Letters from Guatemala

By Students in the U21 Global Classroom

Join a global team of students from UConn and other Universitas 21 institutions in Guatemala, as they learn about cooperation, global citizenship, and social entrepreneurship in the global virtual classroom and on the ground.

The Campaign for Fresh Water in San Martin

The U21 group in San Martin with our customers of the day, a group of local students who purchased a water filter for a project in their school. Back row from left, six San Martin students, Lhens Vilson (UConn), Lucille Danks (Queensland), Josefina (Asesora Comunitaria, San Martin), Clara Luz (Regional Coordinator for Asesoras, Antigua region). Front row from left, Ryan Dandy (Social Entrepreneur Corps staff), Sissi Wang (Melbourne), the water filter, Erica Berthelsen (Melbourne, in the back), Rebecca Lo (Hong Kong), and me (Queensland).

The U21 group in San Martin on July 5 with our customers of the day, a group of local students who purchased a water filter for a project in their school. Back row from left, six San Martin students, Lhens Vilson (UConn), Lucille Danks (Queensland), Josefina (Asesora Comunitaria, San Martin), Clara Luz (Regional Coordinator for Asesoras, Antigua region). Front row from left, Ryan Dandy (Social Entrepreneur Corps staff), Sissi Wang (Melbourne), the water filter, Erica Berthelsen (Melbourne, in the back), Rebecca Lo (Hong Kong), and me (Queensland).

The day began with the usual chicken bus journey to San Martin (complete with a soundtrack of the latest pop hits feat: Pitbull and J-Lo). Upon arrival we met up with our asesora Josefina. During setting up our stall, some of us with bountiful yet unjustified optimism ducked off to grab a coffee, only to find the usual vaguely comforting sugary water with only a slight hint of caffeine. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be the first obstacle of the day.

Here I am talking about the benefits of clean water with residents of San Martin.

Here I am talking about the benefits of clean water with residents of San Martin.

One of our group’s projects for this program is to focus upon developing strategies and ideas for how to sell the water filters in urban markets. Although the main purpose of Soluciones Comunitarias is to provide rural communities access to vital and life-improving products, low level of water quality is an issue throughout Guatemala. Penetrating urban areas is a way to increase sales, and these profits can be used to fund development in other areas. However, filters are one of the harder products to sell due to the high initial investment required, and for this reason I wasn’t expecting a hugely successful day, sales-wise. The water days are more about providing education regarding the benefits of drinking clean water, and promoting the filters as a good way of doing this. Us foreigners are particularly useful at events such as these because our gringo appearance draws people in. I found it bizarre that my rudimentary explanations and presence as a foreigner lent credibility to the filters, but this was the case. Although I do find it sad that many locals assume I am a doctor or highly educated simply because of my skin colour, I can’t say that being found slightly exotic is entirely a bad thing. As a pale-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed individual of average height with no exceptional physical characteristics, this is probably as good as I’ll get.

Sissi Wang talks about the benefits of clean water with local residents in San Martin on July 5.

Sissi Wang talks about the benefits of clean water with local residents.

With hours of practice we became adept at explaining the filtration process, and whether through Spanish, Spanglish, or mime we all were able to successfully pass on some educational information. Although my vocabulary regarding filtration products has expanded substantially, I still have a way to go with accurately assessing potential clients, as I learnt after spending almost 20 minutes explaining every product feature to a very interested gentleman only to realise he was homeless. As time ticked on we persisted, but an inconvenient location, directly beside a major road, made our stall a thoroughfare, and non-existent sales dampened the mood. Education is obviously an important part of the campaigns, but as the asesoras are paid based on commission, the thought that Josefina would walk away without any earnings was a concern. With 20 minutes left and prospects bleak, a group of 6 high school boys who had visited the stall numerous times throughout the day returned again. As this group was so different from our normal sales demographic, many of us made the mistake of not viewing them as serious potential customers. Instead, we assumed they were there like many others to check out the gringas (classic example of cognitive bias in a cross-cultural situation, thank you Organisational Behaviour). We were all fairly shocked when, after a brief discussion with the asesora, they pulled out cash and bought it there on the spot! Turns out they were graduating this year and their final project was to find some way of obtaining clean water for their school, and our filter was the best solution they had seen. We finalised the sale with 1 minute to go of our allotted time. It was an amazing high note to end the water day, especially knowing that this particular sale would impact the lives of so many students.

Lhens Vilson, left, and Ryan Dandy of the Social Entrepreneur Corps, explain how the water filter works.

Lhens Vilson, left, and Ryan Dandy of the Social Entrepreneur Corps, explain how the water filter works.

Erica Berthelsen demonstrates a water filter to local residents in San Martin on July 5.

Erica Berthelsen demonstrates a water filter to local residents.

Rebecca Lo takes the water campaign to the market in San Martin.

Rebecca Lo takes the water campaign to the market.

Lucille speaks with a local resident in San Martin.

Lucille Danks speaks with a local resident.