Drive about 1.5 hours east of the up-and-coming metropolis of Medellín, and you’ll find yourself on tranquil mountain roads in Cocorná, dotted with family farms and handmade houses.
Keep your eyes peeled, because Tienda de Paz San Jose doesn’t look like much at first glance. It’s a one-story brick building perched on a hill, seemingly indistinguishable from countless other roadside pit stops in the area.
However, inside this unremarkable structure lives the beating heart of a community that has been displaced from their homes by violence three times. Their reaction? To invest in themselves and each other.
To call Tienda de Paz San Jose a store is to miss the point entirely. A community center might be a more apt description. This store is a source of income, a place to gather, a classroom for microbusiness students, a budding microfinance institution, a source of jobs and hope. It’s the centerpiece of the community.
In 2014, this community received a donation of $18 million COP (roughly $6,000) from the regional microfinance institution, Interactuar. The project, called Tiendas de Paz (Stores of Peace), partners with people in post-conflict areas to build community stores.
Interactuar’s donation comes with strings. They form a lifetime relationship with the Tiendas de Paz, helping them to develop and maintain a leadership structure and a credit program. Some participate in a nationally-recognized intensive course for microbusinesses as well. With 24 Tiendas de Paz built, and 5 more in the works, Interactuar is making a sustainable investment in Colombia’s most vulnerable populations.
I’ll take a quick detour to address a question that plagued me when I first learned about this program - how can a store, of all things, help to create peace and economic opportunities? The answer is simple: community stores were serving this purpose long before Interactuar got involved.
If you’re from the midwestern United States, like I am, this might be a foreign concept. I don’t even know the names of the cashiers at my local grocery store, and I wouldn’t dream of spending an afternoon there chatting with friends.
But in rural Colombia, the local store is a place to sip coffee with neighbors. It’s where you swap stories with a friend while munching on an empanada. And, if you’re lucky enough to be part of the Tiendas de Paz program, it might be where you receive training on how to commercialize the peppers you grow on your farm, so you can sell them to restaurants and shops in the city.
About 20 members of the San Jose community were waiting for us when we arrived. Every single one rose to shook my hand, welcoming me to their home. Coffee was served as a grey kitten padded between our legs, and one by one the community members shared their perspective on how Tiendas de Paz had changed their lives.
They told us about the credit program, and the fine balance of keeping interest rates low enough to be fair to borrowers, but high enough to generate revenue for future projects.
When asked how they hold borrowers accountable for paying back their loans, one member of the loans committee said, “Trust is the guarantee. Everyone knows this money doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to the community.”
They spoke about the microbusiness classes provided by Interactuar, and the motivation it has provided to the trainees. “Knowledge is nothing if you don’t motivate people,” says one student. “The program helped me see my farm as a business.”
I left the visit awed and humbled by the resilience I witnessed. A $6,000 donation has transformed a fragmented community into a team, where each member is bonded by a mutual trust and belief in one another.
More information for the curious (Spanish speakers only) can be found here.