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6 Tips on How to Win Over the Heart of your MFI

As in life, the key to living a joyful and productive Accion Ambassadorship is mostly based upon the relationships that you build around you. However the difference between an Accion Ambassadorship and other experiences is that you only have a short amount of life to win over the hearts, minds and respect of your peers. (I, for example, moved regions every month).

There is no other relationship more important to the success of your Accion Ambassadorship than the one your foster with your host MFI (microfinance institution). If you win them over, the details and bumps along the way will work themselves out.

I can’t lie and say that I wasn’t a little intimated at first by the challenge of how I (tall, white and gangly) was going to integrate myself with a tight knit group of inspired Guatemalans who depend upon each other to realize their work. There’s also the fact that my Spanish is not 100% fluent (like when I said “ox butt soup” instead of “ox tail soup”) and that my Q’eqchi is pretty abysmal. But after almost 3 months of working with Genesis in Petén, Izabal, Alta and Baja Vera Paz, I think that I can safely say that despite cultural obstacles, I am a member of the Genesis team.

How? I am going to share with your my secrets in the form of 6 tips. These 6 pieces of advice will help you adapt in your Accion Ambassadorship, your new job, or even score a first date.

1. Follow their Work Routine

On office days, I have worked from 8 am to when the guys leave work since the beginning. Take your tostada breaks and lunch breaks at the hours that they do. Half the battle is just showing up and being present. If you establish yourself in their routine, they will treat you less like a temporary visitor and more like a part of their team.

Going to the beat of your own clock can really back fire. For example, one capacity trainer recounted me about his shaky experience starting to work for Genesis. He was the first capacity trainer to join a team of credit officers in a regional office. Unlike credit officers who arrive at the office at 8 am and leave at around 5:30-6:00 pm every day, capacity trainers are free to create their own schedule as long they achieve their work goals.

So he decided to work on weekends and didn’t work other weekdays, or would work one week and take off another. But the credit officers felt like he was never in the office because they didn’t see him at the same time and so they called the central office for an investigation of whether or not he was actually working. Despite the fact that the central office did not find any errors, the credit officers still want him to resign. The point of this true life fable is that if you want to gain someone’s confidence, you have to be present. Continue reading

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Schools that Pay for Themselves

One hundred seventy people from 20 countries convened in late October in Cerrito, Paraguay for a three-day conference on self-sufficient schools.  The conference, co-hosted by Fundación Paraguaya and it’s sister organization Teach a Man to Fish, was the 7th annual international conference on self-sufficient schools and took place at the La Escuela Agricola San Francisco, the first ever self-sufficient agricultural school and most cited model for self-sufficient schools around the world.

The school was handed over to Fundación Paraguaya in 2002 by catholic monks who could no longer afford to run a private labor-centered school that was struggling to stay open due to a lack of funding.  Upon receiving the school, Fundación Paraguaya was challenged with how to fund a school that sat on 67 acres of land and served a student body of poverty-stricken kids from rural villages.  Fundacion Paraguaya decided to build on the schools previous education model by incorporating the use of profits from student-run enterprises into the existing curriculum.

Students at La Escuela Agricola San Francisco alternate bi-weekly from studying in a classroom to running businesses in teams.  Student-run enterprises add an applied element to learning that help students retain information and find uses for the knowledge acquired in the classroom.  Students learn how to answer business related questions that are vital to the success of their businesses, like describing equilibrium price and profit margin. Apart from learning business principles, the student-run enterprises allow students to apply other knowledge that conventional schools can often struggle with. Instead of reading about how many chickens fit in a square area, students can calculate it on the farm and make a business decision based on their observation.

The students use the proceeds of their enterprises to pay tuition, room and board, their professors’ salaries, and often have disposable income left over. The school is designed to help students succeed beyond graduation as well, by providing them with a hands-on experience of what they are likely to encounter when they enter the workforce.  Students learn how to market their businesses and themselves. As part of their exit project, students must propose and defend a business plan in front of a panel of Microfinance representatives. If a business plan is solid and plausible, the graduate may be offered a line of credit to start the business. The students also run an on-site hotel that brings in guests from all over the world.  La Escuela Agricola San Francisco is the only high school in the country that allows students to graduate with two degrees (one in agriculture and one in hospitality) and walk away with a line of credit to start a business. Continue reading

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A Long First Day in Asuncion

It was 5PM in Queens, New York when I made my way to John F Kennedy Airport en route to Asuncion, Paraguay to serve as an Accion Ambassador at Fundacion Paraguaya.  One layover in Sao Paolo and two more flights later I arrived in Asuncion at approximately at 12 PM.  A feeling of lethargy was accompanied by a strong desire to sleep after that 19 hours of travel.  I was not expecting to be taken into an office for a four-hour briefing about my assignment straight from the airport!

I was given three documents upon arrival to Fundacion Paraguaya’s main office located about thirty minutes from Silvio Pettirossi International Airport. The first document was a contract between Fundacion Paraguaya and myself. The second was a 140-page document written in Spanish containing a five-year plan to “eliminate poverty” in the entire country and I was required to read it in one day.  The third document contained a description of my objectives and methods of achieving them.

