We have been shifting around our team over the past few months. I strongly believe that you should shape a role around a person and his/her strengths. Find good, passionate, smart people and the rest will work itself out!
We are constantly tweaking our processes down in Nicaragua as we scale our business towards our goal of 250 stores in Managua. There is never a dull moment down here!
One of the new projects we are working on is getting bank accounts set up for all our store operators. Currently we are testing this bank program with six stores. This allows the women to deposit their income daily into an authorized Rapi-Bac dealer and gets them one step closer to financial inclusion.
This initiative goes hand in hand with our savings program that we launched this year. When encouraging our store operators to save, we realized that having bank accounts would increase the likelihood that our women would actually put this into practice. Leora Klapper, economist at the World Bank’s Development Research group explains, ““Access to financial services can play a critical role in reducing poverty when accounts offer a safe, convenient, and affordable way to save and make and receive payments.” Saving is not a concept that is taught frequently in these communities so we want to make the barrier to entry as low as possible when introducing this concept. Bank accounts will help us do this!
Another reason that this program is important to us, is that we will be setting up bank accounts for over 100 women living in Managua, Nicaragua. Did you know in developing countries, the percentage of women who have bank accounts is much less than men? It probably doesn’t surprise you. This graph shows how even though account ownership has increased since 2011, women are still behind men.
Financial independence can be the key to freedom for many of our store operators. We are aware that many of our women are financially dependent on abusive partners, which can cause them to feel trapped. According to a study by Casa Alianza, “ …one in three Nicaraguan women are physically abused by a spouse, partner or other member of the household, making Nicaragua the second worst country in Latin America in terms of domestic abuse.” We have heard stories firsthand from our store operators that brings this statistic to life. It is our hope that through Mercado Fresco, women who are stuck in abusive relationships might find the courage and independence they need to protect themselves and their children.
It is our hope to see all of our women set up with bank accounts within the next few months!
Please note: We do not discriminate against male store operators, all our operators are women. Frankly, the opportunity was designed for women and we set out to create an opportunity that served that half of the population. However, if a man wanted to operate a store and he fit the requirements, we would not turn him away.
We are always trying to increase sales for our store operators. We want each and every store to be thriving, but what we’ve learned is that products or initiatives that work for one store, might not work for another store in another neighborhood. In 2016, sales increased 12% per store, but in 2017, we want them to increase by 20%- a lofty goal!
Here’s what we are working on to achieve that number. We have just hired a new recruiting person that will help do home visits and vet all of our applicants to Mercado Fresco. This frees up our current recruiter, Manuel, to move into sales. His full-time job will be in the filed, talking to the store operators and strategizing how to increase sales at every store. He will be working with our awesome marketing coordinator, Alejandra, to make unique campaigns for each neighborhood.
I’m very excited to transition Manuel into this role because he is so respected by our store operators and they feel heard and valued by him. He advocates for our operators and I know he will continue to do that in this new position!
Once a month, our store operators come to a company wide meeting. We used to hold this session in our training space, but since we have grown so much over the past year, we are now holding the meeting in a large multi-purpose room at a local university. The women take multiple buses and walk many miles to get to us, but they always make it a priority to come. Most of them have never felt a part of something like this before. They are going to a business meeting! They dress up and come as professional women, which is an opportunity most have never had before. The women bring their children, their store helpers, their husbands sometimes. At the meetings, we tell them about new initiatives, new programs, and provide ongoing training.
The best part, however, is at the end, when we give all the women an opportunity to provide feedback. They can go to different staff members, scattered around the room, and give input and ideas or express concerns. This isn’t just show for us, we truly value their ideas and what the women have to say! After all, these women know more about their customers than we ever will. So when many many store operators come to us asking for the same products, we listen. Then we go do more market research and figure out if these products will have significant margins for our women.
A year ago, I was very hesitant to introduce home goods into our stores. Our store operators kept telling me that they would sell well, but I felt it was inconsistent with our branding. Eventually, the motivation to increase sales at our stores outweighed the branding concerns and we introduced a few cleaning products. It turned out to be the right move, as these products bring more customers into our stores now. The margins might not be the highest for these goods, but if they draw in more customers who will also buy our produce, it’s worth it!
We just introduced 4 more personal products: diapers, toothbrushes, deodorant, and hair gel. The other two new products are Maseca, which is corn flour used to make tortillas, and Escolar cookies.
In Nicaragua, women living in poverty are not taught that their ideas are valued. In this patriarchal society, it is uncommon for women to lead, to contribute ideas, to be in business. I love that we give these women the opportunity to express their ideas and have influence over Mercado Fresco as a business. We love to receive their feedback and use it to make the stores better! Often, our new products are spawned from a discussion in our monthly meeting, from the voices of the business women gathered.
