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Women, Females, Chickens, Hens

By Julie Etra

Last February, just as COVID 19 was showing its lumpy, spherical, and toxic configuration in the United States, we left Huatulco for a month on a trip to Africa. One component of the trip was a visit to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda; the park is home to a population of the dwindling mountain gorillas. This park is just a few hours north of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Uganda, located on the African equator, is much poorer than neighboring Rwanda, and is currently governed by the apparently self-appointed President for Life Yoweri Museveni.

Geopolitical details aside, we were very anxious and excited to closely observe these special vegetarians in their native habitat, high in the equatorial cloud forest. The tours are extremely well organized, with a maximum of seven visitors, led by a guide and flanked in the front and back with minimally armed guards to scare off the jungle elephants. We were also offered the services of a porter, for an additional price, to help carry our packs, etc., and to hold our gear as we approached the gorillas and avoid making unnecessary noise.

After an arduous four-hour hike deep into the forest, our trackers had indeed located a silverback and two of his offspring, male and female, about two to three years old. We were allowed an hour of wonder, well worth the planning, the expense and the journey. Porters, as it turned out, were indispensable, the least of which was to help us carry our gear. The hike through the cloud forest was difficult, often steep, slippery and muddy. When I saw the guides were all wearing rubber boots, I thought to myself: hmmm I have the wrong boots. My porter helped me negotiate the mud and rocks, pointing out where to place my feet and helping me to maintain my balance.

After our magical hour with the silverback and his kids, we were told by our guides hey, no worries, we will take the short cut back, a less arduous route. NOT, at least not for me! The final river crossing was very difficult, as my sense of balance is not great, but I was additionally assisted by another strong young porter, with whom I became friends, Abaho Jason. After the last haul up a muddy steep slope, we obtained our certificates, and loaded into the Land Cruisers. Abaho approached me through the open window in the back, and asked for my WhatsApp address. Why not? I said to myself. Can’t hurt.

I heard from him in March 2020, and frankly I was confused since I thought he was my original porter, Ngabirano Justus, but sorting through photos and with his clarification, I recognized him as the last porter from the last crossing and again at the Land Cruiser. Of course, we all realized a bit later that COVID19 would have a huge impact on ecotourism, and that these communities depend on tourist dollars for both their own and the gorillas’ survival (other than the gorillas, sounds like Huatulco) and it was obvious that he and his village, Rubuguri, Uganda, would need help. I sent the first wire for the purchase of corn porridge for the village (first connection with Mexico!) and received photos and messages of gratitude. This evolved to the establishment of big cabbage and potato gardens.

I continue to get reliable correspondence, all in English, not in Rukiga, the common language of the region, which comes from Bantu roots. He indicated he needed to do something different and wanted to raise chickens, in addition to the new gardens. So next we helped him with resources to build a hen house, after which he would purchase hens and a rooster. Then the camera on his phone died, oh no! – and I really wanted to see the hens and the rooster, so the new phone was next.

Ten hens, and now we circle back to women, females, hens. I asked Abaho if I could name the hens, and he said, sure! Although there are barriers to women’s participation in Ugandan politics and the situation is culturally complex (as it is everywhere!), there would certainly be enough well-known women to name all the hens. The Right Honorable Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, for example, is Speaker of the Parliament, the first woman to be elected to the position – the third highest position in Uganda’s national leadership (she was Deputy Speaker for a decade before that).

When Abajo said sure, I could name the hens, he added, “But please – in English,” so I took the opportunity to teach a little US history, and about current and recent very strong and smart women in government. Accomplished, fearless, compelling life stories, and diverse backgrounds. I also had in mind that the US is a nation of immigrants, and my friend lives in a community where his people have lived for thousands of years, and it presented an opportunity for me to learn a little more about women I admire, and to share that admiration, albeit perhaps not resonating with Abaho, with more important things to do. So here they are, in no particular order, and if you are not from the US I have added a few sentences about each “womhen.”

