Made it out to the Solola office for the first time on Friday! We hopped on a chicken bus around 8:30 and I spent a few hours getting to know Juana, the regional coordinator for Solola and her adorable son Jonathan. The office is really just a tiny storefront in an alleyway in Solola; it’s pretty much a small room where we store our products and we have intermittent (though growing) walk-in sales. Juana went over all of the products with me again – glasses, filters, stoves, lightbulbs – I’d seen them over Skype but it was great to see them in person. We also did some practice eye exams – Michelle showed me how to give them and then I gave a practice exam to Juana! Then, we did a mini filter campaign. We took one of our 5 gallon filters and set it outside on the main street, passing out free glasses of water to passersby and telling them both about the filters and about our work in general. The idea was to generate a buzz and ultimately drive traffic into the store, so people would come in, get eye exams, and purchase other products.
I was only in the office for a few hours because I then had to hop back onto a shuttle into Antigua, where I’m staying this weekend, in the office dorm with the other consultants. Yesterday, we woke up at 6am for a two hour trip to a rural community in Chimaltenango called San Martin where we held a campaign with a group of the SECorps students. Campaigns are the crux of the microconsignment model, in which local microentreprenuers set up mini sales days in rural communities where they offer free eye exams and sell their “basket of solutions” (eyeglasses, water filters, solar lamps, etc.). The students have all been doing in depth training on the products and marketing techniques for the past two weeks, and I’ve only been here for a few days…so I was a bit intimidated at the idea of helping to lead the campaign. But in the end, it went amazingly!
We sold over 5000q of products (about $666), which mean that Dona Josefina, the local entrepreneur who coordinated the campaign, took home over 1000q ($133) in ganancia (profits). I don’t have much perspective since this was my first campaign, but according to the other Field Consultants this was beyond incredible. Usually, we would like to leave as much control and direction of the campaigns up to the local entrepreneurs. Sometimes the regional coordinator (ie. Juana) or field consultant (ie. me!) will go on a campaign as well, but it’s up to the entrepreneur herself to do the majority of the leg-work (as she gets paid for every product that she sells).
The SECorps students do play an active role on the campaigns that they attend as they did yesterday – drumming up support, helping with eye exams, talking to clients, etc. – and usually, ganancia is much higher when the students are around because of the attention attracted by a big group of gringos (Americans/foreigners). On this campaign, I worked closely with Bo (the other Field Consultant I’ll be working with once Michelle leaves) in supervising the students, and also jumped in and helped out with eye exams for a while. Generally, eye exams are pretty straightforward – they include a far vision test and a near vision test; however, we only carry reading glasses and protective glasses/sunglasses so those with far vision problems or more serious concerns are given a referral to a nearby clinic for further care.
But the process wasn’t without its issues. My Spanish is far from perfect, especially when it comes to the technical terms that are needed to describe vision problems or the technical aspects of our various product offerings, it’s always sad to turn someone away if their vision problems are too severe for the solutions that we offer, and there were a few situations when the individual I was helping had no money to pay for their glasses in the end. So that was another hard lesson I learned about social business – the focus is on social benefit, but also on profit, and while it’s unfortunate that there are still many who cannot afford to purchase our products, donating or discounting them is simply not within our model. Today is a much needed day off – then Bo and I are taking our group of students back into the field first thing tomorrow morning! I’m excited to get to know San Juan better – a town where I haven’t ever spent much time – and to start digging into the actual projects that I will ultimately be managing within my region.