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Over the past 6 months I have worked with Centro de Entrenamiento para la Producción (CEP). They are an NGO established to assist small and medium sized businesses (PYMES) through technological development and business training. The Argentine government recently created subsidies and tax credits aimed at increasing the competitiveness of Argentine PYMES. CEP acts as a window for these programs by assisting in paperwork and requirement fulfillment. They also manage the government sponsored training programs, by designing course content and allocating in-house instructors. Another side project at CEP involves supporting two new inventions to market, including a novel suspension system for cars or machinery, recently patented in the Europe and U.S., as well as, a new energy efficient windmill, still in the design and prototype construction stage.
My greatest accomplishment with this organization was built around a personal idea utilizing their resources to create a consulting and training project within the marginalized areas of the local community. It allowed me to directly work with and help at least 20 individuals while truly left a legacy in Argentina! For about 2 months I networked, sympathized and analyzed a mountain of information with a large number of people all over the city from social movements and cooperatives to entrepreneurial assistance groups. Through this research, I was able to write and win a grant proposal for a consulting project working with a few local comedors in Buenos Aires province leading workshops in social entrepreneurship for cooperatives. The project was a pilot program aimed specifically at social cooperatives in local comedors1.
These cooperatives formed out of a need for resources in the comedors as well as a desire by local women for respectable work close to home. One of the participating cooperatives was still in the organization stage buying start-up materials for their bakery through a grant received by another FSD intern and were in need of a how-to business plan. The other participating cooperative is a sewing group which began a little over one year ago. They were dependent on NGO support and lacked organization, management and sales volume. Through the information gathered in the needs assessment as well as assistance from CEP and other NGO specialist organizations, five strategic workshops were designed in team building, accounting, marketing, costs and operations.
Most of these "entrepreneurs" had low levels of formal education and a few were illiterate, making the design and substance challenging. To my great surprise, after utilizing a few comic strips, pictures, diagrams and role play examples, the women participated comfortably and discussed a lot of interesting ideas and opportunities.
The final workshop was a small discussion group, bringing together the two cooperatives with another well known cooperative group in the local area. During this workshop they not only shared experiences of best practices, challenges faced and advice, but they networked together and will now sell to one another. As a special guest, two men from La Obra de Padre Cajade shared their experiences. The Obra is a well known and very large social entrepreneurial group in the province. All of the cooperative groups chatted back and forth sharing stories and asking interesting questions about the others work. It was the perfect networking session as I really think they learned from each other. At the end of the workshop, they even coordinated to work with and buy from each other! The sewing cooperative and bakery found a new client in Padre Cajade. As a supplement to the classes, I created a 50 page manual in Spanish and using many pictures and examples. The manual goes into a bit more in depth on all of the subjects covered in the workshops and includes a section on common mistakes and general advice. I assembled an appendix providing extra entrepreneurial and community resources as well as a section of fair trade national and international organizations. The manuals were distributed to each of the participating women and to the representatives of the Obra. Copies were also given to various NGOs with hopes of further distributing to those in need of the information.
During the final discussion, my co-workers from the other departments of CEP began discussing the project. My direct boss proudly told them of all my hard work and showed them a copy of the comprehensive manual. Through this connection, all areas of CEP jointly expressed interest that future FSD interns will continue the workshops to reach more cooperatives as part of a community outreach program for the NGO!!!
In the end and all of my hard work, multiple marathon miles of walking and hours of planning and writing paid off. The manual is my pride and joy and will help many people even after I am gone. By giving personal attention to each cooperative and working directly to help shape their individual business models, I was able to teach them practical skills increasing their organizational desires, personal work ethic and a more dynamic understanding of their companies and themselves. They in turn, taught me a great deal about bravery, flexibility and tenacity.
Amid both success and challenge, I became incredibly humbled and found a sense of irony in the ultimate simplicity of it all. Some of the women could not read or write and most never finished primary school, but all shared their experiences and learned from one another. This manner of collaboration and education has laid the groundwork for a network of social commerce services. These lasting memories are a true sense of pride and fulfillment that can only come by teaching and learning from others.
Information about the groups this project was able to directly reach:
Estrategia & MTD
This link is a video explaining the MTD movement. For those that cannot understand the Spanish, the pictures explain a lot.
Estrategia is one of the Comedor cooperatives involved in the training workshops. They are a part of the MTD movement as explained in the link above. This movement basically fights for the rights of unemployed workers. I was able to sit in on a members meeting, where as activists they discussed not only “lobbying” options, but also an array of community support activities. Estrategia is part of the community service arm of MTD, officially a separate community comedor. As mentioned previously, another FSD inter, Arvil Antonio Gonzales was able to help assemble a local bakery business to not only support the comedor but the local community and many excited local women bakers. They received a mixed material oven from another NGO, which can use anything as fuel, including old newspapers or wood scraps mixed with grass and weeds. This business is ideal because of its location within the villa or township area of the city and the needs of the community for local commerce. Their bread is made from a Bolivian recipe, which is reflective of the heredity of the neighborhoods residents. Not only this buy the bread can be cheaply made and has a unique exceptional flavor. Yum!
Arco Iris, Working World and Otro Mercado
Arco Iris already had a relatively structured business system in place and new infrastructure. This sewing cooperative specializes in dog clothing but has been able to accommodate special orders, such as messenger bags and babies clothing. Through a micro finance loan, they purchased beautiful new high-tech sewing machines, on which they have all been trained, significantly increasing the quality of their products! This cooperative lacks a bit of direction and organizational structure as well as consistent sales. They also seem to have a high reliance on outside NGO assistance and I believe the workshops have brought them closer to independence.
Working world also known as “La Base,” is a micro finance organization which provided the loan for the new sewing machines and works closely with them offering advices and acting as a middleman, selling their products online. The link above shows their line of dog clothing, which is of fairly high quality. I was impressed by their attention to detail and concern for quality control. Their outfits come in both polar fleece and cotton and vary in styles. They are extremely cute and well-made so if you have a small dog click on the link above and buy some!!
The cooperative is currently in the process of connecting with the international fair trade movement through an Italian company called, Otro Mercado, who happens to have a retail store in downtown La Plata. This provided the opportunity to cover the fair trade objectives in the operations workshop as well as the final discussion. Many resources to this movement were provided in the appendix of the manual as a very strong and secure option for many social cooperatives.
Obra de Padre Cajade
This organization was started by a priest who left an amazing legacy and a strong system of community support to continue his work. The Obra is very well-known and a very large social entrepreneurial presence in the province of Buenos Aires. It includes three orphanages hosting various ages of children and five social businesses. The amazing concept of these businesses is that they are used as a form of apprenticeship teaching above the education they receive in the orphanage. The profits from these businesses are all reinvested into the orphanages to create more opportunities for the children. Definitely check out their website, although it’s only in Spanish but if you can read it, you cannot help but be impressed! Representatives attended the final discussion and shared insight based on their past experiences.
1 Comedors are NGO community assistance programs located in the most impoverished areas of the country, which provide food, education and other support activities for the community.