Semillas de Luz

Semillas de Luz

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

My idea is to marry income generation and health education to offer young women real alternatives to early motherhood through the establishment of an artisan cooperative, Semillas de Luz (Seeds of Light), which would promote rich cultural textile traditions of indigenous Guatemala.

FESIRGUA, an indigenous women’s network of nine NGOs, runs an adolescent pregnancy prevention program, Abriendo Oportunidades (AO). AO recruits young women as one-year fellows and empowers them to chart their own life path. Fellows gain valuable job skills and earn a livable stipend as health educators and mentors for younger girls in their communities.

In June 2009, FESIRGUA started a network of young women in order to continue offering personal and professional development activities for former fellows. The young women in this network, however, do not receive any sort of stipend or income. As a result, over half of the fellows are financially unable to participate in the network. Moreover, many of the young women have few job opportunities available to them. Although AO provides valuable health education and job skills to their fellows, the program fails to truly enable them to continue on their desired life path.

I initially became passionate about Semillas de Luz three years ago when I spent three months helping FESIRGUA evaluate AO. Since then, Silvia Xinico (AO director) and I have continued communicating about one day starting an artisan cooperative using indigenous textiles to create products marketable in Guatemala and the US. Semillas de Luz would offer meaningful lasting employment to fellows which would enable the women to continue sowing seeds of light on their life path. The cooperative would also provide AO with additional funding to continue their efforts educating younger girls about reproductive health and introducing alternatives to early marriage and early motherhood.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

In Guatemala, indigenous females are disproportionately at risk of experiencing unintended teenage pregnancy, along with early motherhood and marriage. Coupled with their limited reproductive health knowledge, maternal and child health in indigenous communities is often compromised. FESIRGUA works to address maternal and child health issues through various projects, including Abriendo Oportunidades (AO). AO identifies fellows that receive training in reproductive health topics, set life goals, and obtain essential life and job skills. During a one year tenure, these fellows spend half of their time in their communities leading health education and life skills workshops for younger girls. With its current structure, AO– which has best intentions of empowering young women to become leaders in their communities and mothers when they so choose–has experienced limited success due to their inability to offer long-term employment linkages for fellows.
About You
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services


, DC

Are you an individual between the ages of 18 and 35 who would like to apply for a nine month Young Champions Program mentored by an Ashoka Fellow?


Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name


Organization Phone

(502) 7849 1596

Organization Address

6 Avenida 2-97 Zona 1 Chimaltenango, Guatemala

Organization Country

, CM

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Your idea
Country your work focuses on

, CM

Website URL
What makes your idea unique?

First, my idea expands the health education intervention, Abriendo Oportunidades (AO) to include income generation. Many health education interventions overlook important ecological factors, such as opportunities for employment. Although AO fellows are eager to learn job skills and chart out their own life path, they are hampered by the inability to obtain employment after finishing their fellowship year. Creating the cooperative Semillas de Luz would offer AO fellows long-lasting employment options after their fellowship year.

Second, Semillas de Luz would support the increasing environmental awakening taking place across the globe through its production of reusable grocery bags. Across the US, the use of disposable grocery bags is being replaced by reusable grocery bags. Cities such as San Francisco and Washington, DC are stimulating this trend through policies that penalize individuals who use disposable bags and reward individuals who use reusable bags. The textiles created by indigenous communities are vibrant, beautiful, and sturdy—characteristics that are essential in creating both a fashionable and highly marketable product.

Finally, we would evaluate longitudinally the impact of combining income generation and health education. This rigorous evaluation would be helpful to similar ventures across Guatemala, Latin America, and the globe. Although fair trade and socially responsible business models have gained in popularity over the years, there is limited evidence highlighting lasting effects on individuals and communities. Such an evaluation would provide insights to similar projects on how to improve their efforts as well as credibility to addressing maternal health through income generation.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had?

To date, Abriendo Oportunidades (AO) has reached a total of 30 young women in its fellowship program. Moreover, each AO fellow reaches, on average, 30 girls ages 11-14 in their community with interactive workshops on general health, reproductive health, self-esteem, and life goals. The project does not carry out long term evaluation with either the girls or the fellows, although this is something that the expansion of the project to include income generation would explicitly include.

With the proposed idea, we would follow the women that choose to participate in the cooperative longitudinally. We would begin as soon as women decide to join the cooperative. Every six months, we would conduct in-depth semi-structured interviews with the women to explore their life trajectory and how involvement in the cooperative was impacting their lives. We would also locate women who were no longer participating in the cooperative to assess reasons for leaving the cooperative and how their lives have changed since leaving. Moreover, we would look to identify a panel of women who are not involved in the cooperative, to see how their lives differ from the women that are engaged in the cooperative. In addition to measuring the impact of the cooperative on the financial well-being of the women, we would also identify specific key indicators related to maternal health, such as pregnancy status and fertility.


