Beyond Financial Services: Mexico’s Greatest Artisan Fair

Emmanuel M. von Arx | KF 16+17 | Mexico

Shortly after beginning my Kiva Fellowship with Kiva partner organization Vision Fund Mexico (also known as Fundación Realidad or FRAC), I had the joyful task of presenting two Social Performance Badges to its enthusiastic staff: one for FRAC’s strong focus on poor people, and one for its success in empowering families and communities. The description of the Family and Community Empowerment Badge on Kiva’s homepage immediately piqued my interest: it states that recipients of this badge “implement innovative business practices and offer services in addition to their financial products to meet the needs of the people they serve.” Innovative business practices and additional services beyond financial products? At Vision Fund Mexico? FRAC staff members soon directed me to some great examples for non-financial services that Vision Fund Mexico has provided in recent months and years: they include support in product marketing and distribution for secluded communities of beekeepers, over 380 free financial literary workshops for well over 4,000 borrowers, and free expert veterinary training provided to hundreds of borrowers who are raising cows and sheep in their backyards. While I hope that some of these topics will be addressed by future guest blog posts of FRAC staff members (continuing the series that was started by Rosa’s gorgeous post on her first field visit), I will report here on FRAC’s selfless contribution to Mexico’s largest artisan fair, the Expo FONAES. In many ways, this example belongs to the list that Kiva Fellow David Gorgani compiled for his great writeup on the surprising range of non-financial services that many Kiva field partner organizations provide.

The location of Mexico’s largest artisan fair: the imposing Palacio de los Deportes or Sports Palace, east of the center of Mexico City.

The Expo FONAES calls itself “the biggest marketing event of Social Entrepreneurs in Mexico and Latin America” and takes place twice a year in Mexico City’s enormous Sports Palace. Over 1,600 independent artisans from all over the country are invited to exhibit and sell typical local food and handicrafts to the ten thousands of visitors who get in for free. To ensure a smooth organization, the principal coordinator of the expo – the Mexican Economy Department – relies on institutions that know the conditions on the ground from their daily work: local governments, social support and non-profit organizations, and – you guessed it – microfinance organizations. Among the latter is Kiva Partner Vision Fund Mexico which has been invited to co-organize the fair for the third consecutive time in March 2012.

An impression of this year’s busy FONAES. Here on view is a section that focuses on vendors coming from the Mexican State of Jalisco.

As FRAC´s Coordinator for Non-Financial Services, Jonathan Gonzalez, explains to me, “co-organize” means: FRAC is invited to select twelve artisans from among its most talented borrowers who will then be offered a stand at the Expo. With a three-person team, FRAC takes care of all the logistical issues, including the travel arrangements and accommodation of the artisans and the transportation of their merchandise from their villages to Mexico City.

I ask Jonathan what Vision Fund Mexico gets out of that work: is there any financial gain or positive promotional impact? He answers: “No, nothing. In fact, FRAC’s name is not even mentioned anywhere – neither at the Expo nor in any publication nor on the event’s website. Really our only motivation is to reward hard-working and exceptionally talented artisans and borrowers. Having the opportunity to exhibit their work to a wide audience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them – a chance to increase sales, conquer new markets, and to network with fellow artisans, potential investors, and clients. Of course Vision Fund Mexico could simply say that we are too busy to work on this. But this would prevent twelve deserving artisans from getting their chance.”

Micro-borrower Simon Ramos Vazquez at his stand with handbags.

I remember Jonathan’s words when I finally see FRAC’s chosen artisans in action: The first borrower I meet is the artist Simon Ramos Vazquez who hails from Veracruz and produces knapsacks and bags. As he proudly tells me, he is one of the very few artisans who have been invited to attend the Expo twice in a row. Each of Simon´s handmade bags has been individually designed and can be defined as a true work of art. Even though he sells his bags for as little as 60 pesos (5$) per piece, his sales add up. During last fall’s FONAES Expo, Simon sold bags worth over 20,000 pesos (about US$1,600) – a number more than double the amount of Simon’s 9,000 peso loan (about $700) with Vision Fund Mexico.

