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A Sweeter Side of Microfinance


Normally I don’t like reading microfinance stories about the proverbial, impoverished woman who is able to change her life with a simple microloan. These stories often give too much credit to the loan, and underplay the skills it requires to both run a small business and pull yourself up, out of poverty. In my opinion, anyone who can do either is a truly exceptional person. This week, I was fortunate enough to meet with six such Compartamos clients from Puebla, Mexico, and I wanted to share their inspiring stories with you.

In the rough neighborhood of Magnolias, Tentaciones bakery stands out with walls painted in three different shades of purple. In fact, both the bakery and the cakes inside of it seem more in line with what’s sold on 5th Avenue in New York City than anything I’ve seen in Mexico. All of this is thanks to Elizabeth Carral and her spunky daughter Lorena Bonilla.

Elizabeth joined a Compartamos loan group about a year and a half ago with the idea of opening up a bakery. Since Lorena was not having much luck finding a job after getting a college degree in industrial engineering, she decided to help her mom with the endeavor. In order to get started, they used their first loan to buy an oven and, with each loan cycle, continue adding to their business. In a few weeks, they plan to buy a truck, which will allow them to make deliveries more easily.

Lorena Bonilla used her microloans to buy equipment like this industrial mixer for their bakery, Tentaciones

However, Elizabeth and Lorena didn’t want this to be like every other bakery in Puebla. Lorena decided to study pastry-making in order to craft truly delicious cakes. And, like any trendy bakery, they are committed to using only high-quality and all-natural ingredients. But the truly innovative part is that, unlike any other place in Puebla, they craft their cakes into really creative designs. They showed me pictures of cakes in the shape of Jim Morrison, a multi-level princess wonderland and a 6-layer wedding cake. Lorena is a fan of Food Network’s Ace of Cakes and is trying to learn how to make a cake in the shape of a sphere.

Elizabeth Carral (left) and her two daughters. Lorena (far right) has been helping her set up the bakery.

Business has been good so far, but they definitely hope to keep growing. Most of their costs come from the labor it takes to create the intricate designs, but they hope that with the purchase of the truck, they will be able to deliver cakes into the more affluent areas of Puebla and charge more per cake.

Another sweet success story is that of Mayola Hernandez, who dropped out of school at the age of 12 to work in a candy factory where she produced camotoes, a traditional Poblano candy made out of sweet potatoes. With her microloan, she was able to buy a truck where she and her husband sold sweets on the street. Today, she runs her own factory in Puebla, Mexico where she produces up to 2,000 boxes of candy a day, employs 15 full-time workers and owns her own local store to sell her products.

Mayola Hernandez is making camotes in her factory.

Some less sweet but equally inspiring stories are those like Maria Laura Ramirez, who is called Leon, or Lion, by her family. She spoke with such eloquence about the complexities of group lending and how it helped her local store, it was evident that the Lion is not only fierce, but also very intelligent. Cristina Reyes has passed on the value of hard work to her family, and now has two grandchildren studying mathematics and chemistry in Puebla’s top university. And, I had never heard anyone speak so passionately about stones until I met Josefa García who really did love all the different types of marble that she cuts and sells. In fact, she was more interested in her showing me her stones than preparing for her son’s wedding that was to be held at their house in 2 days.

Microfinance alone will not produce a successful business, but it sure has been a useful tool for these extraordinary women and their endeavors.

If you are ever find yourself in Puebla, do not skip out on a treat from Tentaciones bakery.  They don’t have a website, but can be reached by phone at: (+52) 222-8-87-46-78.

3 thoughts on “A Sweeter Side of Microfinance

  1. What a great post, Elyse. I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the over-simplification of most tales of microfinance success, and I really appreciate this more nuanced account of what happens behind the scenes, both before and during the loan. It’s great to read about the variety of personalities, ambitions, and business models that you’ve encountered. Please keep them coming. (And by the way, I am now salivating after reading about all of those sweets and pastries!)

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