In response to the limitations of only engaging the fellows for one year, FESIRGUA started a network of former Abriendo Oportunidades (AO) fellows to provide continuation of professional and personal development. The network schedules retreats every three months, during which they provide trainings on topics including leadership skills and advocacy. Due to financial barriers, approximately half of former fellows are unable to participate in the network. AO is looking to identify ways to build upon the network and ensure greater participation among all former fellows. In speaking with fellows who were unable to participate in the network, it became apparent that money was an issue. As a result, FESIRGUA became intrigued with the idea of developing a cooperative which would provide fellows with an income and enable the women to participate in the various network activities.


Each year, Abriendo Oportunidades (AO) reaches up to 10 fellows and approximately 300 younger girls. Semillas de Luz would initially reach the 30 young women that have served as previous fellows. As the cooperative grows, so will the number of young women served. It is expected that each year the cooperative would add up to another 10 women, depending on their interest. Moreover, these women’s families and communities will also benefit from their participation in the cooperative due to the division of the project’s revenue into three components. First, revenue will be used to pay for the various inputs and costs associated with the project, such as the cost of textiles and other materials. Covering the essential costs will help to ensure long-term sustainability of the cooperative. As revenues increase, the project will be self-sustaining and will not need to turn to external funding for survival. Second, each woman participating in the cooperative will earn an income from her work. Third, the remaining revenue will be reinvested in AO, in order to be able to continue their work with younger girls and mothers.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

Over the course of the next three years, success will be defined by the development, implementation, and assurance of a sustainable cooperative.
During Year 1, we plan to conduct formative research to identify essential components to a successful cooperative with Guatemalan indigenous women. We would work with the women to develop a business plan that they are passionate about. Moreover, we would spend substantial time developing a product that is both feasible to produce and marketable. We would concurrently obtain seed money to support the initial efforts of the cooperative and develop an advisory board to provide additional guidance and support. Our goal for Year 1 would be to recruit at least 25 of the former 30 fellows to participate in the cooperative and provide them with the technical skills to produce the reusable grocery bags.

During Year 2, we would launch the sales of the reusable grocery bags. An essential component of this year’s success would be the launch of a website for Semillas de Luz. Our expectations for this year would be to retain 95% of cooperative members and that 80% of current AO fellows choose to join the cooperative upon the end of their fellowship year.

During Year 3, the cooperative’s profit would be reinvested in growing the health education efforts of AO. Moreover, we would begin to explore the development of additional products, such as diaper bags and yoga bags. We would also seek to collaborate with similar ventures in other countries.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

Two situations would prevent Semillas de Luz from achieving success. First, not spending the time conduct thorough formative research would result in an unsustainable and unprofitable cooperative. Thorough formative research would ensure that we identify the interests and needs of the fellows that we are hoping to engage in the cooperative. Without dedicating sufficient resources to interviewing fellows, we would end up developing a business plan that does not truly reflect the interests and needs of the fellows. Recruiting and retaining lasting participation in the cooperative would, therefore, become difficult. A thorough formative research process would also involve engaging in market research to identify our niche market and develop a reusable grocery bag that fits the needs of these individuals. By knowing and understanding our intended consumer, we would be able to produce bags that are tailored to fit their needs. In other words, conducting thorough formative research would ensure long-term sustainability of the cooperative.

Second, not being able to secure seed funding would inhibit the cooperative from being able to invest in the necessary start-up materials and resources. We will need to train the young women how to sew the bags as well as obtain sewing machines, textiles, etc. After the initial first year, it is likely that the project could be self-sustaining and would not need to rely on external funders. Without the initial assistance from these funders, however, it might be cost prohibitive to develop and begin a new business venture

How many people will your project serve annually?

Fewer than 100

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Don't know

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


What stage is your project in?

Idea phase

Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


If yes, provide organization name.


How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have a non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have a non-monetary partnerships with businesses?

Does your organization have a non-monetary partnerships with government?

Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

FESIRGUA is a network of nine indigenous women’s NGOs, five of whom collaborate with FESIRGUA on AO. Each collaborating NGOs takes on one fellow per year as an employee. Although FESIRGUA provides the fellows stipends and health education and life skills training, the individual NGOs mentor the fellows and reinforce job skills.
Between now and August 2010, I will work with FESIRGUA to identify additional NGO partnerships, including NGOs that have developed cooperatives (both in and out of Guatemala) and relevant Guatemalan businesses, such as those that produce textiles. These partners can offer lessons learned from their experience starting a business venture as well as technical skills and access to sales distribution channels. For example, a partner may teach fellows how to sew the reusable grocery bags. In addition, businesses that sell unique indigenous products to tourists in Guatemala may offer a venue for selling our products.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

Abriendo Oportunidades (AO), which operates on a small budget, will lose its current funding in June 2010. AO’s ability to develop a cooperative is critical for the fellows that will gain employment as well as for the long-term sustainability of AO’s community health education efforts. As a result, the three most important actions are as follows:

1.Conduct formative research to assess the feasibility of the cooperative.
This formative research will help to identify the financial and personal needs of the fellows. In addition, we will explore potential markets (such as residents of Washington, DC, Americans who have adopted Guatemalan children, and tourists in Guatemala) through qualitative research methods including focus groups and interviews with potential customers. During August 2010, I will spend several weeks in Guatemala with a group of several MPH students conducting this formative research.

2.Obtain seed money.
Once formative research is completed, we want to be able to fully develop the cooperative. FESIRGUA and I are identifying possible unding sources through our current networks of colleagues, friends, and family. Having the ability to further network through attending the Maternal Health Change Summit will also be instrumental.

3.Develop a business plan for the cooperative.
This action includes identifying potential customers, setting short-term and long-term goals, outlining a timeline and activities, and beginning to locate resources for product development, sales, and distribution. During the trip in August 2010, we will convene the 30 former fellows for a multi-day retreat, during which they will develop a business plan. One of the MPH students involved has expertise in this area, having helped a group of rural Honduran women develop a business plan for a baking cooperative. Ultimately, the business plan will help guide the design and marketing of the reusable grocery bag, including its brand and price point.

The Story
What was the defining moment that you led to this innovation?

In 2007, I spent three months working with indigenous women in Guatemala—an experience which profoundly impacted my career path. I helped FESIRGUA strengthen the evaluation of their adolescent pregnancy prevention project, Abriendo Oportunidades (AO). This innovative project was created in direct response to the alarming numbers of unintended pregnancies among young indigenous woman in Guatemala, leading to early marriage and dropping out of school.

During my tenure, I engaged in moving conversations which challenged my global health paradigm. I heard stories of fellows who, at year’s end, had few job opportunities. As a result, some fellows experienced unintended pregnancies. Others illegally immigrated to the US, leaving their communities and cultural traditions behind. I came to the realization that the best health education, job training, and empowerment intervention is inadequate if employment prospects are non-existent.

I remember, in particular, one conversation that I had with Arecely, an intelligent and vibrant woman who had just finished her fellowship. As we chatted over lunch nonchalantly mentioned that after finishing with AO, her plan was to hire a coyote to get her to the US illegally, as her two brothers had already done. She stated that her brothers had limited family contact and made little money. Although she did not want to follow her brothers’ footsteps, she stressed that due to the limited job opportunities available she didn’t know what else to do. At the same time, I found out that she came from a family of weavers and that they produced traditional textiles. I wondered if there was a way to create a job for her that could use her family’s resources and skills, which would allow her to stay invested in her community and continue the personal and professional growth that AO had provided over the last year.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

I have been passionate about maternal/child health since my first year of college, when I heard Audrey Hepburn speak about her role as a UNICEF ambassador. I had never heard about public health before. But as I heard her speak about the mothers and children around the world who suffered due to social, environmental, and governmental forces, I decided that I wanted to be involved in the process of improving the lives of others.

Fast forward five years when I worked as a reproductive health counselor for a family planning clinic. These two years, during which I counseled Spanish-speaking and French-speaking women about their reproductive health decisions, I witnessed countless adolescents faced with the prospects of becoming a mother. I was further motivated to ensure that young women everywhere were empowered to chart their life paths, including having the ability to decide when to become a mother and avoid unintended pregnancies.

After finishing my DrPH degree from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, I spent three months working with FESIRGUA. Although my expertise was in health communication, at the end of my time in Guatemala I was committed to finding a way to incorporate income generation activities within the structure of AO. In December 2008 I became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Initially, I wondered whether I could collaborate with FESIRGUA to develop a cooperative, questioning whether my participation extended beyond an academician’s scope. I realized that my involvement in the cooperative was appropriate and innovative, since the evaluation of the combined health education and income generation intervention could potentially shape the future of global health practice while creating a sustainable cooperative that would provide women with alternatives to early motherhood.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

College or university

If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company