One of my favorite aspects of volunteering for En Vía is my role as a tour guide. Twice-weekly, I head out of Oaxaca city with a group of eager travelers, ready to meet the borrowers, get to know the communities, and learn about microfinance for development.
The tours form a vital part of our program, with 100% of the tour fees going to fund microloans for women borrowers. In a country where the average interest rate on a microloan is 70%, this is a way that we are able to sustainably give out interest-free loans that are invested in businesses that provide for families and communities.
Tour group enjoying the sun outside the church in Tlacochahuaya.
The word about our program has spread far and wide and we enjoy meeting and sharing our work with people from all around the world.
In the time in which I’ve been volunteering for En Vía, I’ve noticed that many of the tour participants are passionate about social change and frequently work or volunteer for NGOs in their hometowns. Often, too, they are specifically involved in international development, microfinance or education. We have a lot to learn from everyone who joins us!
En Vía’s tours comprise a form of cultural exchange, providing a rare opportunity for travelers to see local life firsthand. On every tour I am delighted to experience something new and learn something different about the women and their lives. To be welcomed into a woman’s home, introduced to her family, see how she runs her business and to hear the indigenous Zapotec language…these are all special experiences that our tour participants remember and talk about for a long time.
Recently, one woman, who must be one of our biggest fans, has been on three tours within two months! She said it was the way she had always wished to get to know Mexico, and that she could really make a connection with the people that make it so special. It’s a great feeling, seeing that tour fees, made into micro-loans, can make a big difference in a borrower’s business, enabling her, for example, to buy products in bulk or to invest a little bit more in her children’s education.
Our women borrowers also benefit from the exchange. The tour forms a space in which our borrowers can think and reflect about their businesses. The tour participants are always full of questions – sometimes more than the translator can keep up with! They might ask, for example, where the woman sells her products, how much she sells daily or weekly, whether she has noticed a change in her businesses since receiving the microloans or how she calculates profits. All of these questions help the women to describe and clearly articulate their projects, a process which may provoke them to reflect on their businesses and even to make new decisions on how they might run their business more efficiently.
We notice that the attention and fascination tour participants show in the women’s projects is great for the confidence and self-esteem of our borrowers. Their comments and feedback are a reminder that what they are doing something worthwhile.
Frequently the tour participants offer feedback on how a borrower might improve her business model. For instance, a borrower who sells shoes was having trouble because her clientele frequently didn’t want to immediately put down the full sum for a pair of shoes. A tour participant proposed a marketing tip, suggesting that she hold a sale in which if a customer bought one pair of shoes immediately, they could have a second discounted pair later on. In this way, the borrower could build up her client base, knowing that the customer would return later on for the deal.
This feedback also helps the women to consider the future of their businesses. Frequently, they are focused on maintaining their business in the present but tour participants like to ask the women about what they plan to do with future loans and what their goals are. The tours thus provide a framework in which the women are encouraged to think about business development and how they might improve their business with future loans.
In terms of our loaning process, when the women personally meet and interact with the people investing in their business through tour fees, they gain a greater understanding of their responsibility to pay back the loans and give other women the chance to use the money after them. The tour participants, on the other hand, are given the opportunity to see exactly how their donation will be used, and to witness the impact of their donation.
At En Vía, we value this chance to connect our tour participants and borrowers during the tours. We are proud that our unique combination of responsible tourism and microfinance enables us to make a difference in the lives of our borrowers.
By Helen Lyttelton