It’s hard to imagine how just $100 can change someone’s life but in Mexico’s indigenous villages near Oaxaca it’s happening every day. Fundacíon En Vía is providing micro finance to women to empower them to start or develop their own businesses.

The money comes from the fees paid by people who take a tour with En Vía to learn about the work of the foundation and meet some of the women receiving the loans. It’s an inspiring and humbling experience. The women have a fantastic work ethic and put in long hours to earn what in western civilisation would pay for very little, but here offers independence.

Teotitlan's 17th century church

Teotitlan’s 17th century church

Our first stop on the tour was a tasty tortilla lunch at a small restaurant in Teotitlán del Valle, a village famous for weaving. After a visit to the village church we went to meet Crispina, who like many others in the village is an expert weaver. Having learned her skill from her father she spent many years working for one of the large weaving showrooms that tend to buy up the local weavers’ products or employ them direct and take a hefty profit.

Crispina shows us her wares

Crispina shows us her wares

Now she offers products, featuring unique designs created by her son, from a showroom in her home, from a stall in the Oaxaca cultural centre where En Vía is based and at a regular Friday market in the town. She is immensely proud that she now gets to sell her own creations direct to customers and keep the profit she generates.

Crispina is part of the group of three women which is the way the loan system works. A woman who is interested has to find two others to also take part. The idea is that they will support and encourage each other to be successful with their businesses as well as paying back the loans received. If one of the women misses her weekly payment the whole group is penalised.

Crispina stirs the dye made from pomegranate seeds

Crispina stirs the dye made from pomegranate seeds

It’s obviously important to find women you trust and in Crispina’s case one is her daughter-in-law Celyflor. She only learned to weave three years ago but is already producing beautiful items.  A key selling point for them is their use of only natural dyes coming from products like nuts and pomegranate, which is amazingly versatile in the colours it can produce. They also use the tiny cochineal bugs that turn the wool a rich red.

The third member if the group is Epifania, also a weaver whose family used to have a permanent slot at the village market, but a new turnaround system means they only get one for 15 days every 6 weeks. The system is fairer for the majority in the village, but was a significant blow for the families who previously had permanent space to sell their wares.

Part of the process for getting a new loan is to present your business to a group undertaking the En Vía tour and as the group is now on their fourth loan they are all confident and keen to talk. When we visited Epifania it was quickly clear that she is much more of a sales woman than the other two.

She’s turned the front part of her home into a shop that’s hung with a colourful patchwork of products including many made from cotton as she’s recognised a need to diversify from just using wool. Her sister has a loom for weaving cotton so Epifania buys the material from her to turn into table cloths, curtains, bags etc.  Her dream is to buy her own loom for cotton but that costs 10,000 pesos. Only around £250 but when you consider that the first loans the women receive are 1300 pesos you realise it’s a long way off.

The second group we visited were in a smaller village Santo Domingo and they had so far only received their first loans. The first woman we met was Teresa, whose business is the production and sale of Atole, a drink made from corn which is drunk hot in the often cool mornings. Making Atole is a two-hour process which starts at 4am every day. Teresa then hitches a ride with her brother to a nearby village as there are already lots of Atole sellers in Santo Domingo.

Once there she cycles through the streets on a three-wheeler shouting that she has the drink for sale. She proudly explains that she has gained some regular customers, but when we delve deeper we realise that these are actually resellers who are buying the Atole to sell on for a profit. We hope she’ll soon realise that cutting out the middle man and selling direct would be more profitable.

The leather workshop is a simple outbuilding at the home of Claudia's mother-in-law

The leather workshop is a simple outbuilding at the home of Claudia’s mother-in-law

This might well come from workshops En Vía offers. Before receiving their first loan the women have to complete a basic business course which consists of six hour long sessions. But there are also a range of workshops offered and run by volunteers, some of which are designed to help grow their businesses like marketing, others that are for personal development and interest.

The second in this group is Claudia who sells leather goods made by her husband. They previously worked for his brother but now have their own line in soft leather wallet and purses. The workshop is at his mother’s house who quickly appears and insists on shaking hands with everyone in the group. She may let her family use it for their businesses but it’s still very much her home and if people are visiting they are her guests.

Claudia and her daughter watch as her husband carefully cuts out the leather products she will sell

Claudia and her daughter watch as her husband carefully cuts out the leather products she will sell

It’s the first time a husband has been so evident. Someone in our group wondered if this empowerment of their wives was threatening to the men. The answer was ‘very possibly’ but those wives don’t come forward for loans. The ones that do are either on their own or have husbands that are supportive or indifferent to their ambitions.

Our final stop is with  Juana who makes tortillas, again from the family home where we also meet her daughter, granddaughter and extremely cute great-granddaughter. The little one’s mother isn’t out of her teens and we then learn that Juana’s mother is also not only still alive, making her a great-great-grandmother, but also a recipient of an En Vía loan. We were too surprised by this news to remember to ask what business she was running!

Six hours after leaving En Via’s office at the Oaxaca cultural centre we return there, pretty tired but having spent a fascinating and inspiring day meeting women whose lives are changing for the better thanks to the work of the foundation. If this has inspired you to find out more why not visit En Via’s website or maybe even plan to take a tour next time you’re in Mexico! Or if you won’t be in the neighbourhood any time soon you could make a donation to support the En Via campaign to buy a van. Click here to find out more.

If you’re interested to find out more about Oaxaca read my post on the town.

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