By Elizabeth M. Rojo and Kevin F. Adler
Kevin Adler is a passionate Hoop Funder and works as the Founder of BetterGrads, an organization built to empower public high school students to tap into the power of their school’s latent alumni network.
For most of 2011, Kevin lived, worked, studied, and served in Mexico as an Ambassador of Goodwill through a Rotary scholarship, which was awarded in recognition of his work as a social entrepreneur and for his commitment to global peace and understanding.
After being inspired by the Hoop’s mission to support producer communities around the world, Kevin and his friend Elizabeth Rojo of Fundación En Via composed this blog post for us to share with you.
The Valley of Oaxaca is known for its many beautiful local crafts: colorful alebrijes in San Antonio Arrazola; barro negro (black mud) pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec; beautiful tapetes (rugs) in Teotitlán del Valle. What is less known, and often overlooked, are the challenges that the talented artisans behind the crafts face in obtaining capital to expand their businesses and gain access to international and domestic markets.
The small Zapotec town of TeotitlánTeotitlán del Valle is renowned for its tapetes with intricate patterns and beautiful natural dyes. Falling in love with one of these traditional rugs is an easy task; understanding the process it took to produce one is a different story.
The process of bringing this cultural tradition to life can take weeks for a single tapete. Skills, such as naturally dyeing the wool and the different design patterns, are learned and passed on from generation to generation. Most children of Teotitlán begin weaving their first tapete at the age of ten and continue on for the rest of their lives, making it a family business and an important part of their economic survival. Tourists come to Oaxaca with the intention of buying a tapete, but most do not make the journey to Teotitlán.
Galleries in the historic center of Oaxaca de Juarez, the largest city in the region and the state capital, sell the same rugs. With fancy storefronts and enviable locations, wealthy retailers in Oaxaca de Juarez are able to buy tapetes in bulk at extremely low prices from the original producers, almost all of whom are female, and sell them at a 300% to 400% markup, Thus, most profits go to the retailers while the weaver barely receives enough to weave another day – let alone a fair portion of the final sale price from their finished product.
Tourists who embark on the 30km trip outside Oaxaca almost always start at the artisan market located at the entrance of the road that leads to the center of town. As it is, the entire market is inundated — every female in Teotitlán is a weaver. In a small town where everyone sells the same product and tourism has been decreasing, more and more women are looking into other ways to sustain their families. However, access to loans, essential for expanding into new markets and differentiating their product in a saturated market, is very limited. When an artisan does qualify for a loan, she is subject to the unfair practices of many microfinance banks in Mexico that charge an average of 70% interest rates. In many cases, the interest rate is over 100%.
The ability for the women artisans of Teotitlán to bring their famous tapetes to lucrative markets and receive a fair portion of the final sale price from their finished product is limited by unsavory retail practices, market saturation, the lack of access to affordable loans, the absence of business training for the women entrepreneurs, and the general disconnect between the end-purchaser and the producer. Despite these obstacles, new technologies and a more socially-responsible and aware tourism are poised to bring a brighter future to the women entrepreneurs of Teotitlán and throughout the Valley of Oaxaca.
Fundación En Vía, a microfinance organization, offers interest-free loans to female entrepreneurs in Teotitlán through their popular tours of the houses of female artisans. Capital loans, English classes, and business training offer the women entrepreneurs the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.
With an astonishing loan repayment rate of 99% and as the top-rated attraction on TripAdvisor for all of the city of Oaxaca, En Vía’s innovative approach offers a glimpse of how an organization can successfully combine sustainability, impact, and meaning to achieve lasting change in the lives of entrepreneurs in developing countries. By connecting producer and consumer, tapete-weaver and traveler, the livelihood of artisans behind the products – tapetes, barro negro, and alebrijes – will be transformed.
Elizabeth M. Rojo is an international relations graduate student at IE in Spain, and was a volunteer program coordinator at Fundción En Vía. Kevin F. Adler is the founder of BetterGrads, an education startup, and was a 2010-11 Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Oaxaca, during which time he co-founded En Vía’s business classes for women entrepreneurs in Teotitlán del Valle.
Travel, Learn, Fight Poverty is the motto of Fundación En Vía, a new non-profit microfinance organization whose goal is to bring access to fair capital that will help women start or expand their small businesses in Teotitlán at a 0% interest rate. En Vía is well aware of the problems facing the women entrepreneurs of Oaxaca, and for that reason, En Vía incorporates socially-responsible tourism with their microfinance mission and an English program offering free lessons to the women and children of Teotitlán. Their tours are a great way for travelers around the world to experience first hand the power of microfinance and understand the story behind the product, establishing more than just a transactional relationship with these women.