Daniel Buchbinder
Ashoka Fellow since 2016   |   Guatemala

Daniel Buchbinder

Daniel is democratizing the support given to entrepreneurs in Central America by offering a unique program that acts as a catalyzer of social innovation, focusing on reaching every entrepreneur that…
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This description of Daniel Buchbinder's work was prepared when Daniel Buchbinder was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Daniel is democratizing the support given to entrepreneurs in Central America by offering a unique program that acts as a catalyzer of social innovation, focusing on reaching every entrepreneur that wants to advance a good idea, wherever they are. Through Alterna, Daniel is breaking down the structural barriers that prevent entrepreneurs to flourish in diverse contexts

The New Idea

After working in the sector for some time, Daniel realized that almost all offer around social entrepreneurship in Central America were being reserved for elite or high socioeconomic classes, and that there were no inclusive options that would offer networks, resources and accompaniment to entrepreneurs coming from different backgrounds – mainly low income, rural or indigenous – which make up the majority of the population. As a solution to this, he founded Alterna, an organization that “cultivates” social entrepreneurs from all backgrounds and also drives the creation of a democratic social entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region.

In order to include all interested entrepreneurs, Alterna does not hold a selection process for participation. Daniel has created a completely tailored program for each participant and the cultivation process is reciprocal - they invest the amount of time that is equal to the entrepreneur's commitment, resulting in a self – selecting pipeline. To ensure that every entrepreneur gets exactly what they need to advance their idea, Daniel developed a fellowship program, where volunteers with diverse expertise commit their time and resources, relocating for 6 to 12 months to the place where the entrepreneurs are and becoming close mentors in the process.

Daniel understands that there is immense potential in all sectors of society and has developed ways of reaching them and giving them access to skills that can help them advance their initiatives. Daniel partners with different actors, from MFIs, development organizations and government in order to help them include the “cultivation offer” into their programs, turning every beneficiary or client into a potential agent of change.

The Problem

In Central America, 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs who have the potential to achieve change in their communities do not have access to relevant and high quality support programs. There is a structural lack of networks and mentoring programs that target, in an accessible, diverse and inclusive way, the vast majority of existing and potential entrepreneurs who can develop initiatives to achieve social and environmental impact in their communities and beyond.

Latin America in general and Central America in particular face enormous social and environmental challenges. Issues such as social inequality, migration due to lack of opportunities, lack of access to basic and secondary resources, and environmental degradation are widespread. Social initiatives represent an important alternative that is gaining ground in the continent and the world. However, the challenges yet to be addressed remain big, especially in places historically lagging behind in matters of social justice and economic equity, as in Central America.

The lack of genuinely inclusive and high quality support directly impacts the "relative scarcity" of local entrepreneurs with impact solutions. This offer gap in the ecosystem- one that would consider their needs, scope and context- is causing a lack of quality proposals coming from the local.

The "support" options that these entrepreneurs currently have come from credit counselors in microfinance or local CSOs. On the other side of the spectrum, a very small and privileged group of entrepreneurs have access to incubators, accelerators and business plan competitions. In either case the quality of support will be very limited and of relatively low quality. In general, the training and information that these counsellors have is rather technical and they tend to look for prefabricated solutions. In the case of micro-finance, the scheme is even clearer: The support is intended to develop the skills to repay the loan granted. At the other end, industry support for entrepreneurs with higher academic or socio-economic profiles, tends to be exclusive and starts from assumptions that do not necessarily apply to the vast majority of entrepreneurs. Moreover, the physical presence of support programs, such as incubators and accelerators, in non-capital cities in the region is practically nil. This forces entrepreneurs to participate in selection processes remotely with little accompaniment and a clear systemic disadvantage.

Although there is presence of social entrepreneurship actors in the region, this problem has not been solved systematically primarily because it is not understood as a problem. The vast majority of players in the ecosystem have "bypassed" that there is a great potential in supporting non – traditional entrepreneurs and local solutions. Up until now the mainstream understanding is that to solve big problems you need big entrepreneurs or large institutions and the idea of helping local individuals and communities develop the skills needed to become active agents of change has been disregarded.

Social entrepreneurship is a powerful idea and well developed in other regions of the world, but unfortunately remains a unique concept and a "luxury good" for Central Americans.

The Strategy

With the goal of making it possible for any person, anywhere to advance an impact endeavor, Daniel created Alterna in 2011. Based out of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, Daniel has developed an inclusive program that starts with the idea of cultivating social entrepreneurship in unusual contexts. The premises of the cultivation program are that a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship can be created through powerful examples; that entrepreneurship is not a linear process; that in order to increase the social capital and potential of local entrepreneurs an accessible, dynamic and robust ecosystem must be developed; and that the promotion of social innovation and entrepreneurship have the power to transform social dynamics.

