Humbling and Affirming – Working as a Natik Fellow

Roisin MSV

RoisinRoisin Duffy-Gideon worked as a Natik Fellow in Chiapas, Mexico from August 2012 to May 2013. A few weeks ago, she officially joined the Natik Board of Directors. Below, she reflects on one of her projects for Natik and the some of the lessons she learned over the past year.

It was sometime in September, after four or five hectic weeks of touring Natik’s partner programs in Guatemala and Mexico, that Brooke and I arrived at a product design workshop in Zinacantan, an indigenous municipality in Chiapas. The women participating were members of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida (Women Sowing Life), a cooperative that had recently started receiving small loans from Natik’s partner organization, Veredas. They were meeting to try out new purse designs presented by a fashion and design student from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Puebla, Mexico.

Brooke and I weren’t quite sure what the workshop would be like, but we watched as the women quickly put together prototypes of the student’s designs with recycled materials, easily implemented her advice on how to insert zippers, and made plans to circulate the patterns over the following week. We admired their skill, their creativity, and their astounding resourcefulness. And then we asked them how we could support them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they told us essentially the same thing every artisan working with Natik had told us over the past month: “Help us sell our work.”

We mulled over the possibilities for a while, made notes of the times different women and cooperatives asked us for the same thing, and tried to sell their products when we could. In November, I emailed my family some photos of scarves and placemats made by the women, and I received an unexpected response from several people. “These are beautiful,” was the general sentiment. “Isn’t there some way for us to sell them here?”

Helping set up some sort of sales mechanism certainly was not on the list of priorities for the year, but it seemed like an uncommon opportunity: an undeniable local petition and a simple desire and ability on the part of others. Because of Natik’s flexibility and responsiveness to local conversations, I was able to spend the spring organizing the efforts of several people to establish an Etsy shop, and we are currently exploring other ways to expand through internet-based selling. Progress is slow, but it’s steady.

Spearheading an effort like this is something I probably would not have had the opportunity to do working with a larger organization directly out of college. The opportunity was not only affirming, however, but also humbling. I do not have the skill to design or construct these products, to take beautiful pictures of them, or to create a sophisticated accounting and inventory system to track them. The project could never survive if it were “mine.” And yet I hope it will last as my contribution, something that would have happened differently, or later, had I not been present to do it. The experience has given me the confidence to take on challenging projects, the ability to discern when the skills of others could improve my work, and the humility to ask for help and input.

And you know what the best part is? I get to continue to work on this project! Over the past year, I found not only was Natik committed to building long-lasting relationships with its partner organizations, but it was eager to help me to have a long-lasting relationship, too—even after I left. As a board member, I will continue to coordinate at least a portion of the e-commerce project, and I will be able to offer the perspective I gained by working for a year in direct contact with Natik’s partner organizations.

 P.S. Dolores, Brittany, and Anna are working on a similar endeavor in Guatemala. Stay tuned throughout the summer to hear how it goes!

“Willing to Learn with Us”

Grupo Díaz

Vicki Díaz has received loans from Natik’s partner program, Veredas, in Chiapas, Mexico. In April, we spoke with her about her thoughts on microfinance as part of the Month of Microfinance.

Vicki Díaz is a microfinance recipient in Chiapas, Mexico. She works with her sister, sister-in-law, mother, and daughter in San Cristóbal de las Casas and the surrounding region. The women call themselves the “Grupo Díaz,” and they work together to make and sell tortillas and other corn products, like tamales and atol (a popular local cornflower drink). They originally began to work together on a project to install low-smoke cook stoves in their homes. As a group, the Díaz women were able to raise funds to install new stoves in each of their homes.

The group took off from there. The Veredas microloan project began lending to Vicki and her partners in 2010, as they finished a three-year course in personal development and business. To date, Vicki and her partners have received two loans from Veredas at 2-3% interest, both of which they used for basic materials for their corn products and paid off within three months. “We had already started making tortillas, but the loan helped us expand our business,” Vicki said. Now, the women are looking for larger loans to allow them to expand their business more quickly: “We would like to see bigger loans, so that we can build a new kitchen and tortilla-making area. For instance, right now I have to work outside because there is not enough room in my kitchen to make the tortillas.”

Vicki and her partners also work with a few other women in a cooperative called Siempre Viva, which formed around the same time as the tortilla-making enterprise. Siempre Viva specializes in making herbal soaps and shampoos, and has also received loans through Veredas.

