Indigenous-Led Cooperatives and the Geniuses Behind Them

By Emily Ng

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Wow, what an amazing last day we had. This day was different in that we visited indigenous MFIs in Salasaca. The other MFIs we visited were ran more by “white people” (non-indigenous Ecuadorians) or mestizos (mixed indigenous and white people). Our first visit today was to a cooperative called Mushuc Nan, and we actually were able to talk to and visit the man who started the cooperative himself, Don Gonzalo!

He previously had loans with other cooperatives in nearby Ambato, but felt a lack of trust and disconnect in his relationship with those cooperatives because of his indigenous identity. Mushuc Nan has become quite successful in the area, even opening 2 offices on the Galapagos Islands because a lot of people in Salasaca are artisans and sell their crafts there. Other hopes he spoke of were his hopes of spreading a message in nearby towns to self-start MFIs in indigenous communities to better cater their needs instead of uncooperatively working with other MFIs.

This sort of organic, grassroots economic development is so fascinating — and what I personally believe is a more sustainable and healthy trajectory for international development. He also said that younger generations should realize that education can be coupled with a pride of their indigenous identity and that they aren’t mutually exclusive.

We also met with another one of Mushuc Nan’s clients, Senorita Marisol, who helps her father make sandals. She spoke especially of how people were beginning to leave behind traditional textiles,and don’t appreciate the laborious craft and skill that goes into creating such beautiful patterns. Her family’s business is quite small, so they only cater to local populations. We asked if they’d like to sell to tourists someday and they replied for sure, but it’s the matter of capacity — which they don’t have right now. If their loans could reach the capacity of purchasing more machines or a larger space, that could come into question.

The last MFI we visited was called Primero de Julio (First of July), which was founded for another indigenous group in Santa Rosa called the Chakapungo. Some interesting elements of their MFI was their reforestation program and how they receive credits from local ministries to reduce child labor. Their reforestation program was to create community in the town and work more with the local government. I love that approach of connectivity and collaboration. It seems that in international development this spirit is also another path of sustainability.

Something that stunned me about Primero de Julio was how they have 7,000 clients — and 5 loan officers. You do the math, and it’s absolutely nuts. A follow-up question I have for that is how they maintain all those relationships. Surely, those five loan officers can’t remember every detail about their clients’ businesses.

The first client we met with in their cooperative was a group called Sisay. They are an association formed by women artisans who wanted to pool together their work to showcase on an international level. In fact, the press they’ve received in Argentina or in Quito has been good. Remember how I talked breifly about gender dynamics before? Well, one of the women said that many women’s husbands were opposed to this association because of the independence that came with it. However, many of them have just continued with their project, and husbands are beginning to become more understanding and want to be included in the association as well. So — it’s interesting how seemingly rigid gender dynamics can indeed be more fluid and changeable as well.

Our last client is arguably the one that made the most impression on us. His name is Ernes, and he works in carving different products out of wood: giant spoons for stirring potluck dinners, regular spoons for cereal, backscratchers, chairs — you name it. Interviewing him revealed so many threads of resilience and curiosity. He said he believed that one had to decide to be something and then become it. He used to be an apprentice of another artisan, and one day realized he didn’t want to be someone else’s employee forever. His journey is incredible because he was not well-supported for success from his beginning. He was an orphan, didn’t finish primary school, and was turned away from 2 cooperatives due to indigenous discrimination before getting a loan with Primero de Julio.

His sense of dignity and integrity in his business was incredible as well – for example, with the current economic crisis in Ecuador, he knows that people are crunched for money. Thus, he only sells directly to customers so they won’t get conned. Later, Victoria told us that he told her that to tell his story aloud and have us all be interested in his path was so empowering — and that he just wants to do it more for others so they can walk similar ways as well. What a guy.

Originally posted on BUILD Latin America.

Tufts Global Engagement Trip: Ecuador 2016

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