In the first years of Alterna, and with the objective of developing the model, Daniel cultivated two social enterprises, which are now financially viable and creating impact, and are used as examples for the program. After the model had been tested, Daniel opened the program to a larger audience in 2014. Through strategic partners such as NGO's, MFIs and different government agencies that have widespread access, Daniel promotes his program and invites anyone to apply. Alterna does not hold a selection process for participants- the candidates start the program and there is a natural “autofiltering” through which entrepreneurs who are truly interested in advancing their ideas will be the ones who complete the program. The cultivation program consists in offering tailored accompaniment to the entrepreneurs - whether their initiative is still at the idea stage or they are consolidated and looking to scale -, access to markets, access to specialized mentors in relevant fields and access to complimentary acceleration programs and financing.

Daniel sees this program as a needed link in the entrepreneurship ecosystem, which has failed to grasp the power and value of including large numbers of currently disconnected entrepreneurs. Daniel understands that reaching these communities is not easy, so he has learned how to best make needed resources available. For example, when working in indigenous, non – Spanish speaking communities, the resources used are in the form of illustrated comic books that can be easily adapted to diverse backgrounds, breaking down one of the most powerful barriers- language. In order to break away from the deeply ingrained paternalist structures, the cultivation program has a cost, but this is flexible depending on each entrepreneur's needs; the average in 2015 was around 40 USD.

After perfecting his cultivation model, Daniel knew he needed to scale rapidly. He has developed two main strategies to be able to reach large populations. The first one is Alterna's cultivation associates, in which actors such as Oxfam identify potential entrepreneurs amongst their beneficiaries and pay for them to access the program; and partners, where, after a due diligence process, Alterna transfers the cultivation methodology to other private, social or public organizations so that they can offer it to their clients or beneficiaries. Alterna has a monitoring and evaluation system that allows them to ensure everyone operates the program with the same quality standards. The main idea behind these partnerships, apart from the wide reach they can have, is to show organizations that there is huge changemaking potential amongst the communities they work with, and push them to become developers of this potential, instead of plain service providers.

To ensure that the entrepreneurs surfacing from his initiative can continue their path as entrepreneurs, Daniel has lead the strengthening of the local social entrepreneurship ecosystem, working with the region's most relevant actors. In 2015 the Guatemalan Government invited Daniel to participate in the creation of a national entrepreneurship strategy; his participation resulted in the inclusion of the concept of social entrepreneurship into the strategy. Also in 2015, Daniel led the organization of the first Latin American Impact Investment Forum (FLII) in Central America, in Antigua, Guatemala, with the goal of giving entrepreneurs and other actors the opportunity to connect and learn. Daniel is in close contact with incubators, accelerators and investors acting as a link between them and local entrepreneurs, and helping break the belief that high impact can't come from these contexts.

In the 2 years that Alterna has offered the cultivation program 315 entrepreneurs have participated in it. Nearly half of these entrepreneurs come from rural backgrounds, nearly half are women and roughly 20% identify themselves as Mayan. The participants reported an increase in their sales of 72% during or after the program, they collectively generated 200 additional jobs, introduced clean and renewable energy sources for 20,878 people and included 44,750 people in fair trade value chains.

Alterna currently has 11 full time staff members and there are 9 – 12 fellows at any given time. Their budget for 2015 was US$284,02; funding came from cultivation associates and grants. Daniel is planning to reach the first 500 entrepreneurs in 2016, and start operations in the south of Mexico. He also wants to start exploring how to enter into El Salvador and Nicaragua, and by 2020 be present in 5 Central American countries. By 2025 Daniel envisions this program to be widespread in developing countries around the world with more than 10,000 entrepreneurs supported.

The Person

From the tender age of 11, Daniel began his first entrepreneurial activity by selling sweets that he had made to his neighborhood. He came up with different recipes, created “test samples” for customers, and later began to take bulk orders from nearby restaurants and fellow students. When the orders became famous, he even open-sourced the recipe to restaurants in exchange for meal discounts. From this childhood “hobby,” Daniel soon realized business was his passion. He moved on to study Business Administration for his B.A. in Mexico and Geography and Environmental Technology, after which he joined a global consumer brand corporation, L’Oreal. He was naturally successful, but he never felt comfortable leading a position that did not require much entrepreneurial skills nor create a positive impact.

After much internal struggle, in 2010 Daniel finally quit his job after six years and enrolled at his dream Masters program on Environmental Technology at the Imperial College, London. There, he was struck by the dynamic community of entrepreneurs as well as the private, public, and the citizen sectors pushing together to create a more sustainable economy. He was also inspired daily about the positive change he could make within today’s increasingly unsustainable and unequal economy. However, he also realized, that in order to create real change, he needed more field experience, working directly with the most marginalized communities.

Armed with a desire to learn, he moved to Guatemala to work as a pro bono volunteer. There he learned the valuable lesson that all the professional experience and the theories he studied in school were simply not enough to create a real change in the local context. Many “innovative solutions” through social entrepreneurship still remained as the domain of white-collar and elite professionals, and were not genuinely impacting the most marginalized area that needed the most change. Seeing this gap, Daniel founded Alterna in 2010 the small city of Quetzaltenango – which he recalls that has completely changed his life. Since then, Daniel has been supporting the rural and largely ignored entrepreneurs, democratizing entrepreneurial support and cultivating a culture of innovation in Central America.

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