Interactuar is, without a doubt, one of the most inspiring microfinance institutions (MFIs) I have come across to date in my work with Kiva. More than just a credit institution, Interactuar, which is located in Medellin, Colombia, believes wholeheartedly in the power of microfinance when combined with additional programs, such as client education and consulting services. Two of these entrepreneurship development services strike me as particularly unique and merit elaboration: the design center and the nutrition laboratory.
The design center is aimed at helping entrepreneurs package and market their product. Although many individuals here in Colombia (and indeed microcredit clients worldwide) may have a top-notch product to sell, very few people are lucky enough to receive help getting that product to market. After all, nothing sells itself. With three employees and over 170 clients each year, the design center is hopping. Their basic package available to clients consists of a logo design, business cards, product label, personalized receipts, and a flyer advertising their product. An entrepreneur can purchase this package for about US$140. Any other design firm would charge this price for the logo alone. But Interactuar’s services go far beyond these basics. Creating materials for a product requires market research, and a strong understanding of who and where the product is likely to be successful. In this vein, Interactuar’s design team is adept at creating slogans and representations of the product that are likely to resonate with the target market. Beyond the paper goods, Interactuar will even help clients to design storefronts which will further contribute to the brand identity. Here in Latin America, it is very common for stores to sell advertising space to larger brands (Pepsi, Coke, etc.), which frequently overshadows the name and identity of the business itself. For one local coffee company, Interactuar designed everything from the tables to placemats. Part of the trick, reports the head of design, can be talking entrepreneurs out of a product that isn’t right for their business. Many individuals just want a flyer, and assume that a fancy piece of paper will be enough to secure customers. Interactuar’s role is to help clients think on a bigger plane and consider what specific techniques will support their business model. Beyond the coffee shop, Intertactuar’s design clients have run the gamut, from travel agencies to artisan chocolates to a line of doggie outfits.In 2011, the center hopes to expand its scope to include web design services as well.
A few products from the design center
One key aspect of formal commercialization of a product is the legal permissions required to get that product to a larger purveyor, such as a supermarket. Here in Colombia, a government regulated institution is responsable for approving all food products before they can be legally sold. This includes placing a bar code on the product, and publishing ingredient lists and nutrition content. Enter Interactuar’s nutrition laboratory. The lab is designed to offer three primary services to clients. First is a physiochemical analysis. This breaks down food in order to discover its nutritional content, including the amount of fat, protein, and fiber it contains. But what’s more, the analysis will help an entrepreneur to detect weaknesses in the product, or improve its consistency. For example, one entrepreneur produced yogurt. He was struggling to achieve uniform viscosity across all batches of his product. This analysis helped him to do so. Second, the lab offers a biochemical breakdown, which tells a client that his product is safe to eat and is unlikely to make anyone ill. Part of the analysis even takes place in the client’s home or business, to make sure all equipment, environmental factors (including the air itself!) and processes are hygienic. Third, the lab offers administrative services that help a client register her brand and get approval to sell in commercial markets. While this last service will cost about $300 (as per government regulations), the previous two run about $65 each. Further services by the lab include intensive monthly trainings that explain all of the ins and outs of hygiene and safety standards for all food preparation workers, ranging from roving vendors to restaurant chefs. The course costs about $7. Last April, Interactuar even produced a Biosecurity Manual, which explains not only how to run a safe business (fascinatingly, this applies to hair salons as well as food vendors, since they also work with organic materials!) but how to implement all safety regulations.
Although there are a few other labs in the city, and certainly other graphic design centers, Interactuar’s programs have two distinct advantages. First, its technicians are adept at speaking with Interactuar’s clients, who often do not have much formal education and are unlikely to understand the finer principles of biochemistry. Second, clients who are looking to take advantage of the design or lab services can get a short-term loan from Interactuar at lower-than-average interest rates to cover the cost of services.
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Betsy McCormick, KF 12, Medellin, Colombia