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Meeting the Artisans of Ojalá

As our final working day comes to a close on this trip, I’ll share what I see as the objectives of an Insight Trip:

  • To learn about the economic, social and spiritual climate in developing countries
  • To witness the hope that has been restored in the lives of the world’s impoverished people, who can now provide for their families through Opportunity International's financial services and training
  • To reflect on ways, as Americans living far away, that we can impact the lives of those living in impoverished communities
  • To assimilate all this newly acquired information into our everyday lives

EVERYONE INTERESTED IN THE WORK OF OPPORTUNITY INTERNATIONAL should travel on at least one Insight Trip to truly understand the work of the organization. Meeting the clients and staff, while experiencing the progress of our clients, is invaluable. History has shown the world that “aid” alone does NOT work. Forty years of Opportunity International has shown that microloans and training does lift people out of poverty. Microfinance is a model that works.

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(Pictured: Client and Ojalá artisan Gloria Medrana with her daughter Diana)

Visiting clients is always a highlight of an Insight Trip! The clients that we met today do custom sewing and crocheting in a cooperative AND teach young women and girls to sew. Gloria Medrana was introduced to Opportunity at a trade show. She participates in Opportunity training and workshops, learning how to run a business more profitably. Gloria’s story is not unusual in the Ojalá co-op—we heard it several times, learning that it’s Mildred Corrales, Artisan Support for Ojalá, who has helped these women show and promote their businesses. Now they sell the products and continue to teach other women these skills. Of the products, only the recycled bags are made outside of Ojalá. The other products are 100% Nicaraguan-made.

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(Mildred Corrales, Artisan Support, Ojalá)

This group is about a year old and already treasures one another’s friendships and support. Most are still in the first loan cycle. “For me, it’s been a phenomenon; because we work together and study the markets, I now sell 100% of what I make. I no longer work alone in my house,” one client commented about the difference Opportunity has made in her life. All of the clients praised Mildred for her commitment to helping them become more successful.

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(Master potter and client Pedro Guerrero at work in Masaya, Nicaragua)

As one of only four master potters in Nicaragua, Pedro Guerrero exemplifies all the people who work with Opportunity International in Nicaragua. Pedro represents the ceramic guild of San Juan de Oriente, Masaya, Nicaragua at international events. In Nicaragua, Pedro has gained prestige for his dedication to the art and the uniqueness of his own style. Just as important, Pedro Guerrero is a fourth-generation potter who mentors and teaches the coming generations in this art. Taller Guerrero currently has 12 apprentices in the business. Opportunity is working with Pedro on increasing his prices, as Pedro just returned from Milan where his pieces are sold in art galleries.

Now, we have all returned to our busy lives in the States. As you finish reading the blog from this Insight trip, I’d ask you to pray:

  • For the Opportunity staff in Colombia and Nicaragua and the work they do
  • For the clients of Opportunity as they strive to lift their families out of poverty
  • For those of us who visited the Opportunity work in Latin America, that we may understand the roles God wishes us to play
  • For yourself, that you may open yourselves to the role our Father wishes you to play

Thank you and God bless you.

By Barbara from Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Ending Poverty with Agricultural Finance and a Yucca Plant in Granada, Nicaragua

My name is Tracy Kirby. I am a Senior Vice President/Sales for Merrill Corporation and live in Wayzata, Minn. I am taking part in my third insight trip for Opportunity International. I have travelled previously with Opportunity to India, Kenya and Rwanda. I would like to share some highlights from today on our Insight Trip to Colombia and Nicaragua.

Today, we visited agricultural clients in Granada, Nicaragua and also Opportunity’s yucca processing plant. Most of the farmers Opportunity works with produce yucca, rosa de Jamaica (hibiscus), tamarind or beans.  

In Granada, Opportunity International is participating in a pilot program for community development, aiding clients in everything from planting all the way to gaining access to markets. What a fantastic concept to work with the assets and strengths of impoverished people instead of constantly reminding them of their deficits, as so many charities do! Opportunity works with clients to teach them better ways of planting using high quality seed that is drought- and disease-resistant. Opportunity has also worked wth farmers to give them access to new markets in which to sell. In the case of yucca, all the parts of the plant can be sold instead of just the “A” table grade. Now they have access to sell “B” and “C” grade, using every part of the yucca plant and, because they have higher yields, they are also able to sell yucca for seed to other farmers. They’re processing “B” grade in the form of starch and “C” grade in the form of animal feed, which they’re now selling to Cargill and Cargill is working with Opportunity to help the farmers how to produce the best possible crop.  

