Taking flight with chickens: How one Guatemalan business woman is beating the odds

Carmen María Can Pixabaj has kept up to 450 chickens at a time for the poultry processing business she runs in her small community in Guatemala. Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

With training from a new Oxfam initiative called Women in Small Enterprise, or WISE, Carmen María Can Pixabaj is steadily increasing the size of her poultry production enterprise.

The first thing a visitor notices on pulling up to Carmen María Can Pixabaj’s house in a small village in Sololá, Guatemala,  is the rows of corn cascading down the hill from her terrace. It’s only May, but the stalks are already tall and lush. It doesn’t take long to discover the secret to their success: chickens—hundreds of them, some just days old, others plump and ready for slaughter.  Their wastes, composted and used as fertilizer, are a happy by-product of Can Pixabaj’s flourishing poultry enterprise.

Here in Caserio Chuijomil Can Pixabaj is something of a rarity: a woman who has countered convention and launched her own business—one that has grown steadily to become the envy of some of her neighbors. In Guatemala, a machismo culture coupled with the limited access women have to loans often robs them of entrepreneurial opportunities. Can Pixabaj has come to her success through a combination of hard work, courage, and the help of a new Oxfam program: WISE.

Short for Women in Small Enterprise, WISE aims to tackle some of the barriers that typically hold women business owners back. It offers intensive financial training, one-on-one business coaching, the opportunity to network with other women entrepreneurs, and access to loans big enough to help women grow their businesses significantly. Backed by a guarantee fund established by Oxfam America and offered through a commercial bank, the loans range from $3,000 to $50,000—the kind of cash women rarely can raise on their own.

“We want to support them and create a cohort of really strong women entrepreneurs. We want to learn from their experiences and be able to share them so other women can feel inspired,” says Mara Bolis, senior advisor for market systems in Oxfam’s private sector department. “Economic empowerment for women is important in order for them to have a voice politically, and for them to be free from violence.”

Carmen María Can Pixabaj has been raising chickens for about three years. As the chicks grow, she moves them into a chicken coop down the hill from her house. Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

A box of birds

Next to the terrace of Can Pixabaj’s house stands a big wooden box that seems to hum softly. Inside are 125 baby birds, chirping, jostling, pecking at their food. This is the first stage of Can Pixabaj’s poultry fattening process. The chicks, purchased when they are a day old for 5 quetzales each, or about 66 cents, will stay here for 15 days before Can Pixabaj moves them to a hen house just down the hill. When they’re two months old, the chickens are ready for market.

Can Pixabaj has raised up to 450 chickens at a time, but her dream is to more than double that and boost her capacity to 1,000 chickens. And it seems likely that there would be plenty of demand for them: On weekly market days when she sets up shop with 40 birds, Can Pixabaj sells out within an hour. Prep for that burst of activity is an exhausting affair carried out the day before with the assistance of two daughters and two hired women who help to slaughter the birds and pluck their feathers.

 Between the market and other customers she has found, Can Pixabaj usually sells about 50 chickens a week—for a profit of about 400 quetzales, or about $53.

“It’s helped me quite a lot,” says Can Pixabaj, who is 43 and has four children. “I help my children pay for their studies and things we need for the home.”  But as the business has prospered during the past three years, it is helping her in other important—and personal—ways, too.

“I feel much more sure of myself because I know I can make ends meet myself,” says Can Pixabaj. Though she consults her husband and he helps her with the work, she is the one who makes the decisions about the business—even when they require her to stretch in directions that felt uncomfortable at first.

Carolina Moreira,left, shares a laugh with Maria Luisa Cruz. Moreira has provided one-on-one coaching to poultry producer Carmen María Can Pixabaj. And Cruz founded the organization that has provided the WISE initiative with coaches, Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

Branching out and building confidence

Some of that stretching came at the urging of her WISE coach.

“What helped me a lot was to decide and take a step forward in seeking out new clients,” says Can Pixabaj, whose native language is Quiché. “The coach particularly guided me. She said you don’t need to be afraid of it. Feel confident and go in!”

Still, the idea of marketing her chickens directly to stores did make Can Pixabaj nervous. What if they said no? In the end, she had nothing to worry about: The chickens, well-fed and raised hormone-free, practically sold themselves—once the shopkeepers saw them.

Can Pixabaj’s willingness to take their advice to heart and act on it thrills the WISE coaches, particularly as business women in Guatemala constantly hear opposite messages about their abilities and their roles in society. It’s the kind of conditioning that stifles drive and makes women second guess themselves.

“I think the hardest thing (for business women) is feeling alone,” says Marie Luisa Cruz, founder of IDEA-ONG, the local organization that provides the coaches for WISE. “Some people tell you, why are you making an enterprise? You should be getting married. . . .  Business is for men.”

No it’s not. And WISE coaches work hard to help women understand that.

“You have to teach people and change their minds and tell them they are capable,” says Carolina Moreira, a business woman herself and Can Pixabaj’s coach. “Everyone in their families and in this society, they don’t think you deserve it or can make it.”

Can Pixabaj is helping to prove them wrong.

Carmen María Can Pixabaj,right, stands with one of her daughters in the doorway to their kitchen. Can Pixabaj's poultry earnings help pay for her children to go to school. Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

Three-fold growth

Moreira says that with the coaching Can Pixabaj received, she increased the size of her business threefold. Key to that growth has been better record-keeping and re-investment of her profits.

“She’s a very good example,” says Moreira. “I love to work with her. She was very open to receiving any new tool I could give her.”

But one tool Can Pixabaj has decided against using—at least for the moment—is a bank loan that the WISE Fund is facilitating. The fund, set up to provide a partial guaranty for program participants, has already improved loan terms and conditions compared to what would have been available without the guaranty. According to one study of five institutions, interest rates on microfinance loans, which usually max out at about $3,000, run between 24 percent and 36 percent.

Through Banco GyT—the first Guatemala bank to join Oxfam in this effort to boost business opportunities for women-- Can Pixabaj could apply for a loan with interest rates ranging from at 16 to 22 percent and loan terms from one to two years. Without the guarantee from the Wise Fund, the interest rate on a $5,000 loan could be double the rate offered with the support of Wise.

“I’m a little bit afraid,” Can Pixabaj said, “because I’m worried about not being able to pay back.” But that sober conclusion, reached after six weeks of WISE pre-investment training and eight weeks of coaching, doesn’t preclude the possibility of borrowing money in the future. Through the training, Can Pixabaj gained a clear view of her current financial situation as well as a deeper understanding about how to help her business grow and at what pace—all invaluable WISE lessons.

Can Pixabaj is keen to expand. She wants to become “a big, successful business woman.” To do that, she needs the capital to make it happen: A machine to grind corn for feed would be a big help, and so would a machine to pluck the chickens. But for now, she’s going to use her savings to inch her business forward.

And on the way, she hopes her daughters—17 and 19—are gleaning from her experience.

“This is what I’d like for them,” says Pixbaj. “I’d like to teach them how to earn a living because I want them to be people who do well and to follow my example because I believe you can do anything in life if you stay on the right path.”

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