Vicki DíazVicki and her partners have learned a lot through their work. Vicki says, “I’ve learned lots of new recipes that our clients give us, and through Siempre Viva, we learned about natural remedies that we can make to sell and use for our families.” According to the women, they now grow their own beans, corn, fruit, and vegetables; have improved nutrition; and spend less money visiting the doctor than they did before.

For the Díaz women, the opportunity to work together as a family in their own business has been a blessing. All the women have their own consistent customers for the corn products they sell, but when any of them receive a large order or have to prepare products for a citywide event, they join together to help out. Living close to each other, they explain, they can easily meet to talk through problems or conflicts. Vicki suggests that it would be helpful for other microfinance recipients to work in groups: “Clients should form a group; all members should be responsible and punctual and do what they say they are going to do. This way, microfinance can benefit the whole group.”

Vicki also has some advice for microfinance practitioners: “We would ask people involved in microfinance that there continue to be confidence in us, in our ability to do our work, to expand our business, and to be responsible. We will continue working.” She also believes that the loan officer is an important part of the microfinance experience: “A loan officer should be responsible, friendly, and understand us as human beings. Knowing about business is good, but mostly, she must be willing to learn as we go along, as part of the process.” For the most part, Vicki and her partners have had good experiences with their loan officer. She says, “We always laugh when we have our meetings with her [our loan officer]; the meetings are always friendly and relaxed, and we laugh about lots of things as we are getting our work done.”

Vicki not only collaborates on a successful corn products business; she is active in her community and she can often be found raising awareness around important issues with corn hybrids and or conducting trainings for other groups of women. With her partners, she also works at a small restaurant run by another cooperative. It’s easy to find Vicki and the rest of the Grupo Díaz at any community event in San Cristóbal, selling their renowned tamales and chatting with the crowd.

Vicki Díaz

Our Middle Name Is Collaboration

Anna & Students


Anita SmartAnita Smart has been the Executive Director of Natik since 2010 and has lived and worked in Chiapas, Mexico since 1987. Last week, she travelled to Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala to visit Natik’s partner programs there. You can read her reflections below.

As Natik board member Sarah Mawhorter likes to say, Natik’s middle name is Collaboration. One of the perks of my job as director is having relationships with so many remarkable people who all have the same middle name!

I just returned from a visit to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala to personally welcome the most recent Natik family member, Brittany Burton, a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in Denver, Colorado. She is working with us as a Project Development Intern for the summer. Brittany’s name is awkward in Spanish, so we introduced her as “Tany”!  She arrived in Santiago Sunday afternoon, and Monday morning we jumped right into an encounter with the members of Just Apparel. During the meeting we proposed an experiment that will utilize the women’s superior embroidery skills on products that can be offered through the new Just Apparel web site and other e-commerce web platforms. Stay tuned for more details on the project.

Brittany will be wearing many hats this summer and has already started her own personal blog to track her experiences with Just Apparel this summer. 

Accompanying me on the journey to Guatemala was Anna Bramfeld, a bilingual teacher from Chicago. Anna began volunteering with Natik last summer during a month-long visit to Chiapas. She began her second Natik trip last Friday with an exhausting, full-day voyage to Guatemala just twelve hours after landing in Chiapas! On Saturday we met with Dolores, coordinator of Just Apparel and the Secondary School Scholarship Program in Santiago.  On Sunday, Anna and I joined the weekly gathering of scholarship students at the Puerta Abierta Library.  Anna’s enthusiastic interest inspired the students to speak about their motivations for studying and their hopes and dreams for themselves, their families, and their community. We were delighted to learn that a future mayor is among the scholarship students!

On Monday, Anna generously offered to financially sponsor the Just Apparel Artisan Experiment (mentioned above) and decided to stay on in Santiago to help Brittany figure out all the details of fabric, design, color, and embroidered images for each of the products, which you will certainly hear more about later this summer, along with personal reflections from Anna, Brittany, and Dolores.


Welcome to the Natik Blog


Those who know us well know that Natik is all about trying out new ideas and learning through experience. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce you to our latest experiment: blogging. Over the next few months, we’ll be bringing you our up-dates, experiences, and ideas on this page, at least once a week. We hope it will give you a new perspective on our work—through the eyes of our program participants, staff, volunteers, and donors—and provide a space for meaningful conversation and debate about some of the most important issues in development.

 Please feel free to leave us any comments or suggestions you have as we get started and over the life of the blog. This is all about participation!