I was sitting next to an elderly indigenous Ecuadorian woman and I was giving her a simple eye exam. As she struggled to indicate the direction of the small "E"s on the examination sheet, a weird and powerful thought struck me: "She could as well be my "abuela," my own grandmother." Besides the fact that my grandmother was luckier in the "life lottery" — that she was born in a wealthier country and could afford a comprehensive and professional consultation — I still had a feeling of deep kinship with the woman whose sight I was helping to improve.
I learned that her name was Maria. She had eight daughters and sons and about 20 or 21 nephews — she couldn't remember precisely. She used to do all sorts of handcrafts, including weaving and beading, but for a long time her nearsightedness had been so bad that she couldn't perform these tasks anymore. In her village there was no opportunity to receive an eye exam or buy the glasses she needed so badly, and she confessed that she was not able to afford these services and products in the closest city where they were available.
This is why the social business model used by Community Empowerment Solutions (CES), the organization I interned for this summer, is so great — it reaches exactly this type of people with the products they need through a successful distribution process. The social entrepreneurship approach CES uses is called the MicroConsignment Model. CES acts as a distribution channel to provide access to basic and highly needed products in impoverished areas of Latin America and trains micro-entrepreneurs to successfully market and sell them. The difference between this social entrepreneurship model and others is that it takes away all the risk for the entrepreneurs. For example, within the microcredit framework, which is probably the most popular social entrepreneurship model, the entrepreneurs borrow a small amount of money from banks with low interest rates in order to start a small-scale business. This model carries numerous financial risks which might not necessarily be dependent on the borrower, such as unfavorable weather conditions, natural disasters, economic crisis and so on. CES removes such risks from the micro-entrepreneurs by giving them products to sell, such as affordable glasses, water filters, energy efficient light bulbs, seeds, cook stoves and solar lamps. CES also trains the entrepreneurs extensively on how to sell these products proficiently.
Most of the micro-entrepreneurs CES works with are indigenous women with few opportunities to generate supplemental household income. For example, after performing a free eye examination similar to the one I was doing on Maria, such an entrepreneur invites the custumer to buy the $8.50 pair of glasses. Out of this price, she receives a share of $2.00. The empowerment achieved by CES is two-fold: the entrepreneur is empowered by having a work opportunity, and the communities are empowered by being able to purchase the products they need. The MicroConsignment Model uses entrepreneurship in a sustainable and organic manner to create job opportunities and create access to crucial goods and services in rural communities.
After trying out glasses with different diopters, Maria cheerfully exclaimed: "This one is perfect! I forgot how it's like seeing so well." It took me less than five minutes to run this basic eye examination and provide her with the very affordable pair of glasses that she needed. Now she was able to engage in daily activities with more ease, and even produce extra money for her family by producing the handcrafts she was so talented at. The MicroConsignment Model used by CES is a very promising venue to help thousands of people like Maria.
"Muchisimas gracias. Thank you so much," she said with tears in her eyes.
"De nada, abuela. You're welcome, grandma," I replied.