Words and photos by Stephanie Castellano.
The afternoon heat had settled heavily over the sleepy little town of Santa María Guelacé, located just outside the city of Oaxaca. Except for the dogs lolling in scraps of shade, the dusty streets were deserted. But inside one vividly green building on the town’s main street, there was a growing hum of activity.
The building houses Guelacé’s only cyber café, and a computer class hosted by Fundación En Vía was underway. Offered for free to the women who are part of En Vía’s micro-lending program, the class was the fourth one in a course of eight, given every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in town. The course covers foundational computer skills such as typing, Internet search, email, and word-processing software. The final two classes will go beyond these basic functions, focusing on promoting the women’s small businesses through Internet tools like Facebook, blogs, and photo-sharing websites.
Education programs like the computer course in Guelacé are part of what makes En Vía’s micro-lending program so unique – and successful. Equipped with the right knowledge and skills, the women of En Vía have a better chance of growing viable businesses, which means they are less likely to default on their loans – a key indicator of success for any micro-finance group. Compared with other micro-finance organizations in Mexico, whose default rates can climb into the double digits, En Vía has managed to keep its borrowers’ default rate under one percent. This is largely due to its business development classes (which are mandatory for all borrowers and cover skills like financial literacy and management), as well as other education programs that are relevant to the women’s business needs. In addition to computer courses, En Vía has held workshops on branding, health and nutrition, composting, and textile design. All programs are designed based on input from the women about the information and tools they need for their success.
On this Thursday afternoon in Guelacé, the women in the cyber café lean eagerly toward their computer screens. They are practicing doing basic searches on Google. One woman, Claudia, has typed the word “palmeras” in the search bar, and then clicks “Images.” Up come pictures of various types of palm trees, and Claudia scans them with a keen eye. She and her husband own a plant nursery, and Claudia is researching the plants in their inventory, so she can better advise her customers on their care.
Paty, another En Vía borrower, searches for “Gmail.” She and Matt, the volunteer teaching the course in Guelacé, work together to set up her own Gmail account. Once Paty is ready, Claudia logs into her own account, and the two women practice sending emails to each other while Matt helps them navigate the interface. The women work intently, chuckling good-naturedly when they make an occasional blunder, and jotting down notes for future reference.
The women’s ability to adapt the course for their individual needs bodes well for their businesses. One of the attendees, Josefina, created a budget in Microsoft Excel to better track her expenses and income from her business selling fruit and vegetables. Another, Belén, has already mastered basic computer skills, and she and Matt are discussing whether she should open an online store on a platform like Etsy to sell her hand-embroidered tablecloths and other linens.
Because many of the women in En Vía are artisans like Belén, the idea of teaching a course on online entrepreneurship has frequently come up. Used the right way, social websites and other Internet resources could help these women reach a larger customer base. Now, En Vía’s staff is considering launching a course on these specific skills in Teotitlán del Valle, an artisan village where many of En Vía’s borrowers live and work. Like En Vía’s other education programs, this idea will be developed carefully, using feedback from the women. Teaching relevant, tangible skills that can be put to immediate use is a critical part of En Vía’s strategy – and ultimately, a key ingredient in all the women’s success.