The very ambitious APEX plan (the plan decrypted in the 140-page document) aims to eliminate poverty for over 205,000 families consisting of more than 2,100,000 people (32% of the Paraguayan population) between 2013 and 2015.  Out of those 2,100,000 living in poverty, 1,200,000 of them are believed to live under extreme destitution (18% of the population).  If the plan succeeds, Paraguay will make a 180-degree turn as the 2nd poorest nation in South America to one that is not poor at all. The plan’s viability depends on a coalition between Fundacion Paraguaya, other local NGO’s, local corporations, the Paraguayan government, and the international community. Continue reading

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Meet Mr. Mouse

“Today I am going to call you Ms. Mouse, because today you are my partner in action!” exclaimed Walter Alfonso Cho Tux. (“Cho” means mouse in Q’eqchi, the local Mayan language).  I was ready to accept my new code name. The mission?  To accompany and document a day in the life of Mr. Alfonso Cho Tux, a capacity trainer at Génesis Empresarial with more than seven years of experience helping microfinance clients grow their businesses—one cake at a time.

As previously blogged, the SDE program (Servicios en Desarrollo Empresarial) provides training and advisory services to clients in order to help them grow their businesses.  Walter is perhaps one of the most enthusiastic, passionate, hyper, and loquacious capacity trainers within this program which is why he serves as a great role model to demonstrate to you what the work of a capacity trainer with Génesis in Guatemala is really like.  So get ready, because as Walter would like to say “with Génesis, we begin our work starting from the very first rays of sunlight.”

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East meets South: How to Make Guatemalan Chow Mein

Way back in September, I touched down on the tarmac, and envisioned being greeted by fried plantains, warm tortillas, and fresh guacamole.  But the first meal that I ate after arriving in Guatemala City was Chow Mein at a Chinese restaurant with the Genesis staff.  I was confused.  Why am I being offered Chow Mein on a tostada and why can I find a Chinese restaurant in every Guatemalan town that I pass through?  Why is there so much Chinese food (specifically Chow Mein or Chao Mein) in Guatemala?  So, I started my own investigation… (And of course I learned how to make the dish too – you can too! Read on for an instructional video and recipe).

Chow mein on a tostada

Chow mein on a tostada

Chow Mein, (also sometimes spelled Chao Mein and often pronounced as “Chow Ming” in Guatemala) is best known as a noodle dish from China.  However what many people don’t know is that this dish has come to dominate snack breaks in even the most remote villages in Guatemala.  Guatemala has a great love of Chow Mein and even exports a Guatemalan made do-it-yourself brand called “Chao Mein,” commonly encountered in many U.S. Latino Markets.  Chao Mein may be the only word of Chinese origin that has entered into the common day vocabulary of all 23 of Guatemala’s constitutionally recognized languages.  How did it get to be so crazy popular?

The most likely theory is that is descended from the Chinese railroad workers brought in by Cornelius Vanderbilt over a century ago.  The real spread of Chow Mein occurred through the channel of town ferias.  Ferias are roadside fairs that arrive during each Guatemalan town’s scheduled fair time to unpack Ferris wheels, confectionary stands, video arcades, and other novelties such as Chinese Comedors.  Between sheets of nylon plastic, one can find plastic tables guarded by bottles of “El Chino” soy sauce.  And so the story goes that via carnie culinary missionaries, Chow Mein went where ever the moving fair apparatus went.  Chow Mein was introduced as a special exotic meal to be enjoyed during times of celebration and now it unites cooks nationwide—including Genesis clients.

Now, make your own! Watch us do it and follow the recipe below.

Make Your Own Guatemalan Chow Mein  – read on for the recipe! Continue reading

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Risky Assumptions to Avoid about Microfinance Borrowers

Oops! Have you fallen into a trap?

Despite using the educated parts of our brains, it’s easy to make harmful assumptions when it comes to thinking about how microfinance clients and the poor operate their businesses. Let’s talk about some common misconceptions about microfinance clients – and how to respond to them.

1. “Microfinance borrowers just invest in the same things and don’t innovate.”

The majority of clients that I have met do invest in similar activities, such as in milpa (corn), coffee, cardamom or raising animals – but this doesn’t mean that they’re not doing these activities in innovative, new ways. For example, Genesis clients can get training on how to reduce the cost of chicken feed by 50% by using the chocolate-flavored ramón, or Maya nut, found in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The ramón is naturally replete with protein, and it’s high in calcium, fiber and potassium. Ground into a powder and mixed with other natural goodies like yellow corn, the ramón nut arms local people with the tools to continue to make chicken-raising profitable, especially the face falling returns due to the monopoly on chicken concentration.

A ramón nut in its shell

A ramón nut in its shell

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How I Won a Free Steak with Zumba Moves

The prestigious Positiva Copa

The prestigious Positiva Copa

A challenge was issued.  The place?  Guatemala City.  The event?  Copa Positiva (Positive Cup) and Miss Genesis.

Let’s begin with Copa Positiva, an annual soccer tournament hosted by Genesis Empresarial.  Guatemala is divided into four regions, and Genesis offices compete within each region, producing four teams that complete for the glory of the Copa Positiva in Guatemala City.  This year, I had the honor of accompanying my host office in Santa Elena to the finals in the capital.

Fast forward to a turf field in an urban jungle buried deep in Guatemala City and you would find this gringa on the day of the event, sporting a cape adorned with the Genesis emblem, a red wig, and a poster with the Genesis logo coming out of her head, in full face paint…and dancing Zumba with a couple of mimes.  That’s me!

Why?  Well, the steak was just one part of it.

This year was the first that Genesis issued a contest calling for the best fan, promising that whoever came out to support their soccer team in the most decked-out of garb would win a free steak dinner.  I don’t even eat steak, but I had my reasons for participating, as you’ll see.

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