were all invited to a big event a few Saturdays ago (September 4th), with the main guests being two positive deviants, Lurdes Ramirez and Amada. They were the stars of the event, so to speak. The event had multiple parts to it: each pilot group met each other for the first time, they presented their businesses, they did an auto-evaluation of her living situation and then the positive deviants presented themselves. The self-evaluation is meant to complement the assessment the IKATU team has done which placed each member on a level of extreme poverty, just below the poverty line, or above the poverty line.

Lurdes shared her story with everyone present, explaining what she did that helped her move out of a little shack of a house and in to a brick home with more room for her growing family. Plus she now owns her own little wooden shop.

Listen to Lurdes’ story about how she improved her living situation through her business strategy:

It may seem as though the explanation of her operational methodology is standard behavior of any business owner. But, as us ACCION Ambassadors have seen over and over again, it is difficult for the women to be entrepreneurs when they are the ones taking care of their family (husband, children, grand-children, parents, parents-in-law and sometimes even neighbors), feeding everyone, making sure the kids are behaving and going to school, and on top of that also also work.  Someone always needs their help and when that happens, their business suffers. Further, they may also not have supporting partners or friends. Thus, with little time, too much work and little morale… they need to be reminded by women like Lurdes that their dreams of owning their own little store IS possible, that they CAN balance all their obligations and that they OUGHT to stand up for what they know must be done. SI SE PUEDE – IKATU!


Bori Bori and Torta de Banana – capacity-building workshops à la IKATU

For the past three weeks ACCION Ambassadors Nadia and I, Farah, have been preparing a manual for those field agents who will be giving capacity-building workshops on nutrition. We have been preparing visuals, texts as well as 20 recipes to include in the book. The recipes that we are using are made up of Paraguayan ingredients or are slight modifications of typical Paraguayan dishes – like our Bori Bori à la IKATU.

Since IKATU is in its pilot phase, it allows us to do different types of workshops with the pilot committees. We have dedicated a large portion of our internship to creating interactive classes on basic nutrition for the women. After my first test-run of the banana-cake recipe with the members of the microfinance office, I tried out the Bori Bori with the interns. After my guinea pigs not only survived but also enjoyed both dishes, it was time to take it to the field.

We accompanied Fabiola Cantero, the loan officer of the pilot committees, to visit the groups Fortaleza and Nanopytyvomba and prepare with them Bori Bori and the Banana Cake. A note on our Bori Bori: it is a typical Paraguayan soup with a few vegetables (maybe 2-3) and chicken that make up the caldo and some cheese & maize balls which are the bori bori. In our version of the Bori Bori we simply added MORE vegetables, loads more vegetables.

The first half of the meeting was spent cutting, dicing, frying, beating, tasting and preparing the two dishes. The main course, the Bori Bori, has so far been a real hit, but it is the Banana cake that also got the attention of the kids of the women! Following the 3-hour cooking session (not because the dishes takes that long, but because there were up to 30 people present for the “lunch and learn”) came our presentation. We had been working hard on our presentation, visual and oral. The information we include is all based on Paraguay-specific facts and food groups. At the meeting, I first introduced the general overview of the 7 food categories as created by the Instituto Nacioncal de Alimentacion y Nutricion and promoted  by the Ministerio de Salud Publica y Bienestar.

Guia Alimentaria copyrighted: INAN (

Following my speech on the importance of a well-rounded diet, Nadia explained in greater detail the health benefits from the ingredients of the Bori Bori we cooked.

Farah and Nadia presenting the nutritional guide and ingredients (carrots)

In the end, we passed around a Skeleton that shows the importance of each food group and where the nutrients and Vitamins act.

"El cuerpo humano" as designed by Farah, Nadia and Heloise

The base premises of our presentations are as follow:

–       Consciousness-raising: The women know about the need to eat healthy meals, but to they may not be conscious of the specific vitamins and minerals in each food.

–       Local knowledge: instead of introducing completely foreign dishes, it is probably more sustainable to slightly alter local recipes to make them meet their nutritive potential.

–       Active learning: cook and teach at the same time – the information is more likely to be remembered with hand-on activities.

–       Visual tools: to explain and then summarize the importance of each food group, use visuals (good for literate and illiterate women alike).

–  Affordability: verify that the ingredients used can be bought at a low price. Main dish + dessert = 4 500 guaranies per person, which is about USD 1. If you add some bread or mandioc root, it may cost up to USD 1.15 per person.

These workshops aren’t all work and no play. In fact, they are really wonderful ways to get to know the women better and for them to spend more time with each other, which encourages their group-spirit. Here a short video of our first capacity-building cookout with the committee Fortaleza:


Although Nadia and I aren’t nutritionists, we use the nutrition standards and charts particular to Paraguay as provided by the Ministry of Health and simply inform the women of the value of the minerals and vitamins they take in.

p.s. Special thanks to Iker Moriana and Heloise Chicou, interns of the Fundacion Paraguaya, who have been helping us throughout the process.


