Inter Press Service News Agency November 8, 2009
Emilio Godoy AYOQUEZCO, Mexico, Nov 7 (IPS) - Years ago, when Catalina Sánchez saw an opportunity to earn an income and improve her family’s living conditions by growing and selling nopales - an edible cactus native to Mexico - she probably never imagined that her idea would spawn three businesses. Let alone the fact that she would become part of a project that would revitalise her community, forge links with migrants in the north, and be short-listed for a social innovation contest, competing against initiatives from all over Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ayoquezco de Aldama is a town of 5,200 people in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the least developed regions of Mexico and with the largest indigenous population.
For years the people of Ayoquezco grew and processed tobacco. But after the local factory closed down and agrochemicals rendered the land useless for other crops, the male population was forced to look for work outside the community. As a result, around 65 percent of the population of Ayoquezco has migrated to northern Mexico or to the United States, in particular to California.
Left on their own, the women had to look for alternative livelihoods. All they had were their small, backyard gardens where they grew nopales, or prickly pear cactus pads, for their own consumption, which they started to sell on the local market. But they got very little for their products.
Almost 10 years ago, Sánchez got together with two other women from Ayoquezco de Almada and presented their idea for a more organised production to the non-governmental Foundation for Rural Productivity (FUPROCA), which would provide them with technical assistance.
This original proposal blossomed into MENA (Mujeres Envasadoras de Nopal de Ayoquezco), a women-run food cooperative founded in 2001 by 120 nopal farmers. The cooperative, which grows, packages and sells nopales, among other products, is formed by single mothers, widows and women left behind by their husbands who migrated up north.
Initially, the aim was to sell their products on the local market only, but the assistance provided by FUPROCA led to a partnership with Ayoquezco immigrants in the U.S. city of San Diego, and the construction of a processing plant, PANO (Procesadora de Alimentos Nostálgicos de Oaxaca), that produces traditional Mexican food products.
"There aren’t many jobs available here, so you have to find a way to make a living off the land. That was how we came up with this idea to market nopal, and we formed a group," Sánchez told IPS. Like many in their community, both Sánchez and her husband had already tried their luck as undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
"At the beginning the nopal growers received training and technical assistance. Then an engineer was hired to help them with their crops," Roberto Ramírez, the president of FUPROCA, explained to IPS.
As part of its assistance, FUPROCA put the Ayoquezco women farmers in contact with MIGPAO (Migrantes por Ayoquezco, Oaxaca), an independent organisation formed by members of their community who have migrated to San Diego.
The association with MIGPAO gives the project an additional innovative dimension, as besides being a business run by women, it has forged strong links with the migrant community in the U.S.
Each year, some 500,000 people migrate from Mexico to the United States, where 10 to 12 million Latin American immigrants currently live, many of them undocumented.
Migrants from Ayoquezco contributed their savings to finance the construction of the PANO plant, which became operative in July 2008.
The migrants' investment in the plant did not put an end to the cash they send their relatives back home. In the first half of 2009, Mexico received 12.9 billion dollars in remittances, which are still a major source of revenues despite official projections that they would drop 11 percent by the end of the year as a result of the global financial meltdown.
MENA owns 62 percent of the stock in PANO, Chapulín - a distributing company - holds 33 percent and the remaining five percent is held by FUPROCA.
Chapulín Distributors Inc. was established in 2004 in Escondido, California by a group of 82 immigrants from the Mexican states of Baja California, Mexico and Oaxaca, to market food products made by PANO, including preserved organic nopales, mole (a traditional Mexican sauce) and chocolate.
María Elisa Bernal, director of ECLAC’s Experiences in Social Innovation programme, told IPS that the MENA project stands out for the dynamic involvement of women, the re-channelling of remittances from consumption to investment in production, the links with migrants in the north, and the business skills of the participants.
"Particularly innovative is the partnership model implemented by these women to establish the company and the way they coordinate their activities with Chapulín Distributors Inc.," the ECLAC (U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) official said.
Today, some 160 women farmers cultivate about 16 hectares. Fresh nopales are sold on the local market, while the industrial plant processes and packages some two tons of the product a month. PANO has a monthly turnover of about 10,000 dollars. The company also produces mole and chocolate for a national chain of restaurants.
There are 114 species of nopal, of which five are eaten as fruits and three as vegetables, including the nopalea variety, very common in Ayoquezco de Aldama. The cactus is harvested three months after planting, when it is ripe enough to be eaten. And the more it is pruned, the higher it grows.
Through MENA, the women growers earn some 400 dollars a month for the sale of their products, more than five times what they were paid (75 dollars) before they formed the company.
"We bring in our production and get a fair amount of money; the project is a great help," Sánchez, who has three sons in the U.S. and another who came back ill, told IPS.
A group of 52 producers has been certified as organic growers by OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) International, a non-profit organic certification organisation.
PANO is also interested in joining Mexico’s fair trade efforts.
FUPROCA, created in 1996, first started working with the people of Ayoquezco on a flower greenhouse project that didn’t take off. But the experience was valuable in terms of the lessons learned in organising and finding ways to overcome obstacles.
Two foundations provided financing for start-up activities: the Pan-American Development Foundation, created in 1962 through an agreement between the U.S. government and the Organisation of American States (OAS), and Interamericana, a Washington D.C.-based organisation that provides funding for innovative projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.
PANO still has room to grow, as the processing plant is operating at only 25 percent of its installed capacity.
"We’ve broken down several prejudices, such as that using our backyards for market production is not a valid production option and only causes poverty, or that women are incapable of running a social project," Ramírez said.
FUPROCA now plans to implement a mobile phone project in Ayoquezco and replicate the PANO experience in the southern state of Puebla, with avocados.
The PANO project is the only Mexican initiative among the 13 finalists of the 2008-2009 edition of the Experiences in Social Innovation contest organised yearly since 2004 by ECLAC, with support from the U.S.-based W. K. Kellogg Foundation, to reward creative solutions aimed at reducing poverty and exclusion with active community involvement.
The final stage of the competition will take place on Nov. 11-13 at the Social Innovation Fair in Guatemala, at the San Carlos University campus. This year’s finalists come from seven different countries - four are from Argentina, three from Brazil, two from Peru, and one each from Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay - and the initiatives cover a range of issues, including education, health, nutrition, environmental protection and gender equity.
In the last two years, the ECLAC contest has received submissions from 1,300 initiatives from across the region. In this edition, the winner will receive a prize of 30,000 dollars; the four runner-ups will receive prizes from 20,000 to 5,000 dollars. But more importantly they will obtain technical support and visibility for their projects.