Wow, how quickly can eight weeks pass? Time flies when you’re constantly having new experiences I guess. This past week I returned to the US after spending a full eight weeks in Ecuador working with Social Entrepreneur Corps through Notre Dames’s SIBC. With such a wide-ranging, life-changing, and career-building experience, I have an extremely difficult time responding to the broad question “how was Ecuador?” posed by many upon my return. Some experiences, especially the one as diverse as 8 weeks working in Ecuador, are too difficult to put into words. But in this post, I will attempt to answer the all-too-common yet all-too-difficult question that I will be answering for the next few months.
Picking up this post where I left off, after a week of meetings in Cuenca where we learned about what the other travel group had been doing and set goals based off of our “next step” recommendations, we left for another two weeks of immersion in the field. The second two weeks of fieldwork took me to Timbara, a small community near Zamora in the Amazon region of Ecuador. Timbara was much more developed than Pulingi was, but this didn’t mean that there was no need for our work. We continued to work with both community organizations and asesoras while we were in southern Ecuador by providing valuable assistance and expertise. We first worked with Amor y Fortaleza, a community group in Timbara, providing thems with means of gathering live-feedback from their restaurant customers in order to adapt their restaurant to changing consumer demands. They had asked us what we, as foreigners, wanted to see improved in their restaurant but found it more appropriate to teach them how to gather feedback from all those who visit the restaurant. Our work was well received and the comment cards we provided them were immediate utilized in the restaurant. Next we talked with 23 de Junio, a female artisan group that works with recycled paper. In our meeting with them we provided them with an “asset map” which attempts to shine light on underutilized assets that the organization can take advantage of. Although we never had time for a follow up visit, I believe that the asset map provided the group with a mindset of looking within the organization for improvements.
The third round of consulting that we did in the southern region was with two of the asesoras for Soluciones Comunitarias. Without meeting the asesoras, my group was tasked with the job of giving a presentation on “initiative” given the story of one asesora who chose to read a newspaper on the job. We found our task difficult and paternalistic. We were expected to give a presentation about how people need to work harder without having actually worked with the group. Instead, my team decided to put together a presentation of leadership and tool-building games that the asesoras could apply to their job. We worked on salesmanship, communication, relationships, teamwork, and creativity through five different activities. By creating an interactive presentation we hoped to be less paternalistic and more instructive. From this activity, I took away one of my greatest lessons of the entire summer. While discussing the games afterwards, one of the asesoras noted that he liked the games because they taught him that “todos somos iguales” or “we are all equals.” One of my greatest concerns in this internship was striking a balance between economic development and cultural destruction. I feared that oftentimes we entered a situation with the mindset that we were the solution holders in Ecuador to provide answers for the needy. The quote “todos somos iguales” helped me to further realize that we are all in this together. My role in Ecuador was not to provide solutions or to hold hands, instead it was to provide tools so that we could walk together in the search of solutions. By reminding ourselves that we are all equal is a humbling way of realizing that everyone has tools to bring to the table and that together we can strive to utilize those tools in order to work towards economic development.
Enough on that tangent, our other primary goal in the southern region was to complete the project that our team had been assigned to work on. As I mentioned previously, I was on the Stove Team tasked with the job of redesigning stoves with the hopes of selling them in the future. We started working with a Peruvian designed cookstove, made of brick, cement, and metal costing $250 to build. An organization known as ADRA had been building these at no cost to the Ecuadoreans throughout the country. Our job was to rework this stove and create a plan to sell it to Ecuadoreans. We talked with local contractors (maestros), engineers, and stove users to determine what we could improve and eliminate on the old stove model. Our team was able to reduce the cost to under $50 including materials and labor. We built one stove in the north and one stove in the south as test models. We created a guide in Spanish on how to build our new model of stove and will be utilizing this guide to train future builders. In our last week in Ecuador we worked on piecing together a final project presentation that would provide the logistics of building and selling stoves throughout the country. We provided the leadership with a cost analysis and a sales/marketing plan along with a means for training local maestros to build stoves in the future. I am excited by the work that we did with the stove project. In the future Soluciones Comunitarias will be selling stoves to Ecuadoreans that use less wood, are safer, and are better health-wise at affordable prices. Better yet, these stoves will provide income to Ecuadorean women, provide jobs for local maestros, and keep money spent on materials within the community as everything will be sourced locally.
The goal of social entrepreneurship and international development is to provide a sustainable social good to impoverished areas. Instead of focusing on aid-giving, our goal was to work on tool-building. My hope in going to Ecuador was to provide the people I was working with and working for with sustainable tools that could make a lasting impact. Through my work on the stove project, I am convinced that not only will many more Ecuadoreans have access to safer and improved cookstoves but the building of these stoves will provide an economic stimulus to rural communities. I also know that my work on campaigns provided access for clean drinking water, solar light products, and reading glasses to numerous (exact number to come out later this summer) rural Ecuadoreans. I know that our consulting work with small Ecuadorean entrepreneurs provided them with tools to improve their businesses in the long-term. For example, remember the story of Sumak Ahuana and our presentation on business networking and finding markets? We just received word that the women put our preaching into practice when they used the skills they learned from our presentation to approach a local hotel about selling products in their store. Their actions based on our recommendations resulted in a $900 order of scarves for the 15 women in the organization.
My impact in Ecuador is one that will not only be felt when I’m there, but one that will be felt long after I have left. Through the help of the Student International Business Council, I know that I have left a lasting impact in Ecuador. But even more importantly, my time in Ecuador has made a lasting impact on me. Through my 8- weeklong internship, I’ve gained a lifetime of friends, memories and experiences that will undoubtedly and positively shape my future in ways unknown to me now. The knowledge that I gained in Ecuador will be carried with me for the rest of my life and I can only hope that the knowledge I shared in Ecuador will continue to empower individuals beyond my lifetime.
If you want more information about my experience or want to read any of the project reports I submitted as part of my experience, feel free to email me at email@example.com.