Kamala for Kamala Harris. Current Vice President, former senator and Attorney General for the State of California, graduate of Howard University and the University of California School of Law, and of Asian and African American descent.

Ruth for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, recently deceased Supreme Court Justice, graduate of Cornell and Columbia Law School, brilliant scholar, and pioneer for gender equality and of Jewish descent (Russian and Polish immigrants).

Amy for Amy Klobuchar, senator from the State of Minnesota and ex Presidential candidate. She is an attorney and graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago and is of Swiss and Slovenian ancestry.

Elizabeth, for Elizabeth Warren. She is a senator from Massachusetts, a graduate of the University of Houston and of Rutgers Law School, and is a well-known progressive with particular focus on consumer protection and equal economic opportunity. Like everyone in the USA she is from immigrant roots, but not recent. Her great, great, great, grandmother was part native American, not unusual for families that have been in the US for generations.

Stacy, for Stacy Abrams. This African American woman, although she narrowly lost the last race for governor of the state of Georgia in 2018, was largely responsible for increasing voter turnout and changing the state from red (Republican) to blue (Democratic) with the election of a Democratic president and two Democratic senators, thus shifting power in the United States Senate. Educated as a lawyer, she is a representative in the Georgia House and holds degrees from Spelman College, University of Texas, and Yale.

Nancy, for Nancy Pelosi. She is currently Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and has represented the state of California since 1987; she is the only woman in U.S. history to serve as Speaker and, until Kamala Harris came along, the highest-ranking female elected official in United States history. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and Italian American father, and a graduate of Trinity College.

Hillary, for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has long served in public office as the former Secretary of State and the first female senator from the State of New York. Of English, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, and French descent (we call this Heinz 57), she graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Law. As the former First Lady, she advocated for health care reform and universal coverage.

Elena, for Elena Kagan. She is a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, obviously an attorney by training. Of Russian Jewish ancestry, she holds degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and the Harvard School of Law.

Sonia, for Sonia Sotomayor. She is also a Supreme Court justice, holds degrees from Princeton and Yale School of Law, and is of Puerto Rican descent. She reflected in 1998: “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten.”

Michelle for Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady and outspoken advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy diets. Trained as an attorney, she graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School.

We can’t forget the rooster, Barack Obama! No explanation needed here. He will be very busy.

I can’t comment on women and empowerment in government in Uganda, since that is not why I was there, and would not have had an opportunity or reason to broach the subject with the few women I encountered in our brief stay. A revival of US based Evangelical religious activity in the county supports “traditional” women’s roles as homemakers, but existing and changing roles of women in the household and community are undoubtedly more complex than can be adequately discussed here.

As of this writing, Amy had succumbed to a parasite, despite expensive medication, but Ruth and Stacy have laid eggs, and Ruth’s clutch should hatch soon. I am happy that Abaho has found an alternative “career,” that the girls for the most part are doing well and that our friendship continues. There is always more to learn on both sides of the planet, and who knows, maybe I will be there when the hens come home to roost.

Microenterprise in Mexico: Building Women’s Businesses

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In 1976, amidst crushing poverty on the other side of the world, an idea popped up. Muhammad Yunus, born into the British Raj in 1940 in what is now Bangladesh, was an economist with a crazy-quilt professional background. An academic, a social activist, a banker, and more, Yunus went out one day to visit the poorest households in rural Bangladesh. He found women making bamboo furniture; to buy the bamboo, they took out money-lender loans, but the interest rates were so high, the women earned practically nothing, despite all their work.

Lending to the “Unbanked” – and to Women

As a banker, Yunus knew that conventional banks would not make tiny loans at reasonable interest rates to the bamboo workers – the banks did not believe these people capable of paying back a loan.

