Monday, September 21, 2015

Empowering women entrepreneurs in Mexico.

Location: Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico
En Vía is a microfinance organization serving the villages surrounding Oaxaca City. I had the pleasure of taking their tour and meeting several of their inspirational borrowers. The tour costs about $45USD, 100% of which becomes microloans. Allow me to share my experience in the hopes that, after this virtual tour, you might be moved to fund a microloan as well!

On the road to San Miguel, Andrea, an En Vía volunteer, introduced us to the program. She explained that the founders of En Vía did a lot of research before committing to the model they use today. And it shows. The program has been hugely successful -- they have a 99% loan repayment rate!!

The basic model is this: three women form a triad of trusted peers, then enroll. They take a business course that covers everything from basic money management to business development. They then receive their first loan. This loan is relatively small, and must be paid off within 15 weeks. All the while, they continue to attend monthly workshops for support. All of this is free: the classes, the workshops... Even the loans themselves are completely interest free.

For context, the idea of a zero-interest (or even low-interest) loan is revolutionary for these entrepreneurs. The average interest for these types of loans is 70%, and it can get as high as 200%. Entrepreneurs become trapped by these interest rates, and their businesses become crippled. A 0% interest rate allows them to invest in their businesses to an extent that would really not be possible without En Vía.

If all three members of the triad successfully pay off their first loan, they are eligible for a second (larger) loan. This repeats for a third loan cycle. En Vía is now developing a "graduation" program in the hopes that at this point in the process, the businesses will be self-sustaining through their own profits, and a long-term dependency on En Vía will be avoided.

As Andrea described the model and answered our questions, it became more and more clear that the staff and volunteers not only care about these women, but also care about designing their methods based on research, not just sentiment. This is why they have been so successful. It also became clear that they care deeply about the entire community. Their workshops are open to all community members, not just borrowers. And they've even started other (free) community programs, such as English classes. Which brings me to the last thing I noticed, which is probably my favorite thing. Throughout the tour, it was evident that they truly care about the voices of the community members. They care about meeting the needs of the community as articulated by the community members. The English classes, for example, are a direct response to community requests. Another great example is that borrowers don't need to run their ideas by administration before borrowing. If three women in the community have a business plan, En Vía trusts the community enough to support that plan, regardless of what it is.

Andrea finished describing this loan model right as we arrived at our first stop, a little blue house in a tiny town called San Miguel. For generations, all the women in the town have worn the traditional dress: an apron over a dress over a slip. Each is intricately made. In the house, we met a woman who sews the aprons and another woman who sews the dresses. These women are members of the same triad.



Marie Nelly owns El Pavito Real. At only 18 years old, she is the boss. She employs her mom and another woman from the community. They wake up as early as 3am to start filling orders, and they don't go to bed until 11! She designs intricate embroidery patterns, and together they execute her designs. Not only has En Vía supported her through microloans, but they also have helped her set up her Facebook page, through which she receives custom orders from as far away as Los Angeles. They also bring tours by her house, and she is able to sell her goods to the tourists as well.



Next, Silvia showed us her dresses while her 2-month-old baby Francisco slept on her back. She and her husband support Francisco and their other three children largely through her sewing business. She sews the traditional dresses that women in the community wear under their aprons. She keeps her business relevant by staying abreast of changing fashions; as one example, she showed us the new darker fabrics that are gaining popularity. She also sews dresses for special occasions, such as this elaborate red gown she created for a young woman for Independence Day.

We left the little blue house and walked down the road to meet Francisca. She busily cooked tortillas as she spoke with us. She has become popular enough in her community that her customers find their way here through a gate and around the back of a house to buy from her. No longer does she need to transport everything to the market to make her sales. She thanked En Vía for the loans and for helping her gain popularity. She also thanked En Vía for her new wood fire oven. It turns out that many of the cooks receiving En Vía support were having problems with the smoke from the traditional ovens. In response, En Vía worked with university engineering students from Mexico City, who designed and built safer ovens like Francisca's, pictured here. I was impressed yet again by the extent to which En Vía bases its work on the needs of the community as voiced by the community members themselves.

Francisca generously offered us the tortillas she was so busily making while we talked, we devoured them, and then we headed to Josefina's house. Josefina and her business partner Rufina showed us their beautiful tapestries. This type of weaving is incredibly laborious. Josefina's husband and two grown daughters work with Josefina and Rufina to produce these pieces, from start to finish. They buy unprocessed wool, wash it well, and then spin it into yarn. They dye the yarn with homemade natural dyes, using everything from dried fruit peels to crushed insect guts. Only then can they begin the actual weaving process. They incorporate traditional patterns such as the beautiful tree of life (on my wish list for sure!) They also have had great success with the new designs they are constantly creating.

After demonstrating each step, Josefina hopped in our car to help us find Margarita's house, our final stop. Margarita knows how to create just about everything we've seen so far today -- hanging around her courtyard she had tapestries, clothes, shawls, you name it. Apparently she had started out weaving, but when that didn't prove as lucrative as she'd hoped, she started experimenting. En Vía helped train her in business development, and she is now determined to try her hand at anything she can to find the business model that works best for her. Right now she is having great success with modifying traditional pieces. For example, she has created a new poncho fashion in the village, simply by sewing traditional shawls in new ways. Here she demonstrates how she positions the shawl before sewing it.

After visiting all these women, I felt a great appreciation for their entrepreneurial spirits. These women are taking big risks with high stakes. They work long hours for unpredictable return. They use their profits to support their families and their communities. If you are looking for a cause to support, I highly recommend donating to En Vía. I certainly trust the entrepreneurs to do great things with your donation, and I absolutely trust En Vía as well!

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like a terrific cause. I'm glad you got to experience, learn and share about them!

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  2. What great stories from these women. How did you find this tour? There's a new organization that is supporting non-profit tours like this called Visit.org that you might like.
    -Michelle C

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    1. Oh awesome, I will definitely check them out, thanks so much!! I just stumbled upon this one, actually -- they share office space with my language school, and told us about it during class. Turns out they publicize almost 100% through word of mouth, so I'm trying to do my part to spread the word :-) Will see about connecting them with this website, though, if they're not on it already! Thanks!!

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