After seeing firsthand the difference the equivalent of $100 makes to women living in the small communities outside of Oaxaca, I will never look at (or thoughtlessly spend) money the same way again.
My friend Lupita is 43, widowed and raising three teenaged boys on her own in the small community of Teotitlán del Valle. She has been weaving tapetes since she was 12, and her boys also weave when they are not at school, as is the tradition in this village.
Lupita is a borrower with Fundación En Vía, and with her last loan, she bought the expensive staples for her business: raw wool for spinning, and cochineal – used as a red dye; things she would normally need to save for over several months – meaning that these purchases would only be possible after she had sold her current tapetes (not guaranteed), and after she had allocated groceries to the bottomless hunger of her teenaged boys.
The underlying premise of microfinance is that people living in poverty have the skills, motivation and ideas to create and run a successful income-producing business, but lack access to basic things like affordable credit or savings in order to do so. Affordable credit is a big deal in Mexico where the average microloan interest rate is around 70%pa and can be as high as 200%pa. Once taken, some families never manage to complete the repayments, and the ever-multiplying debt is then handed down in the family from generation to generation.
This is where Fundación En Vía’s model, funded by responsible tourism, makes such a difference – the tour fees go 100% to providing the micro-loans – which allows for a sustainable system and means that not only are En Vía supporting their women borrowers, but they are also educating ordinary people who come on the tours as they see microfinance in action.
Nicolasa, like most of the women En Vía work with, is always busy. She and her husband weave wool tapetes (rugs) in Teotitlán, and her tapetes are mostly of images, depicting cultural dancers, eagles, the local church and traditional life in the village. After taking the mandatory En Vía business class, Nicolasa decided she would also start selling chocolate as a form of diversification. With her next loan of 1300 pesos (around US$100) she invested in some more wool for tapetes, and a 40kg bag of cocoa beans, from which to make chocolate.
Nicolasa has said that having the two businesses has helped her family. Although the tapetes sell for more money, they are not a steady source of income, especially in Teotitlán, a town where every family owns a loom. The chocolate sells every day, and although it provides smaller profit, it is a steady source of income.
My favourite part of volunteering with En Vía is meeting and forming relationships with these incredible and inspirational women – who I now consider my friends. Even with my early patchy Spanish, they would forgive my terrible grammar and listen carefully to what I was trying to express behind the badly conjugated verbs. Now of course, we can have much better conversations, and it never fails to surprise me how welcoming they are; we chat about their families, their businesses, whether they have made recent sales, and they boast how well their children are doing at school. Education is the number one priority for their children so that they will have opportunities to try and excel at other things.
Observing these women give presentations about their businesses to our tourist groups I am constantly moved by the pride their husbands, boyfriends and partners show in them during our visits. Their children – 4 and 6 years of age peer around the corner of the door as their mother speaks about her business and her future goals for the family. These women are such fantastic role models for their children, showing you can do anything.
To date En Via has given out over 1500 interest-free loans, and they have a pay-back rate of 99% – due in part to the personal nature of the model they use. Each week they visit the different communities in which they work, and spend time chatting with the women as they pop in to make their repayments. Women find out and join the program through word of mouth, and so En Vía has been able to expand organically, keeping the intimate nature of the model alive, and helping to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of families in small communities here.
Disclaimer: I volunteer for Fundación En Vía in Oaxaca, however all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.