Paulina Ramirez Guzman first started making traditional pita string bags with her mother while growing up in rural Titique, Guatemala.
Back then, they wove the bags by hand, without any modern technology, and with few places to sell them.
All that changed in 2003, when she met Sonia Guevara, one of the co-founders of the Association of Olopenses Women (AMO).
“The AMO has helped me with the training, and access to credit, to finance the materials and supplies I need to make the bags,” said Guzman.
The Association of Olopenses Women was founded in 2000 in Olopa, in Guatemala’s Chiquimula Department, near the border with Honduras. Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Central America, has a poverty rate of 45 percent, and the fourth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, according to the World Bank.
Remote regions like Olopa are among the poorest, with few opportunities for women to break the cycle of poverty.
That’s exactly what makes the AMO so powerful and important.
Since joining, Guzman has not only built her own bag-weaving business, she’s also gained other income streams for her and her family.
“I have also received training in the construction of organic gardens, the production of compost and the construction of bio filters for safe water consumption,” she said.
What makes the AMO special is its model. The organization operates in many ways like a cooperative, with decisions made collectively and all voices heard.
This gives the Association an advantage over international aid organizations and charities that want to create opportunities for rural and disadvantaged women to thrive. The Association of Olopenses Women is different, says Guzman, because it didn’t just provide aid, but offers real ownership.
Unlike other organizations, the AMO is managed by the women themselves, who represent their own communities. — Paulina Ramirez Guzman, member of the AMO
“The AMO is the only organization that has seen the need and potential of indigenous women artisans for community projects that directly benefit them in remote communities,” Guzman said.
Guzman herself became a member after paying a nominal 50 quetzals (~US$6.50) entry fee.
“To be a member of the AMO, it is only required to have the desire to participate, pay … and to be able to receive all the training and activities that we have scheduled throughout the year,” says Olga Marina Romero, a 42-year-old mother of seven from the village of Chucte Centro, and the organization’s current elected president.
She herself started, like Guzman, learning about the AMO through another member, getting involved with her community. She started out as a volunteer, and then in 2018 was elected president at the organization’s general assembly.
Now, she’s leading efforts to bring in more women members, and expand to other communities.
The Association of Olopenses Women is at the service of its members, the women entrepreneurs. It is an opportunity for indigenous women in Guatemala to support their families through their own enterprises. — AMO president, Olga Marina Romero
The AMO trains women doing crafts, hammocks, and rope-bag businesses, like Guzman, but also teaches skills in agricultural business and practice such as growing coffee and raising livestock like chickens, turkeys, and ducks.
This can build food security by promoting family gardens, and also helps the women earn extra income.
Romero, herself a farmer, grows coffee, corn, beans, and sometimes raises chickens.
“Right now we are preparing seed beds for coffee, avocado, oranges, mangoes,” she says, and the AMO’s members “know that the trees will bear fruit to generate income.”
Despite working in such a poor region, with limited resources, the AMO has shown that this model can not only survive, but thrive. Grants and financial aid help, but what makes the organization sustainable is the success of members themselves, who use the AMO to contribute to and invest in their own future.
According to World Neighbors, a nonprofit international development organization that works with impoverished communities in underdeveloped regions, the AMO’s members contribute a small part of their profit into a savings and credit group.
This group in turn makes loans to women who wish to start their own businesses, giving them means to purchase tools or even additional land to expand farm output.
Loans have mostly been paid back, allowing available credit to expand over time.
Coming together also provides new opportunities to export products abroad, or hire more support staff, says Romero. “We are convinced that if the products that the members produce could be exported by the AMO, we would have enough resources to have full-time staff and continue financing our own projects,” she said.
To date, the Association of Olopenses Women has grown beyond its initial base in Olopa, Guatemala. It now works in 37 communities, and has about 700 members, 400 of whom are active. All but 15 are women.
The Association of Olopenses Women is like a seed, in that it is waiting for its opportunity, moment and time to germinate and become a tree, but to get there it has to go through many stages. — Olga Marina Romero
“Through the training of its members, the tree eventually comes to bear fruit and live forever if it has water and nutrients and receives proper care,” says Romero.
There’s no fast and easy means of empowering women and ending systemic poverty in places like rural Guatemala.
Real solutions, such as building an organization like the AMO, require time to build trust and relationships. It also means overcoming the legacy of failed government and nonprofit promises to impoverished communities.
For many, therefore, what the AMO offers may seem too good to be true. That’s why Guzman encourages women of all ages to come see the AMO in action.
“Visit us to come see our organization and what we do in it,” she said. “There are many ventures that women have in mind, and it is easier to make them a reality when we have the support of our own community organization, that speaks our language, knows our customs and believes and bets on us. Through the AMO, women can be better organized to achieve our goals [and] prepare projects that benefit our communities.”