Enter the idea, and what an idea it was! Microcredit – tiny loans for tiny businesses started by people so poor they’d never even been inside a bank. Yunus adapted the idea of lending circles – groups of women were issued the loan, picked the recipient out of the group, and members supported her in making sure her business did well enough to pay it back. Then it was someone else’s turn.

Over the next six years, Yunus would reach 28,000 microenterprise borrowers; the program became the Grameen Bank (“village bank”). Together, Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. The idea swept the social and academic world of poverty alleviation – microenterprise development was an innovative, sustainable path out of poverty. Today, 97% of Grameen borrowers are women; the repayment rate is 99.6%.

Why women? To Yunus, it was obvious that poverty inflicts greater stress on women, and when women make money they spend it first on their business, then on their families, and finally on their future. Pro Mujer is a U.S.-based women’s development organization that works throughout Latin America; in Mexico, it operates from Mexico City east to the state of Veracruz. Their research shows that Mexican women reinvest 90% of their income in their families and communities. Men? A measly 40%.

Born in the U.S.A., Bred in Latin America

Back on this side of the world, an organization called ACCIÓN International took shape fifteen years before Yunus came upon the bamboo furniture makers of Bangladesh. In the late 1950s, jumping the gun a bit on President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, a Berkeley law student named Joseph Blatchford undertook a thirty-stop goodwill tour involving tennis (he was an ace) and jazz, meeting with youth across South America in an effort to create cross-cultural understanding. He set up a volunteer “Youth Force” dedicated to international service in 1961, establishing ACCIÓN International in 22 barrios across Venezuela.

With the philosophy of listening to what local communities wanted to do, Acción volunteers helped build schools and water systems and health centers, giving people the tools they needed to help themselves. The United States Peace Corps started doing the same thing by the end of 1961; after eight years of expanding ACCIÓN International beyond Venezuela to Peru and Brazil, Blatchford went home and became Director of the Peace Corps. ACCIÓN International became just Accion and started focusing on microlending. In less than five years, Accion’s program in Recife, Brazil, made 885 small loans; those businesses employed 1,386 people.

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Accion began to build a network of financial institutions willing to lend to the poor. The great majority of microlending is conducted through the lending-circle model (now also called a “communal bank”). The networking strategy allowed Accion to expand its microfinance programs to 14 Latin American countries – Mexico among them.

In Mexico, Banco Compartamos (the “We Share” bank) opened its doors in 1990, and Accion invested. Accion also partners with CrediConfia in east central Mexico (Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Puebla, and Michoacán), as well as the online microfinance platform Konfio, which started up in 2016. There are branches of Banco Compartamos in the Huatulco area in Chahue, Santa María, and Pochutla. Moreover, Oaxaca is almost unique among Mexican states in having a growing universe of credit unions (casas de ahorro, caja popular), often located in remote locations and quite willing to set up lending-circle-type financing. The biggest credit union, Caja Popular Mexicana, has branches in La Crucecita and Santa María.

The Microfinance – Microenterprise Development Connection

Mexican statistics indicate that very large businesses (over 250 employees) make up less than 1% of all Mexican businesses. The remaining 99% comprises medium (51-250 employees), small (11-50), and micro (1-10) businesses. The microenterprises are about 94% of all businesses and provide half of all the jobs in Mexico.

What does it take for a woman to get started on her own business? Here we should note that microfinance and microenterprise development are not the same. Microfinance provides a key tool for business expansion – without money, even if a business owner only needs enough money to stock 20 more scarves in her shop, there is no growth. Starting up a microenterprise is something else entirely. Like poor women everywhere, Mexican women face institutional barriers to getting financing, and the pathways to education and training are often blocked. But they also face cultural barriers.

Gender discrimination in Mexico is far more explicit (and can be extreme, see the article “Hits, Blows and Coffins,” on page 18 in this issue) than in other countries. Sociologist Gina Zabludovsky Kuper, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), researches gender and power, and has written extensively about women as entrepreneurs and executives. In terms of microbusinesses, Zabludovsky Kuper points out that there’s a cultural perception about “women who start microbusiness in order to contribute to the family economy or get out of poverty” – they have to stay at the micro level because “their work is only viewed as auxiliary”; the women themselves often buy into the notion that just being a sideline business “is what is reasonable for them.”