By the end of this week, we will have hit 100 Mercado Fresco stores in operation in Managua, Nicaragua. We have been cautiously scaling. While the demand for more stores is high, we have wanted to make sure each store has the best chance at thriving. We want to set each woman up for long-term success, or our work is meaningless. We take care with every store we open, making sure we have fully vetted the operator, given her the full training, and strategized how to best add her new store into our delivery routes. We want each store to be fully stocked with all the inventory they need and to have adequate promotion to bring in customers and sales.
Finally hitting 100 stores feels so good and is a huge feat for us. Our goal is to scale to 250 stores in Managua by 2018 and we are well on our way to that goal. However, I have had many sleepless nights wrestling with how to help out all of the women we have knocking down our door for opportunity. We have 400 women on our waiting list, hoping for the opportunity to operate their own Mercado Fresco store. What this tells me:
1. We are doing something right!
2. Mercado Fresco stores are drastically increasing incomes for a demographic who has historically had trouble finding well-paying jobs.
3. When given the chance, people want to work hard to improve their lives and better provide for their families.
4. We have GOT to find a way to open more stores or new franchises so that we can provide work for these 400 women.
The first solution our team has developed and is ready to implement is the addition of the Mercado Fresco Express stores. Many women come to us who want to open a store, but their home is in an unsafe area, it is not on our routes, it is too close to another Mercado Fresco store, or they do not own a refrigerator or the necessary land. We want to widen the gates so that we can accept more people and open more stores. All of our stores are currently in residential areas, we do not have any storefronts in more metropolitan, high-trafficked areas. Mercado Fresco Expresses will be mobile carts that can be set up at bus stops, parks, and other busy places to reach these other areas.
I’m excited about this new concept because we will not only be able to provide more work for those who are eager for it, but we will also be reaching an entirely new demographic. We will be able to catch customers out and about, coming and going from work, needing a quick lunch. I am ready to get these stores up and running!
We are currently fundraising for Mercado Fresco Express. We are doing research to better understand the dynamics at play for these mobile stores and are hoping to begin piloting them very soon.
You can’t leave Marta’s house without her offering to give you a plant, a piece of jewelry, or a snack. Marta loves to give. Every Saturday she orders pizzas for forty kids in her neighborhood, offering Glu-Glu, a Mercado Fresco product that is similar to apple juice, to complete the meal. Once tummies are fed, Marta teaches the Bible and leads the children in performances and crafts that correspondence with the lesson of the day. Last weekend, Marta taught about how God uses kids in the Bible. Her own children are grown, but they help out, along with her husband, Bayardo, to instill good values into the kids. Marta laughed as she recalled the children acting out Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for their Easter lesson. The child playing the donkey dropped Jesus mid-scene and decided to just eat grass instead, as donkeys do. Then Marta got serious for a moment. She explained that she worries about her community and the trends she sees with drugs, pornography, and other temptations the kids are faced with daily. She hopes to help stop that progression by holding this group every week for two hours. She feels it’s the best way she can help her community.
Marta’s generosity doesn’t stop with children. Without any encouragement to do so, Marta has been recruiting other women for Supply Hope to open their own stores. Even if they might be competition for her own store, Marta wants to share her success with other women. She is excited about more mentor-ship opportunities for those who do decide to open a Mercado Fresco and has already brought many other women into the business.
After receiving a special scholarship to study engineering in Russia for six years, Marta was excited to come home. However, she found she couldn’t use her impressive degree because her son, William, struggled with asthma attacks, and her eldest daughter, Greten, had chronic jaw pain. While her husband was able to work, his income wasn’t sufficient to provide for a family of five. Marta was taught to “use her teeth and nails and fight.” So she learned how to make jewelry and made some extra money selling her creations, but it wasn’t much. Now, Marta can help pay for water, electricity, and food. She can afford to feed forty children pizza and Glu-Glu every Saturday.
That’s Marta. Getting more means giving more!
The thin curve of Leonor’s right eyebrow turns sharp when she watches her story land on her listener. She anticipates your reaction, because unlike many Nicaraguan women, Leonor tells her story over and over to anyone that will listen. Leonor is a mover and a shaker in her community. At sixteen, The Nicaraguan Youth Coalition under the United Nations Civil Rights Council, recruited members at her high school. The activists would not be paid, but would travel all over the country to hear the concerns of the people outside of the capital. Then the activists would shape protests to work towards a true democratic system. Leonor and her future husband, José, both signed up immediately. Together, they began a pursuit that has continued for the past fourteen years, working towards access to education for those in extreme poverty outside Managua, and women’s rights throughout the country.
