Marketing professionals Jim Knutsen and Kyndra Wilson recently traveled to Honduras as part of the Minneapolis Business For Good professional brigade. Here, they reflect on applying their career experience to help local businesses — and learning a thing or two along the way.
Since starting my consulting business in 1999, I’ve filled hundreds of flip chart pages with the ideas and plans of my clients. This has always been my favorite part of the work; it feels like a privilege every time.
But the pages in this picture are special.
A year ago, some colleagues and I spent several days with the women of El Canton, a tiny, off-the-grid village in the hills of Southern Honduras. Here—in a male-dominated society where working the coffee fields for a dollar or two a day is the only source of income for most homes—Claudia did something no one would have expected. She got together with six other women, took out a loan, and started a bakery.
By the time we arrived in El Canton, Claudia and her partners had already far surpassed the expectations of their husbands and neighbors. By any measure, this was a thriving little business, operating seven days a week and distributing bread by motorcycle over rough mountain roads to seven neighboring villages.
We helped the bakery owners work through some common business challenges. Production scheduling. Supply chain efficiencies. When to buy a second motorcycle or add a third oven. We asked them something I’ve probably asked most of my clients: Where do you want your business to be in three years? What is your north star – la estrella del norte?
In the picture above, we’re visiting the village a year later. The flip charts are still on the wall. January sales were up 71% over last year. The women bought a generator and some lights so they could add a second shift. They’ve hired more employees. They’re buying more eggs and milk from neighbors, who’ve bought more chickens and cows to meet the demand. They’ve inspired some of the men in the village to start businesses of their own.
We were blown away by their accomplishments, but Claudia was matter-of-fact: “Es la estrella del norte.”
I recently posited a sort of back-to-the-village theory to my clients about the evolution of marketing, in which I suggested that many people have grown so distrustful of online marketing that they’re turning to local sources for honest opinions. Little did I realize that within a month, I’d actually be in a small Honduran village talking about marketing with local coffee-growers.
I went as a volunteer on a Business Brigade, part of a little team composed of marketing, merchandising, and process professionals. Our team traveled to El Zuzular, Honduras, where we met with members of the community bank and learned about their approach to growing and selling coffee.
At first, if I’m honest, the challenges facing them seemed insurmountable. Imagine the typical difficulties of an agrarian life (no rain, crop disease, etc.). Then add dishonest middlemen, limited access to transportation, a high government tax on the final product, and zero crop insurance. When they’re lucky, the 23 co-op members grow about 6,500 pounds of coffee a year and make a little over a dollar a pound. They have to live on—and reinvest—the profit for the rest of the season. Yikes.
As a team, we went back and forth trying to think of what we could offer to help the community. Finally, we went outside the community. We took a short trip to a popular tourist destination where we learned there’s a growing interest in fair-trade, locally sourced coffee. Small tourist shops were selling roasted coffee for $10 a bag.
We reported this back to our community members. As coffee growers, they confessed that they had never purchased a bag of coffee (they drink their own). So, we showed them how to think about their own brand strategy, do their own market research, and think of creative ways to make their product stand out.
The experience in Honduras was amazing for a hundred reasons, but it was also an important career lesson as a consumer insights and research person. Marketing might be returning to the village for the sources we trust as consumers. However, as marketing professionals, it’s vital that we occasionally leave our village and see what new market opportunities might await one village over.