Microenterprise – Making It Work

Nonetheless, in some places in Mexico, the programs to train and encourage women do come together with microfinance institutions, and women-owned microenterprises do start up and succeed.
The Mexico City nonprofit Crea Communidades de Emprendadores Sociales is typical of a microenterprise development organization. It offers programs to empower women entrepreneurs with training in business skills, technical assistance, and business support; it also brings participants into a support network for each other. It serves central Mexico (CDMX, and the states of Mexico, Aquascalientes, Guanajuato, and Querétaro), offering online services across the country as well.

From 2002 to 2006, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan funded a program in Oaxaca called Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo … Empezar Mi Propio Negocio (I Want to, I Can … Start My Own Business). Yo Quiero arose out of a women’s health initiative founded in 1985, added life-skills training in 1990, and started Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo as a school-based self-efficacy intervention in 1996. With Kellogg Funding, the microenterprise program served 600 rural women, started 17 bancos communal and 300 women-owned businesses, and had a 100% loan repayment rate. It included training 25 “social promoters,” who continue to run the program in Oaxaca, and have added a youth microentprise program that serves Oaxaca, Puebla, and Michoacán.

South of Oaxaca City, Villa de Zaachila is the site of the largest landfill in the state. A project named Mujeres A.V.E. supports solidarity networks for women to help them start and grow microenterprises that support their families and contribute to the community. Organized by the SiKanda Foundation (Oaxaca) and supported by the British Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, among others, Mujeres A.V.E. helped 45 women build the skills to strengthen their businesses and access new markets in its first year of operation (2018).

See for Yourself in Oaxaca!

There’s a new way to learn about Mexican microenterprise – visit one. Independent women micro-entrepreneurs, along with long-standing family businesses, abound in the craft towns around the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, and at least a couple of travel companies will arrange a tour for you.

The online Spanish travel company Authenticities (www.authenticitys.com) has a tour specifically focused on the entrepreurial women artisans – weavers, chicken-raisers, flower-growers, tamale-makers, potters – who participate in a micro-finance program to which Authenticities contributes.

Fundación en Via, which itself runs microfinance and microenterprise developments programs (https://www.envia.org/microfinance-tours), takes you to visit microenterprises where the owner is ready for her next En Via loan. The tour takes nearly all day, visits two communities, and gives the owners the chance to show you what they do and explain how previous and upcoming loans have helped build their businesses.

OXXO – What’s Behind the Ox in the Room?

By Brooke Gazer

With eight locations in Huatulco, OXXO signs seem to be multiplying like a squad of bunnies all across Mexico. Who are they and where are they from?

In 1977, the first OXXO stores opened in Monterrey, selling mainly beer, snacks and cigarettes. The name originated with a stylized logo that resembled a shopping cart. Two diagonally stacked XX’s formed the frame of the cart, and the O’s on either end looked like wheels. Before long OXXO expanded its inventory to compete with the 7-Eleven international chain, which had opened its first Mexican store in Monterrey in 1971.

Brandishing a simplified logo, OXXO now boasts in excess of 18,000 convenience stores across Mexico, and the chain is rapidly expanding throughout Latin America. It is estimated that OXXO serves 13 million customers daily. If convenience stores were part of a farm, OXXO would be the Ox – the biggest animal and the one who controls the most pasture.

