“The biggest challenge we face is a macho society. Our society does not believe that women have the capacity to generate an income, to raise a family or to develop fully.”Read more
38-year-old Vilma Coy from Patzún, Guatemala had a difficult start in life. Her father disappeared when she was seven years old during the armed conflict in Guatemala, leaving Vilma, her mother and brother to fend for themselves. Not only did they suffer the loss of a father, but also the loss of their paternal grandparents who cut ties with them at this very difficult time.
To make ends meet, Vilma and her mother started weaving and embroidering traditional clothing. Vilma explains: “Despite our hard work, it was not enough. We barely had enough to eat during my childhood. Because of this experience I believe that women must work hard to generate opportunities and empower themselves.”
Thanks to the support from her mother, Vilma was able to finish her education and qualified as a primary school teacher. She also started a university degree to study law but was unable to complete this due to financial and family problems.
Vilma knows from her own experience how women in her community are discriminated against. She explains: “The biggest challenge we face is a macho society. Our society does not believe that women have the capacity to generate an income, to raise a family or to develop fully. There are also very limited job opportunities for women. So we have to find alternative ways to generate an income, such as setting up an individual or collective business.”
Vilma, now married with two children aged two and eleven, has found the economic independence she had been looking for. She is now the President of a small Cooperative which produces soybean derivatives, such as soya milk and cookies. Before the cooperative was formally incorporated in 2015, their biggest obstacle was getting the seed capital to start the business. Many of the women associates in the cooperative are heads of households and the main purpose of the cooperative is to generate economic opportunities for the women to avoid them having to search for work elsewhere and abandon their children. Little by little they have been acquiring the necessary equipment for their work, and they have recently received new ovens through seed capital grants from CARE.
Vilma front left with other members of her association and CARE staff.
Being able to access financial products, such as credit or loans can be a real challenge for Guatemalan women. Personal loans are hard to secure, let alone business loans. Luckily for Vilma, the deeds of the family home are – unusually - in her name. This enabled her to take out a personal loan. Vilma also had the support of a female ‘loan manager’ from the bank who spoke her language, which hugely helped with the process. Finding the right support and bank staff who speak local languages can be a real challenge for women in Guatemala so Vilma considers herself one of the lucky ones.
Vilma’s Cooperative makes foods derived from soybeans including milk and cookies. They market and distribute through partners, as well as through commercial fairs. Their production plant is currently in the house of one of the members as they still need the Ministry of Health sanitary records so that they can commercialize the products on a larger scale.
Vilma is proud of the social impact of the cooperative. She comments: “Through our Cooperative we have not only supported the women to become skilled and economically independent, but we are also producing high protein products that can counteract the malnutrition in our community. Malnutrition is a particular problem in children in our community so there is a real benefit, but we have also found that soya has real health benefits for people with diabetes.”
Vilma adds: “Our philosophy and values are very important to us but we also need to be business-minded and understand that if we don’t generate an income from our produce then we cannot prosper. Today we are very clear about our value proposition: ‘Because your health is everything.’ By offering soy products without cholesterol and low in fat, we can combat malnutrition, obesity and diabetes and contribute to the prevention of chronic diseases. It can also be obtained at a fair price and without preservatives!”
Vilma and her associates are constantly seeking out new opportunities and once they have the health certificates, they plan to expand their production plant. A new law has also been passed to improve school refreshments, where school suppliers must be local producers. Vilma adds: “We consider this a great opportunity to position not only our own products but also to identify other local women producers that we can work with.”