How an unassuming young woman from Guatemala became a local food hero


María Rebeca knew little about farming - now she’s renowned in her community for her agricultural expertise

Once shy and reserved, Maria Rebeca is now passionate about sharing her knowledge with others, holding workshops attended by many members of the local community. ©FAO/José Itzep

23/09/2020

Raising a family from a young age, María Rebeca Perez de Nebaj has always had to be self-reliant. She is part of the Ixil indigenous community living in the Quiché department of Guatemala. The indigenous communities in this area have suffered from armed conflict and violence in recent history. As a result, livelihood opportunities are lacking in the region – particularly for indigenous women.

Initially Maria Rebeca worked in agriculture on a small farm, but at 19, she bought a sewing machine and quickly mastered the art of embroidering and sewing huipiles, the traditional garment worn by indigenous women in Guatemala. This source of income was crucial for her household, made up of her parents and her two children, where she is the main breadwinner.

But whilst her sewing allowed her to cover part of her family’s expenses, it was not enough to keep her family well-fed. Her income barely covered three meals a day, and she worried that her children’s diets were not nutritious enough to keep them healthy. She toyed with the idea of moving to the north of Guatemala in search of work, but as a single woman alone, it would have been difficult and dangerous. However, when she heard about the FAO-led Ixil Joint Rural Development Programme beginning in her area, she recognised an opportunity to stay with her family and learn an agricultural trade.  

What a difference a garden makes

The FAO programme, aimed at improving the livelihoods and nutrition of the indigenous communities in the area, taught Maria Rebeca how to produce nutritious food through her home garden. She began by learning to build small greenhouses and grow tomatoes, which visibly improved her children’s nutrition. With what she produced in her garden, she was able to guarantee three square meals a day for her whole family.

After the initial training, Maria Rebeca took part in another on poultry farming, taking her knowledge and income to the next level. She began with just one rooster and one hen that laid three eggs a week – now, she has close to 1 000 hens in her large back garden and has a thriving business. She makes around USD 900 a month from the eggs and is renowned in her area and nearby communities for the quality.

Maria Rebeca is also the only participant of the FAO training to have formally signed up as a supplier to the school food programme, and before the pandemic she was providing local schools with 600 eggs per week. Now she sells them directly to her community and in local markets.

Maria Rebeca’s confidence has soared with the successes of her work. Her tomatoes are thriving in the newly built greenhouse, and she now earns a solid income from her chickens. ©FAO/José Itzep

A leader in her community

The FAO programme not only taught her new skills but kindled in Maria Rebeca a sense of self-esteem and confidence that she had never felt before. She had always been shy and unassuming; participating in community events was difficult and speaking in groups even harder. But her newfound knowledge has given her the confidence she needed to be a promoter of the programme, sharing her new skills with other men and women in her community.

Her new role did take some getting used to however. “At the beginning, I felt scared because it was the first time that I assumed a role within my community. There were some families that said that I could not be a promoter because I had no experience, since I was very young. But I took it as a challenge. Now I see that people trust me and respect me in the community,” María Rebeca says.

Maria Rebeca now grows enough food to give her family three meals a day – and before COVID-19, supply a local school too. ©FAO/José Itzep

Maria Rebeca has attended all of the training courses run by FAO and Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food, and thanks to her perseverance and knowledge, she has helped fight the stigma that many people in her town of Pulay felt towards women. She has become a role model for many other women in the community.

In a short period of time, Maria Rebeca has gone from a shy young girl to a local food hero. A local expert on egg and tomato production, she is a source of inspiration for other women and her patience and capacity to teach others has had a huge impact.

“FAO and the Ministry have helped me increase my productivity in the small plot of land that I own, but even more than that, they have helped me to dream big. I want what’s best for my children, that is why I am working towards new and more ambitious goals,” she says.

María Rebeca’s household is one of the more than 2 100 that have taken part in FAO’s project in the region, implementing better practices to increase food production, diversifying incomes and ensuring a more nutritious diet for families. Together with local communities and inspiring #FoodHeroes, FAO is helping to build stronger livelihoods, improve nutrition and make hunger a thing of the past.

Behind all of our food, there is always someone who produced, planted, harvested, fished or transported it. In the run up to World Food Day on October 16, we take the opportunity to thank these #FoodHeroes who, no matter the circumstances, continue to provide food for their communities and beyond - helping to grow, nourish and sustain our world. 


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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 15. Life on land