Candle Making as a Financial Empowerment Tool?

My first day in the field I learned how to make candles.

 This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, as it did to me, so let me share the story.

First thing last Wednesday morning, I took a tuk tuk out to Jocotenango, a pueblo right outside of Antigua Guatemala, to meet up with one of the training facilitator Ana Lucía (Ana Lu, for short). Facilitators are the on-the-ground staff that facilitate the business training courses designed by SDE (Servicios de Desarrollo Empresarial, or Services for [Micro] Business Development), the department of Génesis Empresarial for which I’m working this summer. Facilitators work closely with loan officers to best support the business growth of their clients. Ana Lu and I hopped on a chicken bus and chatted on our way to meet with the group of women that were going to receive the training that morning.It was great to get out of Antigua and visit the mountainous surrounding towns where many clients live and conduct their businesses. Antigua is picturesque with its volcano borders. It’s a safe, walkable town that is great to live in, but it is full of tourists and at times feels almost like a manufactured UNESCO site.

A typical view in the streets of Antigua Guatemala

A typical view in the streets of Antigua Guatemala

Ana Lu and I arrived at Edna’s home a little before 9:00 a.m., when the training was scheduled to start. Edna is a member of the Bancomunal (a solidarity group lending product by Génesis) and had offered to host the training at her home. We waited for about a half hour as three of the other members trickled in. Each of the women owns a small business in their home, and they have been clients of Génesis for a few years. Once everyone was there they invited us back to the kitchen, and we all sat around the table while Ana Lu began the training. She pulled out several neatly folded poster board papers on which she had drawn simple graphics that explained the candle-making process.

Génesis clients learn candle making in a group setting, aided by simple teaching props such as this hand-drawn poster

Génesis clients learn candle making in a group setting, aided by simple teaching props such as this hand-drawn poster

Throughout the training Ana Lu diligently discussed practical details, such as where to buy materials in bulk, how much would they cost, etc. If you’re interested, the following are what you’d need if you want to try this at home:

  • A block of paraffin (scented for additional cost, justified by the additional mark-up potential)
  • String for the wick
  • A bag of little silver wick holders (I didn’t catch their name, but they cost less than a dollar for about 100)
  • Cups or glass candle holders
Raw materials for candle making

Raw materials for candle making

Ana Lu walked the women through the process of melting the parafin and pouring it on top of the other materials into the little plastic cups she had brought. She then led a discussion on how making these candles could potentially be practical for each of the women in their businesses or households, and then she reiterated the concept of revenue minus costs equals profit.

Anu Lu shows women entrepreneurs how to make candles

Anu Lu shows women entrepreneurs how to make candles

For me this experience was particularly interesting since most of my work in microfinance has been with individual borrowers instead of communal banks such as this one. Bancomunal is one of several loan products Génesis offers, and it is the group of clients with which SDE works the most. The groups are made up of 10 or more individuals who are in the most informal stages of owning a business. Often, they are working an additional job or caring for the home, and they realize they can bring in some extra income for their families if they open a small store in their foyer, bake cakes to sell to neighbors, or sew clothing for family. The group members provide support for each other during the borrowing cycle, and they also provide repayment accountability (a type of guarantee, similar in concept to a deed on a home for a mortgage). This guarantee enables them to qualify for small loans even though their businesses are just starting and/or very informal. Their meetings provide an excellent platform for a facilitator to teach them some new skills to help them grow their budding enterprises.

So why candles?  As Edna bluntly put it, it is hard for women to leave the house, especially when they have children (most do). (See previous Ambassador blog on women.) Some of these women may indeed make the candles and sell them in their home-based stores for a small profit. Others may make them to sell to family members or neighbors. And still others may make them to save a few bucks here and there in their own home. The impact of these trainings thus far has been measured broadly and qualitatively, so I can’t paint a picture with numbers, but the anecdotal impact is still worth mentioning. One thing I’m working on with SDE is how to focus resources on courses that will not only ensure that clients repay and remain loyal to Génesis, but will also provide opportunities for relevant and high return on investment projects.

After the candle-making class is over, students display their finished product

After the candle-making class is over, students display their finished product

Name block - Sherri 2014

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