About an hour south of León there is a small sea-side fishing town called El Tránsito. And ten years ago, a an American woman founded a center called “El Tránsito Centro de Artes,” or “El Tránsito Arts Center,” (ETCA) in the center of town. The original intent of the center was to provide an avenue for income generation by teaching women from the community how to sew and embroider little handicrafts.
El Tránsito is a small town, and most of the income for the community comes from fishing. It is not very stable, and like many communities in Nicaragua, there is a lot of poverty. El Tránsito is known for having excellent surf, and recently a number of surf lodges have set up shop. I’ve been to the town twice and there are a lot of gringos strolling around.
To this day ETCA is still up and running. In addition to the handicrafts studio, ETCA has a community library with a part-time librarian, a turtle egg sanctuary on the beach, and will be using AirBnB soon to rent some rooms. They have also given out micro-loans in the past and still support a few university scholarships for locals. It’s really a nice center. Just think about how cool that is for a second. A small, poor fishing village has an arts center, childrens’ library open five days a week, educational, cultural, and environmental activities, and on top of all of that is trying to improve the livelihoods of members of the community. It’s a cause I can get behind.
However, to this day ETCA is still primarily financially supported by the American woman. It is not self-sustaining, even though they have marketable products. Through some contacts that I’ve made I met the American founder, and she invited me for a visit and to see if I could help with the sustainability aspect of ETCA.
To give you some insight into how I go about my work, when I visit a new business and/or community I spend my time talking to people, asking lots of questions, and trying to figure out the basic structures, networks, and systems of the community. I want to know if there is electric and running water. Is there a health post? A high school? Since it is a beach-side community, has the Defensa Civil installed tsunami warning sirens? What are the main economic activities? How do people make money? What about access and transportation? What government organizations and NGO’s are present in the community?
El Tránsito has sometimes running water and power. There is a health post that is attended to part-time by a doctor or nurse, and there is a high school. Access to the town is poor. From the highway it is 14 unpaved kilometers. Three buses leave early in the morning for Managua and come back in the afternoon. If you are not on one of those buses you have to hope to hitchhike up or down those 14 km. El Tránsito is in a hard situation. I’ve seen worse, but it is still challenging for them.
As for ETCA itself, it is set up so that the women are paid based on the numbers of items that they produce. However, they are not responsible for sales. This “contractor” arrangement creates an incentive for the women to seek a lot of production, regardless of costs and sales. So I’ll definitely have to work with them on sales (for which I see a ton of options) and on possibly changing the structure of the collective so that the women have more of a stake in the business.
On the grounds of ETCA there is also a brick pizza oven that a missionary group from Sacramento made two years ago. It has gone nearly unused. The administrator of ETCA expressed interest in learning to make pizza and selling it to surfers, so I organized a full-day workshop for ETCA. It was yesterday.
The workshop went very well. As usual, I started started by having the ladies draw their personal goals. One of the ladies drew rain. El Niño has made this rainy season very very dry. We’ve been in a heat-wave the last two weeks, the air is extremely dusty, and the crops are dying. but I told her that was a dream, not a goal, and to hit the drawing board again.
After we talked about personal goals we went on to the themes of savings, entrepreneurship, marketing, and sales. Most of the afternoon was dedicated to a pizza demonstration. Alex, a fellow Volunteer from the Environment sector who has experience with wood burning ovens came down from Telica to teach the ladies the art of pizza.
Our experiment did have its challenges. The dome of the oven cracked, and at first the oven was not hot enough. Plus, getting the pizza in and out of the oven itself was a challenge. Then we were making the crust too thick. But finally, using an innovative pre-bake process, we were making some awesome brick oven wood fired artesanal pizza. I even forced the ladies out of their comfort zone and out into the community to try and sell some pizza, and sure enough we sold two personal pizzas.
There are more challenges ahead for the ladies. Running a pizzeria in El Tránsito is nothing like running a pizzeria in the US. There are no restaurant supply trucks running to El Tránsito. A trip to Managua for supplies is an all day affair. Plus, the ladies are under-educated, but I am more than happy to help them with business administration. I’m going to set up a series of training sessions with them. I may also work on personal finance with them. I hope someone will give me a ride down those 14 km!
And sure enough, after the last pizza was baked and we were cleaning up, it started to rain.