In a region where the poverty rate far exceeds the literacy rate, the community library of a small lakeside town has become something of a destination.
Indigenous women of San Juan la Laguna flock to the bright yellow building each day not for the books, but for the computers that have brought economic opportunity to a geographically isolated area steeped in Maya culture and tradition.
The women use the Internet, available for free through the library’s Centro de Negocios, to manage their businesses and export their artisanal goods. The women can earn more by connecting with buyers abroad, a testament to the impact the Internet has in a country where limited access to the technology keeps more than three-quarters of the population offline.
Since 2013, the library’s Centro de Negocios has been working to overcome the technological and educational barriers that have prevented local businesses from incorporating the Internet into their daily operations. In addition to free computer access, the center teaches women how to use social media, email and other tools to increase their sales and exports.
“Many illiterate women are now able to make correct use of a computer,” said Juana Hernandez, director of the center.
Teresa Talè, a 35-year-old weaver who never attended school, uses the Internet to promote her products and email her husband, who works in the United States. Through the Centro de Negocios, she learned to read and write and became familiar with technology that helps her sell textiles to buyers outside the city.
“My parents did not have the opportunity to give me education, but now in the library we have the opportunity to learn and to achieve more knowledge of other subjects,” she said in a story the center wrote about her success. “It is a little slow, but nothing is difficult when you have a willingness to learn.”
Facebook has proven the most beneficial tool for women in San Juan la Laguna who want to participate in the international market. Since learning how to use the site, about five organizations of female artisans have begun to ship their goods to Spain, Japan and Germany, Hernandez said. Some might begin to sell to customers in the country of Georgia within the next year.
“That’s why social network is a big deal that has helped us export our products,” she said. “The technology has been very efficient, and we do not use it as an end, but as a medium to take advantage of the resources that we possess and promote our products.”
San Juan la Laguna, the urban center of a municipality of about 13,000, is one of many indigenous communities surrounding Lake Atitlán. The lake and the mountains around it form Sololá, a rural department of Guatemala where the poverty rate was about 77 percent in 2011, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics.
Compared with other lakeside towns, poverty is not as extreme in San Juan la Laguna, long a tourist destination for those seeking to experience Maya culture or the ecological beauty of the lake. A steady inflow of visitors eager to tour the area and purchase textiles and handicrafts has bolstered the local economy and, to some degree, encouraged its modernization.
Internet access in San Juan la Laguna has expanded considerably within the last several years, said Edwin Mendoza, a cashier at Diginet, a popular Internet cafe painted with social media icons. Once limited to one cafe with a small number of outdated computers, people in the town can now choose between 10, he said, creating competition between stores providing access to sites used for business and entertainment.
“Approximately seven years ago, people became aware of the computer and then they began navigating the Internet,” Mendoza said. “Since then, cybercafes were able to evolve in this municipality.”
The increase in access mirrors a countrywide trend: Between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of individuals using the Internet grew from about 7 percent to nearly 20 percent, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union.
Though the Internet’s role in boosting Guatemala’s exports is difficult to measure, research has shown that broadband access positively impacts GDP growth, especially in developing economies. A study by the World Bank found that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration resulted in a 1.38 percent increase in the GDPs of developing countries, compared to a 1.21 increase in developed countries.
“I think that the barriers to engaging in international trade are more severe in the developing world,” said Joshua Meltzer, a fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution. “From this perspective, the Internet provides a variety of ways for small and medium-sized enterprises to overcome these barriers.”
Despite recent improvements in Internet access, broadband penetration in Guatemala remains limited. In its most recent report, the Broadband Commission documented 1.8 fixed broadband subscriptions and 4.4 mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 Guatemalans in 2013. The country’s connection speeds are among the slowest in the world.
“There’s a host of infrastructure issues around making the Internet a viable medium for international transactions in these countries,” Meltzer said. “You need access to a power supply, which is not something you can really take for granted. Another really big one is the language of the Internet. It was developed in the U.S., so sites are predominantly in English.”
In Sololá, power supply is not guaranteed, especially in towns higher in the mountains surrounding the lake, and the majority of inhabitants speak Spanish or Maya Tz'utujil. About 65 percent of indigenous females and 42 percent of males are illiterate, according to data from Rising Minds, a Sololá-based nonprofit that addresses needs within the communities surrounding Lake Atitlán.
The Centro de Negocios has attempted to address this disparity by focusing on women’s education so that they can provide more for their families and increase their standing in a traditionally patriarchal society.
“Women and the family have benefited from this initiative, because women are a fundamental pillar in society,” Hernandez said. “Many of our male partners do not let their wives go to work or to training, so it has been a challenge.”
But the center will not limit its efforts to women as it expands its program and adopts new technology.
“We want this business center to be inclusive,” she said. “Whether they are girls or boys, they need to have the same opportunities. For us, access to information is very important in order to teach new things to women, men, the elderly and children.”