How to make chipas

Paraguayan collectivos (local buses) are always buzzing with vendors, selling products from cold sodas to underwear. Constantly jumping on and off the bus, the peddlers ensure that you are never left hungry or without some form of entertainment, be it a five-minute sales pitch on indestructible bracelets or the chance to buy CD’s of the latest reggaeton hits. One food that is never lacking is the chipa barrero, a typical Paraguayan specialty.

The sale of chipas is a favourite among the clients in the women’s committees. It generates a high profit while being easy and cheap to make. Many of the women we interview dedicate a large part of their activities to making chipas, as well as other traditional foods such as mbeju, empanadas, and alfajores. Chipas are a staple for both the businesses and day-to-day lives of Fundacion Paraguaya’s clients.

Divino Niño Jesus' products (from left): alfajores, cake, chipas!


Raquel Martinez, one of the first clients we met, was one of the many women whose sales thrived on chipas. Her ability to attract customers however distinguished her from others as she offered her customers the ability to top-up their phone credit at her kiosk. Top-ups enable Raquel to lure potential customers to her shop, tempting them to buy her warm pastries once at her stand thanks to their strong aroma. This is one of the many methods women use to differentiate themselves from the rest of the local chipasellers.

Participating in an IKATU event for all the women of the pilot committees, we had the opportunity to get a recipe directly from the experts. Baking chipas at the intern house with success, it is an easy to make snack that deserves trying out at home. Enjoy!

La Esperanza Committee cooking. Note: they are not making chipas.


Chipa barrero recipe


Cassava or corn starch – 625 g. (22 ounces)

Eggs – 4

Cheese, grated – 250 g. (8.8 ounces)

Milk – one cup

Lard or butter – 125 g. (4.4 ounces)

Salt – one tablespoon

Anis seeds – one small cup


  • Beat the lard, eggs, and cheese until well mixed.
  • Add the anis, salt, milk and starch, and knead until doughy.
  • Form the dough into medium-sized rings (like doughnuts) and place on a cooking sheet.
  • Cook in a very hot oven for about 25-30 minutes. 

Note: I am trying to get a video of vendors selling chipas on buses, once I do, I will post it on here!

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IKATU workshop with the Loan Officers

Poverty identification and elimination through Ikatu does not only target the clients of Fundación Paraguaya but also the people that make its projects possible: the employees. Loan officers are burdened with work, often having hundreds of clients for whom they are always available. If they are therefore not attended to and made felt part of the Fundación’s projects, how can they do their job effectively?

The loan officers building a bridge

To promote poverty alleviation through evaluating the Ikatu indicators, it is crucial that the Fundación’s own employees know how to identify their levels of poverty. As such, the Ikatu team organized a daylong workshop with 16 loan officers for self-evaluation of poverty, and to learn more about and take part in the Fundación’s upcoming projects. The day began with a talk given by the executive director Martin Burt, explaining the goals of Ikatu and the Fundación for the future. Mr. Burt and the Ikatu manager, Rodrigo Alonso spoke about the importance of believing in poverty eradication and working together to achieve it from within.

The next activity was an icebreaker for the attendees where two teams had to be creative using miscellaneous objects to build a bridge. The symbolic bridge connected the participants’ current situation to their final goals (which was in this case a very high salary). The game promoted sustained teamwork in the path towards achieving ones goals. The workshop continued with a discussion and evaluation on the impressions of the game and an introduction to Ikatu. In order to understand the innovative programme, the loan officers then had to self-assess their poverty levels by answering a series of questions on the Ikatu survey. The results were not always positive, illustrating the complex facets of poverty that are not always automatically visible. Some indicators that stood out as being negative were living in a contaminated environment, lack of insurance and no self-belief in the capacity of playing a role in the public sector.

Arriving at the goal!


The loan officers were also given presentations on the microfranchises we are developing (mini-pharmacy, food kit and cleaning product kit). With their feedback on the costs and products, the Ikatu team has been able to improve the likelihood of the kits being successful. Prioritizing and setting goals based on the results of the surveys for themselves was the final task the loan officers engaged in. Mr. Alonso’s belief in group support put the officers in groups of two to three people, who will regularly check-in with each other over the next few months to see how the pursuit of the goals is progressing.

Overall, the workshop appeared successful. The loan officers seemed happy with the activities, and were given a sense of appreciation on behalf of the headquarters. Without the hard work and dedication of the loan officers, a large share of the social work the Fundación engages in would not be possible. Showing them how much they are appreciated, how important they are, and helping them achieve their goals is therefore just as important as reaching out to the clients.