Our First Project Provided Six Months of Sustainable Income Opportunities

Rural communities struggle to create new income streams when traditional labor is no longer available. This is particularly difficult in male-dominated societies where women are not expected to be the breadwinners. This is what happened in the village of Olaya, located outside of Santa Fe de Antioquia, near Medellin, Colombia. Men traditionally created income through farming, but climate change severely affected their ability to farm coffee at volume. Lucky for Olaya, a local priest communicated this issue to a doctor in the city of Medellin, and she jumped into action.

Dr. Beatriz was the creative hand behind the company Fique, a social good company helping train women how to handmake handbags. Beatriz had already seen this project work; Fique’s first major project started with helping those that were displaced from their homes due to the guerilla conflict in “La Comuna Noriental” of Medellin. These people were forced out of their homes and into other areas. There, Beatriz taught 45 women how to knit and they continued supporting their families through this work by selling the goods at local arts and crafts shows.

Her only ask for Olaya? That the entire community learns the new trade (not just the men). It was her personal mission to ensure that women were equally involved in solving the community’s issues. She offered to teach the entire village how to knit and work with leather to create handbags from fique.

The Doctor Makes House Calls

When the project started, Beatriz would get dropped off on the side of a dirt road where the villagers met her on horseback. After at least an hour’s ride up the side of steep mountains, she’d spend weekends teaching them how to make the handmade handbags from hemp fibers or rope (fique). The project started with just a few families and within a few months was able to support over 60 artisan families. After a few months, one family taught the next, and Beatriz’ goal was to eventually only visit to teach new designs, deliver materials, and distribute the handbags they made back to the city of Medellin for further distribution.

While Beatriz was excited about the new work she was providing to this Aldea, she was also scraping for local support to help fund materials. That’s when someone recommended she talk to me, a Colombian-born entrepreneur interested in giving back.

Promising Growth Provided Machinery, Materials and Distribution

Well, I wasn’t exactly local support, was I! But we were exactly what we were looking for! At that time, I was dealing with some really tough personal health issues. I needed this project to keep my mind busy, and they needed me. After all, the more women on deck- the better!

We committed to raise the necessary funds to expand their venture. We donated two industrial leather sewing machines and enough materials for approximately six months of continuous labor. The project was launched in December 2008 and provided over 275 days of fairly paid labor to the artisans of Olaya. After the handbags were delivered back to Medellin, we imported them to New Jersey and sold them online.

Promising Growth also contributed clothing and other equipment to help the families in the village.   I was lucky enough to visit their small village after we kicked off the project. I was hooked by the passion and commitment of the families in Olaya. Thanks to their dedication and deep gratitude, I knew there was no way this would be one-time project. We changed their lives and to be honest, they changed mine.

One-year later I had my baby. The “fique” inventory room was turned into a nursery and my US-based start-ups needed my full attention. The families of Fique had succeeded and were now self-sufficient. Promising Growth was put on hold. I moved on, but stay in touch with Beatriz to hear about the ongoing success we created, now almost ten years and running.

Dr. Beatriz, a local artisan, and Marcela Shine at the Aldea of El Percal

Investing Donated Dollars to Projects in Colombia that Keep Giving

Although the Olaya project was critical to the well-being of many families, we have since focused our efforts on helping children directly. There is one takeaway from Olaya that continues to be critical to what we do; we want our donations to help more than one person. We want them to keep on giving.

The school improvements, parks, and even supplies we provide don’t just help ONE child. These changes will affect kids year after year, particularly the parks or play areas that we create at the schools. One parent from our most recent project told me that he went to the same exact schoolhouse where his child is now attending. That school has had some changes over time; improved bathrooms, the addition of a kitchen and a better roof. But they never had what he considers “excessive luxuries”. Imagine? Thinking that soccer balls and extra recreational equipment is a luxury? Together, we can do so much and the dollars we need aren’t excessive at all.

Work with us to help make a difference. Because, let’s face it – for Colombia, united is better! Join the Colombia United team in making all of this possible.