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(Pictured from left: Client Eduardo Chavarria; and Opportunity Nicaragua staff member and agronomist, Helen Sandoval)  

We first met with Eduardo Chavarria, a yucca grower who showed us his yucca fields and harvest. Because of better seed and growing technology learned from Opportunity International staff, he is experiencing larger yields. Eduardo was able to increase his yield over the past year by 20-30%, and he expects that this year he will have an increase of 40%. He says his income is 50% higher than farmers who do not participate in Opportunity’s program.          

Eduardo said working with Opportunity has bettered his family’s life and instead of the single cart he used to own, he now owns two trucks. Eduardo started his first loan four years ago when he rented one manzana (1.7 acres) of land to plant yucca and now he rents and produces on six manzanas!  

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(From left: Lori Olson, Regional Director for Opportunity in Minnesota; Geralyn Sheehan, Program Director, Opportunity Nicaragua; and client Reynaldo Mercado, with dried hibiscus flowers)

Our second visit was to Reynaldo Mercado, an Opportunity client who farms hibiscus. The hibiscus is used for jellies, marmalades, teas, wine and juices. Similar to Eduardo, Reynaldo has seen improved quality of his plants due to technological support from Opportunity agronomists Hawell Martin and Helen Sandoval. Reynaldo said, “We are like the children of Opportunity. Opportunity loves and cares for us!” Reynaldo’s vision for the next few years is to help his neighbors become part of Opportunity and to develop a college scholarship fund for the community’s children. None of the children in the community have ever gone to college.  

Visiting the Opportunity International yucca processing plant, I was most impressed by the fact that Opportunity Nicaragua’s Executive Director, David Kone, had designed and built a grinding mill to limit dust to 2% as he was concerned about employees’ health and wanted to alleviate any health risks in the milling process.

Every time I travel to a new country with Opportunity, I am continually amazed at how the local staff adjusts to work within local cultures, manage the legal complexities of each country’s banking laws, and find ways to utilize clients’ strengths to help them improve their living standards and that of their families.

Go on an Insight Trip with Opportunity and your life and way of thinking about people in poverty will be changed forever!!!

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Emotional and Economic Reflections Two Days into My Trip to Colombia

Hello, my name is Charlie DeVries. I am 20 years old. I study both economics and Chinese at Colgate University. I have been to China, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. While I have been in many developing countries (namely China), my visit to Colombia is the first time I ever witnessed extreme poverty.

Having been in Colombia for two days, I have many impressions that I wish to describe for you. However, for organizational purpose I am going to separate them into two categories: economics and emotions.

Emotional:

The visual images and mental experiences will always remain with me. Sparing you all the sob stories, I will only say this: seeing poverty stirs something within you much more than any textbook picture can give you. Its dynamics are so much more than desperation and hunger, but rather there is the light of hope in it as well. People I’ve met are driven by a craving to succeed not for themselves, but rather for their children. Humans (everywhere) can achieve that. 

Certainly the most intriguing topic, the conditions seen in the towns have a profound effect on the individual psyche; however, it begs the most important question: what are we going to do about it?

Economics:

Although this topic is much more bland, I assert that these are the transforming issues (for me personally) as they begin to answer this big question. The business concept of Opportunity International, microfinance, works. Risking oversimplification, Opportunity provides microloans to individuals and Trust Groups, generally starting around $100-150. This opportunity allows individuals to deviate from the torrential trap of the loan sharks and receive stimulating cash when they need it. While they still must pay back their loans, the manageable amount of money and reasonable interest rates allow for educational and entrepreneurial growth for themselves as well as for their children: it is important to recognize that most values in maturity are instilled by their parents.

On another note, I believe that the fair trade method works equally as well.

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Day 1: A Photo Blog from Cartagena

I’m Jeannie Buckner from Minneapolis, Minn. and this is my fourth Insight Trip. I’ve traveled with Opportunity International to Ghana, India, Rwanda and Kenya and I’m excited to be in Cartagena, Colombia and then Nicaragua.