Leonor’s body tells the story of her activism. She points to a scar above one eye, a mark from a time when a rug was thrown at her in opposition to her protests. She shows more scars on her arm, from when the opposition tracked her down after a Civil Coordinating Committee meeting, and broke her arm in three places to convince her not to get involved with the Youth Coalition. The case she filed about this incident has been open for six years without conclusion. The most recent incident didn’t leave a physical mark, but certainly will forever be imprinted in Leonor’s memory. After numerous threatening phone messages, a man approached her as she left home, held a gun to her head, and said if she didn’t stop protesting, they would kill her and her family. She didn’t back down, so he pulled the trigger. Leonor says God was on her side because the gun mysteriously didn’t fire. As Leonor tells these stories, she clings tightly to a framed certificate from the United Nations Civil Rights Council that reads “Woman of Courage,” a sign she keeps hanging right above her Mercado Fresco store.
That same perseverance that her certificate honors has made her a successful store operator. She and her husband lost their jobs fighting for democracy, fighting for those in her country who have worse conditions than they do. In her modest situation, she still thinks of those with greater need. Mercado Fresco has given her family an opportunity to earn an income, when no one else would hire them. It also allows Leonor to stay home with her first born, a four-month-old baby girl named Mayerlin. She is so proud of her ability to earn an income for her family, to build a better roof that doesn’t let the rain in, to get the right baby food for her daughter. Her husband and her continue to be activists, hoping to see change in their country. Leonor knows the power of her story and Mercado Fresco allows her to keep telling it, without fearing unemployment.
Indira is a single mother with two boys and if being a single mother isn’t hard enough, all three of them have severe health issues. Her four year old is partially deaf and mute, her 2 year old has hydrocephalus and Indira has cervical cancer. With all the doctors’ visits and unexpected bouts of illness, Indira has struggled to keep a consistent job. Although she studied accounting, prior to working as a Mercado Fresco micro-franchise operator, she had worked part-time as a laundress to support her family.
Indira feels that is best for her to take care of her children alone. “I am a better mother and father to my children – no one should be able to come into my life and hit my kids.” Her first husband left the family years ago, after being physically abusive. Although it’s hard for Indira to support her family alone, she would rather live with her mother than invite someone into her life that could abuse them again. Although it’s not uncommon in Nicaragua for adult children to live with your mother, Indira is wishes she didn’t have to rely on her mother financially. She looked around her humble house and said, “None of this mine. Except the freezer,” she smiled, “the freezer is mine!”
The new freezer helps Indira stock more products for her Mercado Fresco micro-franchise. Since the store is home-based, she is able to be at home to take care of her children while earning an income. Both of her boys have been bullied at school for their differences, and she is grateful to have the opportunity to work from home and support them through those difficult times. You can tell that Indira worries constantly about her children; it preoccupies most of her brain. When asked about her dream, she responded that she only dreams for her boys. Only having had her store for two months, Indira is mostly using the extra money to cover basic living expenses, but she hopes that soon she can afford to buy a computer for her boys. The public schools don’t provide them the individual attention they need, so having extra learning possibilities at home would be a huge benefit.
Indira attributes her successful start with Mercado Fresco to her friendly rapport with her neighbors. Even with the heavy stress each day brings for parents with disadvantaged children, she wakes up at five in the morning and calls out “Good morning everyone!” to her neighbors, starting the day with positivity and energy as she continues to fight for her kids.
Indira has hope for a bright future for herself and her children.
If you are interested in helping women like Indira, please visit: http://www.supplyhope.org/donate-now/
Esmerelda is the mother of three boys, Angel, Javier, and Emmanuel. Her husband works hard doing road construction but the family has struggled to pay their bills and meet their basic needs. Esmerelda applied to become a Mercado Fresco micro-franchise store operator with Supply Hope. This home-based micro-franchise would allow her to be at home with her children while earning and income.
Now, Esmerelda has been able to pay off her long standing bills and become debt free! She can now buy weekly groceries, saving her time and money when before she had do shop on a daily basis if she had the money. She has also been able to buy small household items for her family, like a simple fan, that make the Nicaraguan temperatures more bearable when living without air-conditioning.
Esmerelda wants a better future for her family. She is working hard and has started attending school on Sundays to get her GED. She is now able to pay for school materials and lunches.
With your support, hope can happen!
Roxana was a single mom with a child living with and depending on her grandmother for support. Her grandmother received a small pension but it was not enough to provide for all their needs.
When Roxana heard about the Mercado Fresco micro-franchise, she knew that this would be the perfect solution. Since Mercado Fresco is a home-base fresh market, she is able to stay at home with her grandmother and son…while earning a living!
Now, as a Mercado Fresco store operator, Roxana is able to provide for her family’s needs like never before. She can now buy milk, diapers for her son and proper medical care as needed. This has been a huge blessing for Roxana and her grandmother.
We all want to be able to provide for our family’s needs. And as we continue our work in Nicaragua, we continue to see that one of the greatest needs for the poor is a way to earn a living.
Supply Hope is committed to providing a path out of poverty through micro-franchising!