Rediscovering Localism: Honduras Business Community Steps Up During Crisis
Until a few weeks ago, the professional experience of Nando Castillo, CEO of RAÍZ Capital, was centered around commercial real estate, including transforming Tegucigalpa’s Centro Histórico — the Honduran capital’s historical district — through sustainable urban revitalization. But when Honduras went into its COVID-19 lockdown in March, he decided to use his leadership skills to mobilize a group of young, talented and creative individuals, to produce face shields for health care workers.
“We are a team of over 140 individuals — makers, architects, engineers and designers, among others, with the help of several private and academic institutions — who in the past 30 days coalesced into a national collective that helped supply the Honduran public health system with face shields based on open-source designs,” says Castillo. “Most of us put our regular lives on hold to help our country in this crisis.”
Working with speed and agility
The group started by 3D printing face shields, but the need for speed and quantity shifted the focus to finding other local manufacturing options and building a distribution network to hospitals. “I got involved in the logistics and marketing part, mapping out demand, setting up a client portfolio and distribution network, ensuring protocols are followed, and safely delivering finished product — while harnessing the energy of this young group of millennials.”
The initiative, known as GÜIRAN (which means ‘people’ in Central America’s indigenous Lenca tongue), grew from providing face shields, to sourcing ventilators, boxes for intubation and special stretchers. In addition, the team has initiated a telemedicine project to give quarantined people access to medical consultations and relieve pressure on the local health system. They also launched a social media initiative promoting the widespread use of cloth masks to help people prepare for an eventual easing of lockdown measures.
“Everything is pro bono, and we have been able to fundraise as we develop what amounts to a lab of initiatives to innovatively meet the needs at the moment,” says Castillo. “It was fascinating to see the brainstorming, collaboration and motivation of the team working from their different homes all over the country.”
A fragile health care system
“I think we are doing well compared to other counties in the world, having gone into lockdown early in the cycle and closing our borders,” says Castillo. “But looking at the current situation in places like Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is clear that the lockdown will not make COVID-19 go away magically. We will deal with this on a cyclical basis, and our health care system is not equipped to confront an epidemic.”
According to Johns Hopkins University’s Global Health Security Index, Honduras has one of the weakest health care systems in the world. The country spends only about 8.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care, much less than the regional average of 14%. Corruption in the health care system further exacerbates the problem.
“People are fearful. There is mistrust in the government, and that makes the situation even more tense,” says Castillo, who recognized the void in government leadership early on and urged his peers toward focusing on the most pressing unmet needs. “When private companies began to inundate the market with face shields at low cost, we began to focus on places where they were unable to reach, including small community clinics. With 9,000 units of face shields delivered during the emergency phase, the initiative is now ramping down face shields with these new market players taking care of the demand.”
Results and learnings
Reflecting on the first few days of lockdown when he was sitting at home “obsessing over the news,” Castillo recalls the sense of enthusiasm once he decided to get involved and help. “I came in as the old geezer in the group. Their average age is 27, so I am 20 years older, but I feel like a millennial at heart,” he says. “It is very gratifying to see all these young people coming together and rising to the challenge in such an innovative, selfless and intense way.”
Castillo was particularly impressed with the speed of deployment as the horizontally self-organized team was focused on delivering as soon as possible, without spending too much time on process. “It was beautiful to see a startup that would normally take up to two years to succeed reduced to a time-lapse version in a matter of days,” he says.
While the “crisis group” might dissolve when the pandemic eases, Castillo is optimistic that numerous initiatives will spin off from this experience. “Part of the crisis group is setting up a business accelerator, and they will refocus on health for the next year,” says Castillo. “I believe every crisis has a silver lining. In this crisis, we have been given the gift of having to re-evaluate everything, including business, personal and family life.”
For Castillo, perhaps the biggest learning of the crisis is the power of local leadership. “As the whole international market is competing in a frenzy for medical supplies, we were able to locally provide for urgent needs and help create jobs through local production. If a bunch of young guys can do it in a matter of days, imagine what a country can do in the span of several years.”
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