San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Microcredits Help Women in Limón

SIQUIRRES, Limón – It’s changing the lives of women like Isabel Granja, a Costa Rican bone cancer amputee who hobbles from house to house along the dusty streets, selling clothes and tamales.

And women like Guisella Quirós, a taciturn Tica mother of seven who sweats and smiles amid Caribbean heat in the pulpería she made out of half of her home.

And like Gloria Portillo, a Salvadoran war refugee and single mom whose late diabetic husband inspired her to become a shoemaker. She turned her dining table into a shoe display case.

“My idea is to add another room and make a little workshop,” said the aspiring cobbler, standing in her living room that is also her office and shoe store. “It’s my dream.”

Portillo is one of nearly 1,500 women from this sleepy banana town and other towns in the Caribbean province of Limón whose dreams are being financed, poco a poco, by a partnership with a now world-famous bank that has chosen Costa Rica as its foot in the door to Latin America.

From pulperías to sewing shops, jewelry stores to chicken farms, the Bangladeshbased Grameen Bank, through the Grameen Trust, is trying to help them all become successful entrepreneurs.

Grameen Bank, which gained worldwide renown after it and founder Muhammad Yunus were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, sent three Bangladeshi staffers to manage a project to help microbusinesses here get a start.

The Grameen Association of Costa Rica is the result of a partnership between the trust and the world’s leading organic foods supermarket, Whole Foods Market, in the poverty-stricken Limón province (see sidebar).

Whole Foods buys organic bananas from farmers in the region.

“Twenty years ago, (Costa Rican President Oscar) Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for conflict resolution. But when they awarded it to Yunus, they made an ideological shift,” said U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale, adding that by doing so, the Nobel Peace Prize committee acknowledged that poverty and lack of economic stabilityare threats to peace.

“It’s kind of where we are in the evolution of things – especially in Latin America,” Langdale said at a conference last month in Siquirres, where the U.S. government representative came to give the private-sector initiative to fight poverty a pat on the back.

In Costa Rica, micro, small, and medium-sized businesses account for 98% of all formal businesses, and their fate is seen as closely tied to the fight against poverty. The debate over the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) has some fearing that further opening the market to foreign competition could be fatal for many small businesses, and might therefore exacerbate poverty (TT, Nov. 3, 2006).

The Limón project draws off the methodology of Grameen – a bank that has handed out the equivalent of billions of dollars in loans to people – mostly women – in poverty around the world, and boasts high repayment rates.

The Grameen Association gives $200 loans to women in Costa Rica who apply to the program; they must go through a week’s training on business responsibility and are required to work in groups of five.

“Each one works individually, but they learn to work together,” said Audrey Chávez, one of two field assistants for Grameen who make the rounds collecting the $5-per-week payments from the women in the program, while giving them consulting advice and encouraging them to reinvest profits in their businesses.

“The people don’t go to the bank, the bank goes to the people,” said Grameen accountant Abul Khair, describing the Grameen philosophy.

Being required to work in groups helps the women learn to network and establish business relationships.

“Sometimes they sacrifice for each other. If one member is sick, they’ll pay her weekly payment,” said Chávez, who will be rotated out within a year as part of the bank’s philosophy to avoid corruption between collectors and clients.

At an open-air auditorium in the muggy heart of Siquirres, dozens of women sat in the auditorium Feb. 14 to salute Langdale on his visit to the area. Langdale, who was appointed by his friend and former neighbor, U.S. President George W.

Bush, has emphasized a “trade not aid” policy (TT, Nov. 17, 2006).

Donell Ocker, Whole Planet Foundation vice-president, stood up in front of the crowd of dozens of women.

“I just want to express how proud I feel as a woman, to see women creating their businesses,” she said. Back in Portillos’ small home, Grameen Association Manager Anowar Hossain spoke broken Spanish with a thick Bangladeshi accent. If a woman does good work, like shoemaker Portillos, she’ll be awarded with more loans, he explained.

“Many women ask me if I have enough shoes to distribute so they can sell them,” Portillo said, adding she plans to become a supplier for other aspiring businesswomen in the area.

Having worked in poverty-stricken Bangladesh for 21 years, Anowar compared microfinancing to teaching a starving person to eat again.

“You go little by little, and don’t eat a lot until you get to be very strong,” he said.

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