Oaxaca life

Stories of Stoves and Storefronts: Reflecting on Project Tours’ impact with our borrowers

By: Michelle Zhang

Michelle is from Massachusetts and is currently on a gap year between high school and university. She volunteers as an impact assessment intern and tour guide with En Vía. 

Once a year, En Vía offers a five day Project Tour that expands upon regular tours. Participants not only learn about microfinance by connecting with our borrowers, but also get to cook with a renowned Zapotec chef, observe a weaving demonstration, and hike through the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Norte. Most importantly, the tour supports our borrowers’ businesses through two hands-on projects: building a smoke-free, fuel-efficient stove and painting a storefront sign. The women go through an application process, demonstrating their need, if they want to receive either. They contribute many of the materials themselves and decide on the vision they want volunteers to bring to life. I recently chatted with some of our borrowers who hosted Project Tour participants to reflect on their experience and the impact of their stove or storefront.


In Abasolo, I met Maria who makes tortillas. She started her business 20 years ago because of family struggles with income. For the first ten years, she didn’t actually make any money; a man who produced corn would give her maize to make into tortillas, and in exchange for the service, he would bring tejate (a chocolate maize drink) or lunch for her and her family. Eventually she started planting corn herself and selling tortillas directly to customers. When she joined En Vía in 2016, Maria was able to buy more maize and chickens to raise. Most days, she takes orders of tortillas by the hundreds! She showed me the maize she collected in the fields earlier and explains how she soaks it in limestone water before grinding it at the mill to make masa, corn dough, which she then flattens into tortillas. A Project Tour group helped Maria build the stove she now cooks the tortillas with every morning. Before, she would put the comal, a traditional circular cooking surface, over fire in a metal can. It was extremely hot cooking like this, hurting her skin and draining her energy. With the comal over the new stove, she could work a lot more comfortably. Though she likes her job, it’s hard work, and Maria hopes that her children get to do something else if that’s what they want. Her son is determined to study robotic engineering in university, and though she doesn’t have the money to send him, she said that as his mother, how can she say no? Currently tortillas are Maria’s only business, but in the future, she hopes to earn more income by opening a stand with tortilla based foods like memelitas, tlayudas, and quesadillas.

In Tomaltepec, sisters Silvia and Teresa showed me their storefronts. Silvia owns a taqueria (taco shop) and Teresa an internet cafe. The taqueria is a family business originally started by one of her sisters 38 years ago. Silvia has worked there for ten years. She joined En Vía four years ago when invited to be a group member by another sister who has since passed away. It was busy when I arrived; women in aprons cooking and cleaning, family coming in and out. She had just hosted lunch for a microfinance tour. Every time our tours go to Tomaltepec, we eat chile rellenos, deep fried chili peppers stuffed with meat or cheese, at Silvia’s. People from town also love eating at her place. Silvia said she has a lot more customers now that she has a new, clearer storefront painted with the help of last year’s Project Tour. Right next door is Teresa’s internet cafe, painted the same day as Silvia’s. She was cooking in her kitchen, directly behind her business, when I arrived and explained to me that her and her son live upstairs. As soon as I sat down, she pulled out her guitar to sing me a song! Teresa plays and sings in church, often teaching kids to play too. I asked her if performing is also part of her business, and she explained that she never charges money because her music is for God. Originally, Teresa wanted her business to be a hair salon, but she didn’t know how to cut hair. So instead, she bought four used computers and started an internet cafe. Even though she didn’t know how to use a computer herself, the business boomed because there were no cell phones then. Through her customers, she learned little by little how to use the computers, and now she’s the one troubleshooting for them. She even makes a little extra money typing and printing documents for other people. Her most recent project was typing up a written request to the town’s president for a construction group to build a bridge. Teresa also mentioned that she’s had more customers since her storefront was painted. The kids especially think it’s “chido” (cool) and even have stopped to take pictures of it! Both her and her sister tell me how fun painting with the group was, with everyone laughing, joking, and playing music the whole day: a real fiesta.

This year, En Vía will have another Project Tour from July 15th to 19th. Come join us for five fun and meaningful days that leave an impact long after your trip! For more info visit: https://www.envia.org/project-tour.

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