The OXXO brand is owned by FEMSA (Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V.), the fifth-largest company in Mexico. FEMSA has far-reaching tentacles into a vast number of other companies in Mexico and throughout much of Latin America. It is the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the world; Del Valle fruit juice is also bottled under the Coca-Cola brand. FEMSA owns 20% of The Heineken Company’s international operations, including Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, a major Mexican major brewery, which means FEMSA controls sales and operations of not only Heineken Beer, but Dos Equis, Sol, Tecate, Bohemia, Superior, Carta Blanca Indio, and Noche Buena. It might be safe to assume that all the beverages inside the refrigerated wall of the OXXO stores are controlled by FEMSA. But this mega corporation also has a refrigeration division, so it is likely that the coolers belong to FEMSA as well.

Solistica, another branch of FEMSA, controls much of the beverage distribution in Mexico, moving its brands from production to warehouse to point of sale locations such as OXXO and its competitors.

A favored location for OXXO stores is adjacent to gas stations, so FEMSA has been a major franchisee of Pemex stations. When Mexico reformed the laws that ended Pemex’s monopoly on petroleum, FEMSA began investing in this sector as well. OXXO Gas has yet to arrive in the state of Oaxaca, but there are over three hundred OXXO gas stations dotting the rest of the map of Mexico. In the past, the government set the price of fuel through Pemex, but could FEMSA trucks buy their own fuel at a discount?

The little beer store OXXO has come a long, long way in just over forty years, and they continue to expand their services. It is estimated that about sixty percent of Mexicans have no bank account – OXXO saw a tremendous opportunity. They introduced computer scanning software that allows anyone to plunk down cash and pay for goods bought online, partnering with retailers like Amazon and Mercado Libre. Like VISA, OXXO charges a percentage to the merchant, and they add ten pesos to the buyer’s purchase price. Even those with bank accounts might find this service useful. You can deposit cash into someone’s bank account simply by giving the receiving person’s bank card number. For a mere ten pesos, it’s quicker, easier, and more accessible than going to the bank.

Without question, OXXO is a convenient place to stop for a snack or a drink. It is easy to spot these ubiquitous outlets and they have so much to offer. I’ve used the payment option myself when my bank card was being uncooperative. But I worry, just a bit, when one firm has so much control over a market. It’s practically impossible for independently owned stores to compete with these clean, well-lit, well-stocked convenience stores. But when the company also controls the product and its distribution, it is no longer an even playing field. Yes, the customer wins – at the moment. But what if they became the only game in town?

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

A Business Owner’s Recap of 2020 in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

We began 2020 full of optimism; 2019 had been a good year for our B&B, and January’s bookings indicated this trend would continue. Many guests book months in advance, but about half make their travel decisions four to six weeks ahead. This means that after Christmas, we usually see a lot of requests for late February and into March. When this didn’t happen, I knew we had a problem but had yet to identify it.

People were talking about something called the “corona virus,” but no one seemed to be taking it too seriously. On February 1, one guest took a selfie with a pyramid of empty Corona beer cans. He posted it with the caption, “Recuperating in Mexico from the Corona Virus.” A month later, no one was laughing.

Hindsight is so much clearer, but to be objective, few of us saw this coming, nor could we imagine how rapidly the fabric of our society would be altered. On January 7, Canada’s Chief Public Health Official declared, “There has been no evidence to date that this illness, whatever it’s caused by, is spread easily from person to person; no health care workers caring for the patients have become ill; a positive sign.” Just over two months later, the World Health Organization uttered the dreaded word – “Pandemic.”

On March 14, Canada suggested that anyone abroad should return home; the USA seconded the motion days later, and flocks of snowbirds headed north. With several bookings throughout March and April, we faced a dilemma. My husband has a severe heart condition, putting him into the high-risk category, but on-line booking sites penalize properties for canceling reservations. Most of these were for Mexicans and Mexico had yet to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. Incredibly, Mexico’s President insisted that charms and amulets would protect him. With heavy hearts, on March 18, we began canceling future reservations. A week later, memos from booking sites urged us to waive any cancelation fees due to COVID-19. It seems we were ahead of the curve, but only slightly.

