August 2, 2012, Solola, Guatemala – A young woman learns sewing skills at a class supported by Counterpart International in the community of Santa Catarina Palopo, Guatemala. Through partner agency Grupos Gestores (Management Groups), Counterpart helps to pay the salary of the instructor for the four month course, after which participants hope to be able to earn a living by selling clothing and other items to tourists. © David Snyder/Counterpart International.

By David Snyder

In a room full of sewing machines, Maria Estella Nimacachi focuses intently on a small patch of blue cloth, feeding it delicately into the blur of a threaded needle. Though a skilled weaver, sewing is new to her, as are the designs she is learning this week during a class in the tourist town of Santa Catarina Polopo, Guatemala.

“We know how to weave, but that is a different type of clothing from patterns,” Nimacachi said. “Making the patterns of clothing is different for us – we’re not used to that. But we’re learning.”

Helping to teach women like Nimacachi new skills is a key element of the Community Tourism Alliance project. Supported by Counterpart International since 2006, the project aims to help women tap into Guatemala’s lucrative tourism industry, which generates as much as 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Nimacachi and the 24 other women in the class are highly skilled at weaving traditional shirts called huipils, but few foreign tourists buy the shirts, and the labor-intensive work yields little profit. So the women are learning to make patterns that will appeal to the tourists who frequent this community on the edge of Lake Atitlan. To ensure that their products are marketable, teacher Albricia Canastulj says she first investigates the markets to see what is selling.

“We do research to know which products would be most popular in the local markets, so that’s how we decide what to teach,” Canastulj says. “We work based on the needs and skills of the women, so it’s not a standard methodology.”

Working through partner agency Grupos Gestores (Management Groups), Counterpart supports the women with technical training and business skills development, and trains them with a four-month course on how to use sewing machines, design clothing from patterns and market their products.

While challenging, Nimacachi says, the course has opened her eyes to the possibilities for new designs, and collaboration. Since most of the women work from home, she said they’re trying to form their own business association.

Supported with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Community Tourism Alliance is having a profound impact on the lives of rural Guatemalans. More than 800 women in five of Guatemala’s 22 provinces have benefited directly from project activities. From an initial investment of $1 million, project beneficiaries have increased their sales by more than $6 million, money that improves their living standards with clean water, electricity and education for their children.

For Maria Nimacachi, a mother herself, the motivation to learn new skills and increase sales is a simple one.

“For those of us with families, they are happy because it’s another opportunity to make money and contribute to the family,” she says.