Monday, November 24, 2014

Top 20 Countdown #7: Started World's 1st Worker-Owned Free Trade Zone

After the Hurricane Mitch resettlement camp Nueva Vida was established up the road from us in November 1998, we helped folks in that community to identify their most urgent needs.  Employment was top on their list with health care coming in second.  Therefore, in 1999 we started working on two possible businesses with women and men in Nueva Vida.

The concrete construction materials business was the first and easiest to get up and running.  We had much of the needed equipment here…sand was easy to find and dig up…just needed the cement and a block press.  The business hired men and women and they made building concrete blocks, concrete poles, losetas (slabs of concrete to slide into the grooves on the support poles), and concrete paving stones.

The second was a larger enterprise…a women’s sewing cooperative.  Before the project got started, it already had a market, Maggie’s Organics.  Maggie’s Organics needed a cut and sew line for their organic cotton clothing because the last factory they used in the States had closed.

But the market was all we had.  There was no building.  These women built their factory with the those concrete materials, with volunteer labor, with Rogelio and his crew, and with their own hands….they worked hard.

They had no cutting or sewing skills.  They got training and learned.

They lacked production skills and job skills (they'd only worked in the informal sector, mostly as street vendors, so showing up at 8AM and staying until 5PM did not come automatically). They lacked managerial skills, computer skills, accounting skills, English…these were poor, unskilled women living in temporary housing in the mud in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch…and Becca, Mike, Sarah and others taught and walked them through the complexities of running a business.

Mike found them markets and worked with them on cooperative organization, while Becca worked with them in production and management.

Sarah made them patterns so they could sew unique clothing tops like a cross top.  She learned the machinery and taught them how to cut.  She taught them how to keep up with their count of t-shirts.

In 2002, they completed their first order of t-shirts (their first true order was in 2001 for hair scrunches made out of t-shirt material).  Three thousand t-shirts for Ethical Threads…we ALL stayed up all night with them, counting, boxing, filling out papers, making coffee, overseeing the production and quality of sewing…and the stress of getting it out the door!  What a celebration when those t-shirts were gone!

It wasn’t long before they were sewing 20 - 40,000 t-shirts for an order.  Sarah, with their input, designed them a logo.  Becca and another staff member, Emily, helped them get two grants for their infrastructure and capital.  At one point they hired 76 additional workers.

But like with most businesses, there were setbacks.  The women really had a hard time working together and calling each other into accountability. Getting organic cloth became more and more difficult and it was always imported.  Handling their own sales and markets was hard and exports were problematic.

Photo by Kelly Doering
They applied for free trade zone status and got it in 2004, making them the world’s first worker-owned Free Trade Zone…their name became the Fair Trade Zone, and they could now import raw materials duty-free and export with more ease.  Several of them went on speaking tours and one accompanied Mike to the Fair Trade conference in Mexico.  They talked to CNN, Telemundo, and BBC and their confidence grew.

In 2007 they chose to become independent of the CDCA, to find their own markets, organize their own production, etc. 

But it's been tough.  They have lost clients due to late and incomplete orders, and they've lost members as well.  But they've kept their doors open, and they still go to work each day.  They have not made payments on their start-up loans from the CDCA, which at times has caused cash flow problems for our revolving loan fund.  They have on occasion asked us to step back in to help, but have not written a letter stating exactly what they need from the CDCA. 

Yet, they have grown as women in confidence and pride.

As of this writing, Benรก Burda of Maggie’s Organics is hoping to come and meet with the cooperative in December to see if there can be another chance at making something work with them.


Counting down to #GivingTuesday on December 2nd, we’re highlighting the CDCA’s accomplishments over our 20 years in Nicaragua. Follow our countdown in this blog, on Facebook and TwitterHelp us keep doing more by giving $20. Our goal is to raise $20,000.