Rural micropharmacies offer medicine for all


July 28, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A pathway through the village of Los Mangales, Guatemala, with the Tienda de Salud sign at right. Photo: Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Francisco and his wife stand by the sign that announces their Tienda de Salud — a health store and micro-pharmacy — in the village of Los Mangales, Guatemala. Photo: Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The inside of a typical village Tienda de Salud, supported by Mercy Corps' Sustainable Community Health Stores program, with various health products and medications stocked on the shelves. Photo: Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps

Los Mangales is a collection of humble one-room huts with sporadic electricity and dusty rows of beans and corn outside. Amid the lush and verdant banana and coffee trees in Guatemala's central highlands, it seems like any other sleepy village -- except for the placard on the side of the road that reads Tienda de Salud: a Health Store.

Since that sign went up two years ago, residents have avoided the grueling and costly two-hour round-trip to the nearest town to purchase basic medicines, first-aid supplies and other health products. Before, many avoided seeking preventative health services due to the high cost and inconvenience — risking greater complications for otherwise treatable illnesses. But today, thanks to Mercy Corps' Sustainable Community Health Stores program, there exists a hometown alternative.

Filling a health gap

Guatemala is a poor country — especially in rural areas. More than half of its residents lives in poverty, and 60 percent do not have access to the most basic education or health care. Living conditions in rural areas are even worse, where malnutrition and mortality rates are exacerbated by the lack of health services.

Historically, the Guatemalan government and local charities have offered health programs to rural communities. But those services are often focused exclusively on young women and children below the age of five, leaving much of the population without adequate access to medicine or health care.

Sustainable Community Health Stores is a new way of addressing the rural healthcare problem. It helps local families start small businesses while providing much-needed medicines in communities like Los Mangales.

Empowering local entrepreneurs

Francisco was the first participant in the health stores program. Like other business owners, he had previously worked as a health promoter in his village. Through Mercy Corps' tutelage and technical assistance, he learned basic business planning and bookkeeping and received a small seed loan to provide start-up capital for the store.

Francisco opened his Los Mangales store in June 2009, stocking it with drugs such as anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, vitamins and some common household items like soap and diapers. The "Tienda de Salud" sign points to his house; he built a tiny storefront addition from which he runs the business. Residents say the products he offers are higher quality than what's offered nearby.

Opening a store can be a risk, but it can also be as profitable as any other available job nearby. Thanks to what he'd learned and a strong work ethic, Francisco was able to repay his initial loan in only 11 months -- seven months ahead of schedule.

"Owning a business comes with responsibility, not only to my family but for the betterment of my village," Francisco says.

A microfranchising model based on a private-sector partnership

To give rural villages access to the same medicines as their urban counterparts, Mercy Corps developed a microfranchising model with Farmacias de la Comunidad, a generics-only drugstore chain with over 400 stores throughout Guatemala.

Each store owner is given financing, a defined logistical chain and pricing, and marketing support to promote their products and better health practices in their community. Financial support comes from Linked Foundation, a U.S.-based enterprise committed to improving the health and economic self-reliance of women in Latin America.

These entrepreneurs build a vital social enterprise that improves the well-being of their families and provides jobs in their communities — and helps their neighbors stay healthy.

"This private-sector partnership model is a lasting way to give families in rural Guatemala access to medicines that can prevent serious illness," says Stephanie Skillman, the project manager for Mercy Corps.

More stores are on the way. Skillman says the hope is to open 30 by year's end. The result will be more small pharmacies run by entrepreneurs like Francisco -- and more lifelines to families in remote communities like those in Los Mangales.