Around 8 a.m. eight women gather at a neighbor’s front yard around a bread oven they built. Evila (45), one of the entrepreneurs, and three others mix ingredients and knead huge doughs, which will make 11 pounds of bread, or roughly 500 loaves.
While others arrange trays on the tables, one of the women ties a wet cloth around her colleague’s head to prevent heatstroke. She will be handling the oven.
Next, they all gather around the large wood table to make small dough balls and place them on the floured trays. Despite the hot weather and long working hours, the chitchat and laughs are ongoing. Six months ago, these women were all neighbors but barely knew each other.
“I not only learned to make bread here but also to have conversations with my colleagues, to live with them, to get to know them better,” says Evila.
The tropical community of San Antonio Copalar is located in the southern region of Chiapas, the poorest in the country. Here only six out of 100 people have decent living conditions, such as food security and access to basic services. 35 families and approximately 120 inhabitants live in this remote community, where the closest school and hospital are 45 minutes away by bus.
“The difficulties families face are lack of access to basic services, unemployment in the community and machismo,” says SOS Children’s Villages Community Advisor Graciela Aguilar. “Women don’t have opportunities to find work or improve themselves.”
Like in many rural communities in the region, women are expected to fulfill their household tasks while men work in the field. Such rigid gender roles mean that women do not contribute financially to better the vulnerable situations of their families. It also limits their personal growth and plans for the future. However, this group of eight is already changing the status quo.
A business opportunity
After talking to Ms. Aguilar and learning that some women knew how to make bread—a rare skill in the area—the group decided to start the bread-baking business.
As part of the SOS Children's Villages community-based program, the women were supported with supplies, ingredients and guidance on how to organize the work. They were also given materials to build the oven, made by their husbands who support the venture.
“The project’s objectives are for women to empower themselves, generate their own economic resources to help support their families and see that they have opportunities to develop within their community,” says Ms. Aguilar.
“It is bread made with our own hands, made by ourselves,” says Evila proud. "We already know the process, we are hygienic and we bring something healthy home.”
At first, the women only shared the bread between themselves and took it home for their children and families. Today, they sell it and save the earnings for the next batch.
After a morning of hard work, Evila and one of her colleagues walk around town, knocking on doors to sell their freshly made regañadas, cuernitos and trenzados, traditional Mexican sweetbreads. This time, they sell everything they have. At the same time, a regular customer from a neighboring community picks up half of the production to resell it in her market stand.
“This person buys 10 loaves for seven pesos (0.35 dollars) and then sells them for one dollar,” says the community advisor. “With no bakeries in the area, there is a real opportunity for them, but they need to rethink their prices.”
For now, they can only afford to make it every fortnight or, if they are lucky, once a week.
“If we invest more, we will earn more, but if we do not have money to invest, how can we make our business prosper?” asks Evila. “It would be nice to prepare it daily, have customers and deliver and do it again. This would be an achievement.”
The women try to make their business sustainable. They have received a certified training course to learn more about bread making and prepare other types of bread.
After the job is finished, Evila walks back home carrying a bag of bread for her family. Both her husband and 20-year-old son work in the field from 4 a.m. and will soon come back home tired and hungry.
“I feel proud because I already managed to learn how to make bread. Now I want to learn more and grow,” Evila says.
SOS Children’s Villages has been working with communities in Chiapas, Mexico for 15 years. We aim to help and join forces with families in situations of social vulnerability, to reduce the factors that promote family separation.
*Names changed to protect privacy.