Here are my observations from our first day in Cartagena. I’m amazed how similar clients are all over the world—all wanting the best for their family and children. As a family life educator, I’m very impressed with the creative and uniform training programs created by Jim Frantz (Chief Transformational Officer for Opportunity Colombia). At this week’s Trust Group meeting we viewed a training DVD with a character "Cartagena Jones" teaching the steps to get out of debt. What also sets Opportunity’s operations in Cartagena apart is their pilot project called the Roof and Floor Program. So far, they have given 106 individual loans over 18 months to clients who have successfully completed their third loan cycles to fix up their homes. 

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(Pictured: Client Ena Luz Terribia)

 Ena is on her ninth loan cycle with the Neevo Amanecer Trust Group, and she has received a Roof and Floor loan to expand her home. Her restaurant business is attached to her home. She told us that she has never been behind in either her Trust Group loan or her Roof and Floor loan. She also saves, which reduces her stress. With her first loan she bought plates and pots and with each additional loan she has enlarged her business, purchased better tables and chairs and a TV for customers, and increased her sales to 100-150 lunches served each day. With future loans she hopes to put an awning on her business. She is an inspiration to her other Trust Group members (and she is the group’s coordinator) and her loan officer stated that she is “one of the pillars of the group.” It was amazing to hear that she started saving right away by putting money in a jar each day. She paid her loans from this jar and she has always had extra money and less stress having these savings.

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(From left: Client Luz Marina; Loan officer Rocio Villadiego Gomez)

Luz is also a member of the Nuevo Amanecer Trust Group and she heard about Opportunity International from her friend Ena Luz Terribia. She had never had a loan before but she had a good business and wanted more money to expand. She cuts hair and sells products from magazines. Her loans have enabled her to invest in more beauty products in bulk and at lower prices, and purchase a glass showcase for her supplies. Her first loan was 250,000 pesos (approximately $135 US). She has two children and she is eager to complete her third loan cycle so that she can take out a Roof and Floor loan to expand her house. She expressed her gratitude to Opportunity and my fellow visitors for our support. Her loan officer Rocio Villadiego Gomez is also in the photo and what an amazing gal! Rocio has 120 clients in 12 groups spread over five areas around Cartagena. She says that her favorite part of the job is “teaching clients how to work with money and teaching the work of God.” 

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(Client Dominga Mendoza)

Dominga has been a hairstylist for 10 years and she is in her 6th loan cycle with Opportunity with a loan valued at 450,000 pesos ($244 US). We toured the front of her home and her hair salon and she showed us samples of the hair treatment products she makes. She sells them locally and ships them to Bogota and Venezuela. She also sells products out of catalogues, as well as clothing. Her salon’s daily profits range from 30,000 pesos ($16 US) to 50,000 pesos ($27 US). She is very proud of her 19-year-old son who is also a member of the Trust Group. He paints business signs and beautiful paintings. His mom kept bringing out more of his work for us to see. Dominga told us that she is very thankful to Opportunity for helping her and the other Trust Group members progress in their businesses.

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(El Oasis Trust Group meeting outside of Cartagena in Pozon)

In the afternoon we met with this amazingly close fourth-loan Trust Group on the front porch of Dominga Mendoza’s hairstyling business and home. The warm breezes blew as we listened to members of this group (15 members) describe their businesses including: hairdresser; shoemaking and repair; community daycare and nutrition training; seamstress; painter; seller of snacks, ice and frozen goods; and seller of sheets and bedspreads. Members of this group described how the loans have helped them to establish better credit, and freed them from the loan sharks who charge anywhere from 20-40% interest (that’s close to 240% for the year) and can harass and threaten if the loans are not paid on time. This group also has an emergency fund that members can use to pay their loans if they have problems. We were the first visitors to meet with this group and we enjoyed ourselves so much (lots of giggle and laughter). They even asked each of us to explain where we are from and what we do back in the USA! 

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(From left: Loan officer Roselle Sierra Payaro; Client Jairo Garcia Cardenas; Staff member in charge of Roof and Floor Program, Astrid Suarez)

Jairo—President of the El Oasis Trust Group—makes and repairs shoes. As well as maintaining his group loan, he received a Roof and Floor Loan enabling him to double the size of his home. He’s in the photo with Astrid Suarez who oversees this program, as well as his loan officer Roselle Sierra Payaro. After he received his loan, with the help of a construction worker, he raised his roof and added on to his house.