The Power of Micro-Financing in Rural Oaxaca
How micro-financing of female-run businesses has re-invigorated the local economy in rural Oaxaca
With one of the highest indigenous populations in Mexico, the southern state of Oaxaca is known for its elaborate handicrafts and artisans. Women in this region have specialized in weaving for hundreds of years, and have passed down their methods and techniques from generation to generation. As unique as their products are, in recent years women have begun to leave behind this tradition in search of more lucrative job opportunities to support their families.
Even with the recent tourism boom in Oaxaca, these women have struggled to find an avenue to sell their products for what they’re worth. Financially, it is impossible for them to rent a booth at a local market in the prosperous Oaxaca City. Further, the ability to purchase or rent a small storefront to display their hand-woven products in their towns is also economically impossible. Additionally, banks exploit them by offering “business loans” at 70% interest while businessmen from the city purchase their products wholesale, sell them at a considerable markup and keep all the profit. It’s no wonder that these women continue to feel powerless as to how to share and profit from their artwork
In 2008, the non-profit organization, Fundación en Vía, set out to bridge these gaps by offering female entrepreneurs access to small loans to grow their businesses. Running purely on income generated by their tours and a revolving staff of volunteers, En Vía has provided more than 2,500 loans to over 300 women in 6 communities. Not only does En Vía offer micro-financing loans to these women but also requires them to take on-going business courses to educate them on best business practices.
On a November morning, I was lucky enough to join in on one of En Via’s tours which took us to the town of Teotitlan del Valle. There we were welcomed into the home of Juana, 81, and her daughters-in-law, who have been working with En Vía since the very beginning. Through the micro-loans that they have received, the three women have opened a storefront on the main street in town to display their tapestries. They had also just expanded it to include a small coffee shop with a few tables to invite tourists to stay and chat with them and to sell some of Juana’s famous Oaxacan chocolate. The material to build the storefront and the small espresso machine were all purchased using loans provided by En Vía.
On our half-day tour, we were invited into the women’s shared, private home. After an intimate, homemade lunch at their family table, we watched as they showcased the organic products used to make their wool tapestries. The wool is purchased from a local farmer and is then dyed using natural products such as flowers, seeds, plants and even crushed bugs! It is dried, spun into large balls of yarn and then woven into creative, intricate designs using a loom. Following these detailed presentations by the women, we were given free time to wander through the small town and purchase products from other local vendors.
En Vía requires that women form groups of three female entrepreneurs before they can request to take the required (free) business course and receive their first loan. This system of accountability within the community encourages that the En Vía project continues to be self-sustaining. Juana and her daughters-in-law spoke proudly of their accomplishments participating in the micro-loan program. Through access to these micro-loans and continued support by En Vía, all three women have created thriving businesses in their communities and have big ideas for the future.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Teotitlan del Valle is about a 45 minute car ride from Oaxaca City. As it is a very rural town, there are no public transportation options. If you are only interested in visiting the town to shop and support local vendors, you can ask a local taxi driver what he/she would charge to take you there are back.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
Eat – Restaurants
While on the tour with Fundación en Vía, you are provided a home-cooked, authentic Oaxacan meal. You more often than not will be served mole negro, a rich sauce comprised of nuts, chiles, a variety of herbs and spices and chocolate. It is normally served over meat, such as chicken, or vegetables with a side of rice and handmade corn tortillas.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Oaxaca has fairly moderate temperatures all year long, however, the best time to visit is in the Spring (April and May) and the Fall (September and October). En Vía runs tours all year long, normally twice a week. Though, during the last week of October, they offer special Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, tours. During these special tours, you not only learn about the micro-financing program but you are also given a private viewing of the family’s altars which pay tribute to deceased relatives. Later, you are invited to el panteón, or the town cemetery, to participate in the local traditions. As you can imagine, these tours fill up quickly! So if you plan to visit Oaxaca City during this time of year, make sure to keep your eye on their Facebook page and website for the Day of the Dead Tour schedule.
Safety – Possible risks
Despite increased safety concerns in other parts of Mexico, Oaxaca is one of the safest states to visit. This is most likely due to the high percentage of tourists to locals, mixed with the kind and gentle demeanour of the Oaxacan people that make this place safer than most.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim to those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
At the writing of this article, Fundación en Vía charges a standard $50 for their micro-financing tours. (expect higher costs for the Day of the Dead Tours) In general, Mexico is one of the most affordable places to travel in the world especially when it comes to food. Just to give you an idea, a typical meal at a restaurant in Oaxaca City costs between $4-$6 USD.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
When visiting rural areas of Mexico and participating in local activities, it’s important to be culturally aware and respect the local customs. Mexican culture is extremely polite and so, if you know even the slightest bit of Spanish, it’s most respectful to speak in the “usted” form. It’s important to understand that food is an essential part of Mexican culture and you will be offered seconds, thirds and fourths when eating. It’s most polite to smile very big and say, “Muy amable, no gracias,” “very kind of you, no thank you.” The local families you will meet on these tours will be ecstatic to see you and show you their work. If you like something, it is not appropriate to bargain when purchasing items from these business owners outside of Oaxaca City. These men and women have worked extremely hard on their craft and have priced their items accordingly. Lastly, if participating in a Day of the Dead tour, never touch items on the altar unless invited to by the family members. Further, when taking pictures of people in el panteón, or town cemetery, always ask permission first.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Participating in a Fundación en Vía tour is not only culturally enriching but embodies the essence of responsible tourism as your dollars positively impact the women you will meet. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this tour is not full of thrill, excitement and adventure. The day is spent sitting, talking, listening, learning and making personal connections with a local community. Also, it’s important to note that the women do give their presentations in Spanish which are then translated into English by an excellent bilingual guide provided by En Vía. Lastly, as you will be spending most of your time in a rural home, you may see dirt floors and open areas without a roof covering which is very normal for this type of community.
To learn more about tour dates, educational programs or volunteer opportunities for Fundación en Vía, please visit their website at www.envia.org
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