Before long, Mexico started implementing emergency restrictions. In Huatulco, hotels and bars were closed, a few restaurants stayed open but strictly for take-out, many stores and all tourist services shut down, and beaches were declared off limits. Even construction came to a halt.

In a town that exists for tourism, this caused unimaginable hardship. Mexico has no unemployment insurance and a lot of people live from payday to payday. Not working could mean not eating. But this is also a compassionate community, many businesses and individuals donated generously to food banks and soup kitchens. Our Municipal President realized that domestic violence is exacerbated by difficult economic conditions, so he prohibited the sale of alcohol. The section in supermarkets displaying spirits, wine and beer was roped off and Huatulco became a dry community.

As the death toll rose, many rural communities restricted travel to or from their region. Towns and villages without medical facilities erected blockades to restrict access and residents were unable to leave without good cause. Our full-time maid lives in Copalita, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Huatulco. In early April, Vicki arrived an hour late, explaining her town was locked down. At the end of the day, I paid her a month’s salary and drove her to the edge of Copalita. When the lock down extended through June, we paid her again; she has been a loyal employee for six years and has a family to support.

Our life changed significantly over the next several months, it was quieter but we’ve adjusted. Our property is open enough that I didn’t feel closed in and for this I feel fortunate. I can’t imagine the stress of many local families sequestered together in small apartments during the hottest months of the year.

Without guests, there was no need to shop daily and we limited our excursions to once a week. Driving through La Crucecita felt eerie, it seemed like a ghost town; most shops were closed, we saw almost no traffic, no street venders, and no one walking along the sidewalks.

Having lived with a daily maid for the past nineteen years, I had to relearn the art of housekeeping. Vicki swept and mopped the floor of our common room twice daily. I bought an industrial sized push broom and moved all the chairs into the entrance. This made sweeping the large area much easier, but I asked myself, ‘Does it really need to be done so frequently’? And I applied the same logic to a number of other household tasks.

I knew I’d need more to fill my time and might have worked on perfecting my Spanish, or taken an internet Master Class in cooking, photography, or writing. Instead I subscribed to Netflix and held marathon sessions of movie viewing.

Gyms were closed but walking through our neighborhood offered a reasonable alternative. I also had the pool all to myself. Enjoying my solitary walk or swim, I sometimes thought about those who had left early. In March and April, much of Canada is either coated in snow or a muddy mess of spring melt.

Throughout the lock down, we may have lamented the lost revenue and we missed the social interaction, but life was not so bad. If we had to be sequestered, there were far worse places to be. We counted our blessings.

Things in Huatulco got a little shaky towards the end of June when the region was hit with an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude. The epicenter was only a thirty-minute drive southwest of the La Crucecita, and for a moment it felt as if we were under attack. The earth roared as our villa swayed, and objects flew across the room as if hurled by angry poltergeists. Fortunately, due to Huatulco’s strict building codes, any damage we experienced was only cosmetic and most buildings in Huatulco also withstood the onslaught. Unfortunately, some homes in U2 were severely damaged and a few older apartment buildings had to be evacuated. Frequent aftershocks continued over the next two months; violent shakes, on top of the financial crisis and social isolation, caused even the most stoic of us to admit to feeling a bit harried.

It has been over seven months since Huatulco rolled up its red carpet. Masks are still mandatory and social distancing is the new norm, but things are gradually beginning to reopen. Beaches, some restaurants, and hotels can function at a limited capacity. It is a relief to have Vicki back, and gradually we are “expanding our bubble,” inviting friends for dinner or meeting for coffee. After being deserted for an extended period, Huatulco beaches are crystal clear with occasional wildlife wandering along the white sand.

We have made some minor changes to our business and hope that eventually things can return to some semblance of normalcy. Huatulco has suffered, but the death toll has remained relatively low compared to some regions. Mexico has weathered many storms, and this too will pass. Sooner or later regular national and international flights will resume and tourists will again flock to our pristine piece of paradise.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast (www.bbaguaazul.com).