• Tuesday, October 6, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    MEXICO: Women Package the Sweet Taste of Nostalgia

    By Emilio Godoy
    AYOQUEZCO, Mexico, Nov 7 (IPS) Years ago, when Catalina Sánchez saw
    an opportunity to earn an income and improve her family’s living
    conditions by growing and selling nopales – an edible cactus native to
    Mexico – she probably never imagined that her idea would spawn three

    Let alone the fact that she would become part of a project that would
    revitalise her community, forge links with migrants in the north, and be
    short-listed for a social innovation contest, competing against
    initiatives from all over Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Ayoquezco de Aldama is a town of 5,200 people in the southern state of
    Oaxaca, one of the least developed regions of Mexico and with the largest
    indigenous population.

    For years the people of Ayoquezco grew and processed tobacco. But after
    the local factory closed down and agrochemicals rendered the land useless
    for other crops, the male population was forced to look for work outside
    the community. As a result, around 65 percent of the population of
    Ayoquezco has migrated to northern Mexico or to the United States, in
    particular to California.

    Left on their own, the women had to look for alternative livelihoods. All
    they had were their small, backyard gardens where they grew nopales, or
    prickly pear cactus pads, for their own consumption, which they started to
    sell on the local market. But they got very little for their products.

    Almost 10 years ago, Sánchez got together with two other women from
    Ayoquezco de Almada and presented their idea for a more organised
    production to the non-governmental Foundation for Rural Productivity
    (FUPROCA), which would provide them with technical assistance.

    This original proposal blossomed into MENA (Mujeres Envasadoras de Nopal
    de Ayoquezco), a women-run food cooperative founded in 2001 by 120 nopal
    farmers. The cooperative, which grows, packages and sells nopales, among
    other products, is formed by single mothers, widows and women left behind
    by their husbands who migrated up north.

    Initially, the aim was to sell their products on the local market only,
    but the assistance provided by FUPROCA led to a partnership with Ayoquezco
    immigrants in the U.S. city of San Diego, and the construction of a
    processing plant, PANO (Procesadora de Alimentos Nostálgicos de
    Oaxaca), that produces traditional Mexican food products.

    "There aren’t many jobs available here, so you have to find a
    way to make a living off the land. That was how we came up with this idea
    to market nopal, and we formed a group," Sánchez told IPS. Like
    many in their community, both Sánchez and her husband had already
    tried their luck as undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

    "At the beginning the nopal growers received training and technical
    assistance. Then an engineer was hired to help them with their
    crops," Roberto Ramírez, the president of FUPROCA, explained to

    As part of its assistance, FUPROCA put the Ayoquezco women farmers in
    contact with MIGPAO (Migrantes por Ayoquezco, Oaxaca), an independent
    organisation formed by members of their community who have migrated to San

    The association with MIGPAO gives the project an additional innovative
    dimension, as besides being a business run by women, it has forged strong
    links with the migrant community in the U.S.

    Each year, some 500,000 people migrate from Mexico to the United States,
    where 10 to 12 million Latin American immigrants currently live, many of
    them undocumented.

    Migrants from Ayoquezco contributed their savings to finance the
    construction of the PANO plant, which became operative in July 2008.

    The migrants' investment in the plant did not put an end to the
    cash they send their relatives back home. In the first half of 2009,
    Mexico received 12.9 billion dollars in remittances, which are still a
    major source of revenues despite official projections that they would drop
    11 percent by the end of the year as a result of the global financial

    MENA owns 62 percent of the stock in PANO, Chapulín – a distributing
    company – holds 33 percent and the remaining five percent is held by

    Chapulín Distributors Inc. was established in 2004 in Escondido,
    California by a group of 82 immigrants from the Mexican states of Baja
    California, Mexico and Oaxaca, to market food products made by PANO,
    including preserved organic nopales, mole (a traditional Mexican sauce)
    and chocolate.

    María Elisa Bernal, director of ECLAC’s Experiences in Social
    Innovation programme, told IPS that the MENA project stands out for the
    dynamic involvement of women, the re-channelling of remittances from
    consumption to investment in production, the links with migrants in the
    north, and the business skills of the participants.

    "Particularly innovative is the partnership model implemented by
    these women to establish the company and the way they coordinate their
    activities with Chapulín Distributors Inc.," the ECLAC (U.N.
    Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) official said.

    Today, some 160 women farmers cultivate about 16 hectares. Fresh nopales
    are sold on the local market, while the industrial plant processes and
    packages some two tons of the product a month. PANO has a monthly turnover
    of about 10,000 dollars. The company also produces mole and chocolate for
    a national chain of restaurants.

    There are 114 species of nopal, of which five are eaten as fruits and
    three as vegetables, including the nopalea variety, very common in
    Ayoquezco de Aldama. The cactus is harvested three months after planting,
    when it is ripe enough to be eaten. And the more it is pruned, the higher
    it grows.

    Through MENA, the women growers earn some 400 dollars a month for the sale
    of their products, more than five times what they were paid (75 dollars)
    before they formed the company.

    "We bring in our production and get a fair amount of money; the
    project is a great help," Sánchez, who has three sons in the
    U.S. and another who came back ill, told IPS.

    A group of 52 producers has been certified as organic growers by OCIA
    (Organic Crop Improvement Association) International, a non-profit organic
    certification organisation.

    PANO is also interested in joining Mexico’s fair trade efforts.

    FUPROCA, created in 1996, first started working with the people of
    Ayoquezco on a flower greenhouse project that didn’t take off. But
    the experience was valuable in terms of the lessons learned in organising
    and finding ways to overcome obstacles.

    Two foundations provided financing for start-up activities: the
    Pan-American Development Foundation, created in 1962 through an agreement
    between the U.S. government and the Organisation of American States (OAS),
    and Interamericana, a Washington D.C.-based organisation that provides
    funding for innovative projects in Latin America and the Caribbean.

    PANO still has room to grow, as the processing plant is operating at only
    25 percent of its installed capacity.

    "We’ve broken down several prejudices, such as that using our
    backyards for market production is not a valid production option and only
    causes poverty, or that women are incapable of running a social
    project," Ramírez said.

    FUPROCA now plans to implement a mobile phone project in Ayoquezco and
    replicate the PANO experience in the southern state of Puebla, with

    The PANO project is the only Mexican initiative among the 13 finalists of
    the 2008-2009 edition of the Experiences in Social Innovation contest
    organised yearly since 2004 by ECLAC, with support from the U.S.-based W.
    K. Kellogg Foundation, to reward creative solutions aimed at reducing
    poverty and exclusion with active community involvement.

    The final stage of the competition will take place on Nov. 11-13 at the
    Social Innovation Fair in Guatemala, at the San Carlos University campus.
    This year’s finalists come from seven different countries – four are
    from Argentina, three from Brazil, two from Peru, and one each from
    Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay – and the initiatives cover a range
    of issues, including education, health, nutrition, environmental
    protection and gender equity.

    In the last two years, the ECLAC contest has received submissions from
    1,300 initiatives from across the region. In this edition, the winner will
    receive a prize of 30,000 dollars; the four runner-ups will receive prizes
    from 20,000 to 5,000 dollars. But more importantly they will obtain
    technical support and visibility for their projects.

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