Juliana Flores Ibarra and her husband Venustiano Tenorio Reyes are proudly displaying their wooden handicrafts.

I also talk to Juliana Flores Ibarra and her husband Venustiano Tenorio Reyes, two artisans who specialize in wooden handicrafts and miniatures. The extent of detail and love in their craft work literally takes my breath away. When asked about their micro loan, Juliana tells me that she has been a FRAC client for over 10 years, starting with a 1,000 peso loan (about 80$) and with each consecutive cycle increasing her loan amount, up to her current one on 7,000 pesos ($550). Their micro-borrowing has allowed the artisan couple to fully realize their artistic vision by incorporating some more expensive foreign woods into their handicrafts. Consequently, Juliana and Reyes have received more invitations to exhibit and sell their works at artisan fairs and arts galleries (among them La Casa del Obispo in the Mexico City neighborhood of San Angel). By thus increasing their sales they have been able to achieve greater financial security.

Juliana and Venustiano are not using any paint for their handicrafts; rather they achieve the desired effect and colors through the combination of different types of woods. A close look reveals that each of Juliana’s trees tells a story which – as the artist explained to me – she dreams up at night. Finishing such an elaborate piece takes Juliana an entire month and she sells it for around 2,000 pesos (or around $160).

In the past, Juliana and Venustiano used to sell their delicate wood carvings out of a suitcase on the streets of Tepito, one of Mexico City’s more notorious neighborhoods. As Juliana tells me with tears in her eyes, they were robbed twice while selling on the street, losing all their handicrafts to a thief – not to a common criminal, but both times to the very same policeman who irretrievably confiscated merchandise of around 15,000 pesos ($1,300) or the equivalent of  half a year’s labor for each of them! In Juliana’s words: “What hurts me most is not the lost monetary value or the time of creating the stolen handicrafts, but the love we have put into them.” She explicitly credits her loan activity with Vision Fund Mexico for the fact that she and her husband have managed to put their lives and business on more solid foundations.

Following are two more photos that I took at the FONAES Expo. They both show micro-borrowers of FRAC who told me all very similar stories as Juliana – stories of hardship and struggle, but ultimate success thanks to their micro loan.

Angelina Remigio Segundo and Rosio Contreras Ramirez are selling embroideries made out of sheep wool. The photo tells you everything about the enthusiasm and love that these two ladies put into their work.

Natalia Piña Gonzalez and Natalia Solorzano Rojas are the two representatives of a women cooperative from Donaciano Ojeda, a village near Zitácuaro in the state of Michoacán. The village women have reinvented themselves about ten years ago, when they were taught by a traveling artisan how to turn dry pine needles (which they call Ocoshal or Ocoxal) into the raw material for their  innovative and unique handicrafts.

Overall, an exciting day for me and the many visitors who joined me in celebrating Mexican artists and small businesses. And even if only very few visitors were aware of it: the FONAES Expo is also a celebration of the often selfless work behind the scenes of microfinance institutions all over Mexico – work that does not just consist of a financial service, but also includes non-monetary contributions to improve the lives and businesses of microfinance clients. This report should be considered an homage to the hard work and long hours that FRAC employees regularly chime in so that a handful of their micro-entrepreneurs get their chance of a lifetime and ten thousands of visitors the opportunity to know the artistry and talent that thrive in this country. It should also be a reminder to all Kiva lenders: your zero percent interest loans don’t just support the micro-entrepreneurs of your choice; additionally, they also make it possible for Kiva partner organizations like Vision Fund Mexico to provide services to their clients that could never be justified based on purely financial considerations. Thank you!

Emmanuel M. von Arx is a Kiva Fellow working with VisionFund Mexico (FRAC) in Mexico City.  FRAC provides innovative financial and non-financial services to families and groups that do not have access to formal banking services in rural and semi-urban regions and communities in 12 Mexican States. To learn more, please visit FRAC’s partner page on Kiva or join the Friends of Fundacion Realidad.

About the author

Emmanuel von Arx