The creation of “bracelets of change” and the communities that weave them…
How do we really know when a product that we buy actually has a real impact on the person who helped to produce it? There has been a recent surge in recent years of socially-minded products that cater to consumers that want to know that the shoe or bracelet that they are purchasing was produced not only in an ethical way but also helped to cause some sort of environmental or social change as well. Big name brands such as Toms Shoes, Burts Bees, TOMS of Maine, and Warby Parker have monopolized the market on socially conscious products that also bring an environmental or social benefit. But there are other companies that are starting to gain traction that go above and beyond simply providing safe worker conditions and providing social serves – a key example is Wakami, one of our portfolio companies at Pomona Impact.
Wakami, run under the umbrella company of Kiej de los Bosques and partnered with their NGO arm, Comunidades de la Tierra (Communities of the Earth), works with men and women in rural communities throughout Guatemala to produce environmentally conscious accessories for buyers in the States, Europe, and Latin America. They not only train communities members in business management to help them establish their own enterprises to create and sell Wakami products, but they also foster the personal development of each and every person that they employ; through their NGO counterpart they give nutritional and health training to their employees, scholarship opportunities to their children, and set up centers in these communities that sell sustainable home products such as solar panels, water filters, and ecological stoves at a discounted price.
While this all looks perfect on paper, what do the actual lives of the people that work for Wakami actually look like in reality? As the Impact Metrics Officer for Pomona Impact, the best part of my job is to visit the beneficiaries of our portfolio companies to help craft stories that showcase the work that they are doing. Elizabeth Blackwell and I went on a site visit with staff members Zully Polanco and Iris Peréz to one of their communities in Los Pastores, which is about 30 minutes from Antigua, Guatemala to talk with a group of women and hear their stories of how working with Wakami has helped shaped their lives over the span of nine years. We arrived at the community and pulled off to the side of an unpaved road to park the car and then walked through mud and rain over a cement bridge to get to the office.
The building that houses the office and the production center for the community is a simple wooden slat house with a tin roof but finished cement floors and a Wakami sign proudly displayed above the door along with the NGOs that have partnered with Comunidades de la Tierra (CDLT) to support their enterprise. We were introduced to the exuberant founder of the company located in Los Pastores, Matilde Garcia, who eagerly showed us the office that CDLT helped them to set up in order run their business more professionally and efficiently.
All enterprises that complete the training needed in order to run an enterprise under Wakami’s leadership are provided with office equipment with the community enterprise paying 20% of the cost and CDLT paying the other 80%. We then sat down with a few women (Josefina, Carmen, Leonora, y Sonia) that had been invited specifically for our visit and started to listen to how they had created the business nine years ago. Each woman told the story of their lives before joining Wakami through their local enterprise – how their husbands ruled their housed with absolute control, forbid their daughters to continue with their studies after 4th grade, and used a majority of the household finances to go out and drink; all of this it should be noted isn’t unique to this community or even to Guatemala, it is a worldwide problem. But after joining the Wakami network, they began to make money for their families, meet with the women in their group and talk about their problems at home, gain support, and eventually the confidence to stand up to their husbands. Some of the women had really positive comments of how their husbands began to see the value in their wives working and some even began working with them and encouraging all of their children to go to school.
Wakami and CDLT’s model is almost unique today in that they don’t focus exclusively on women in the creation of their local enterprises, really believing that the goal is to have equality between all members of a community and that in order to accomplish this, they need to include both men and women in the process. The women that we talked with had created, on their own, a group to not only produce an amazing product to be shipped around the world, but they had also created a new family – a support system to listen to both their work and personal struggles.