By: Larisa Epatko
PBS News Women in Cap Haitien, Haiti, pour melted beeswax at a candle-making workshop. Photos courtesy of Prosperity Catalyst.
Siiri Morley, executive director of Prosperity Catalyst, knew ever since her Peace Corps days that she wanted to help women in poor parts of the world better their economic situations. But she also knew she had a lot to learn.
From 2001 to 2004, Morley worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho in southern Africa, helping women in a rug and textile weaving business develop and market their wares.
The women were using the money they earned to provide for their families and educate their children.
“It was helping their lives, but it didn’t get them into a higher income bracket,” said Morley.
While they could sell their products individually, the women didn’t have the know-how to expand their customer base and businesses, and neither did Morley. And while she loved her work in Lesotho, after three years Morley felt that more could be done to help women prosper economically.
In the following years, Morley worked in places such as Afghanistan, Ecuador, Namibia and Croatia in large and small business development projects, where she said she culled different ideas about growing a business.
She enrolled in the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., earning an MBA in 2009. She approached two friends and entrepreneurs, Ted Barber and Amber Chand. “I told them, ‘I’m eager to put my MBA learning to use. And they told me, ‘We have a concept we’re working on.'”
What sprang out of their mind meld in 2009 to 2010 was Prosperity Catalyst, a nonprofit to help train women in business, and Prosperity Candle, its for-profit sales enterprise.
They wanted to help women connect to markets that pay them a living wage with access to repeat customers, Morley said.
While they were embarking on a pilot program in Baghdad to help train women to make and sell candles, a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, killing an estimated 223,000 people.
The vulnerability of the already impoverished island to the forces of nature struck a chord in the partners, and they decided to launch a candle-making enterprise in Haiti as well. After visiting, Morley said she “felt this incredible energy from the women there.”
With the help of a $50,000 grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the guidance of a local organization (Asosyasyon Fanm Soley d’Hayiti, or AFASDA, which supports women and girls who have experienced domestic abuse) Prosperity Catalyst identified 12 “apprentice entrepreneurs”, as they are called, to participate in its program.
A collection of glass and stone containers will hold the candles.
The women are trained how to make market-quality candles and design their own personal budgets for their profits. The classroom also provides a space for learning about women’s health and safety and for literacy training, Morley said. (Read about one woman’s experiences in the program.)
Those who participate in Prosperity Catalyst’s program have a ready-made market: that of its sister organization, Prosperity Candle, whose products range from $4 to $60. But the founders are always on the lookout for more customers, including large retailers and corporations seeking to hand out social good gifts.
Why candles? There’s an international demand for candles and the ingredients can be found nearly everywhere. Women in Baghdad can make candles in their own kitchens, and women in Cap Haitien, Haiti, can work together in Prosperity Catalyst’s workshop, known in Haiti as Fanm Limye, or “women enlightened” in Creole.
Not to mention that candles are a consumable product, so they naturally attract repeat customers, Morley said.
Each candle is stamped with its creator’s name, she continued, and some customers have said they enjoy the “sense of connection” from using something that came from a female entrepreneur’s hands.