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Published By Helen Lyttelton on July 6, 2013
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 first going to fund microloans for women borrowers. In a country where the average interest rate on a microloan is 70%, our loans offer a more viable option. Our tours enable us to sustainably give out interest-free loans that are invested in businesses that provide for families and communities.
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.
The tours while structured, are wonderfully organic and conversations continually take different paths. I am always delighted to discover that each tour is unique in itself. Since every tour is unique, and the women we meet have different business and life experiences, many tour participants have joined us for multiple tours. This year, we had a committed fan join us on three tours during her two-month stay. 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.
The tour participants frequently 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. 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.
We have noticed that the feedback, attention and encouragement the tour participants provide during the presentations of the business boost the women’s confidence and self-esteem. Their comments and feedback are a reminder that what they are doing something worthwhile.
The tours also impact the 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 on the lives of our borrowers.
At En Vía, we value this wonderful chance to connect our tour participants and borrowers during the tours. Our unique combination of responsible tourism and microfinance enables us to make a difference in the lives of our borrowers.