This husband and wife team in Bolivia began producing personal protective equipment (PPE) to help their community and keep their business afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
For Carolina Cano Huanca, making clothes has always been a family affair. “I started because of my brother,” she says, “He was working in Argentina making clothes, and when he came back, he had the idea to start a workshop. He bought some machines, and then I got interested.” Eventually, she expanded her sewing skills and began designing her own garments and products. “I first bought a sewing machine, and I would make clothes for others, but I realized that did not fulfill me. I wanted to make my own creation. I wanted to make it myself, the whole thing.”
Equipped with a newfound passion for design and her own sewing machine, Carolina decided to open a garment business in her hometown of La Paz, Bolivia. She’s worked side-by-side with her husband Rómulo Ferrel Rodríguez since they got married ten years ago. They use the income from their business to provide for their family and build a future for their four young children. Carolina wants to “give them stability, make them study everything they want, and to be able to help them do anything they would like to do. Out of everything, that is what motivates me the most.”
Filling a need for their community during the pandemic
Today, Carolina and Rómulo are facing very difficult circumstances: keeping their small business afloat while the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts life in Bolivia. Before the pandemic, the bulk of their income came from contracts with schools, businesses, and sports teams. Once schools closed and sports seasons were called off, all of their orders were suddenly canceled — even though they had already purchased the raw materials to fill them. “We could not do anything,” explains Carolina, “At first it was very hard because we thought that this was going to last less time. But with this being prolonged, my husband and I talked about having to do something, we had to adapt to this situation because we did not have any other option.”
So, they pivoted their business to fill the growing need for personal protective equipment (PPE) in their community by producing biosecurity suits. Biosecurity suits are worn on top of clothing to protect people from viruses and other biohazards. During the COVID-19 pandemic, PPE has become a necessity for many people who must return to work despite the continuing spread of the virus in Bolivia. Carolina and Rómulo decided to produce these protective suits and put their own spin on a new design. Instead of the typical one-piece style, they’ve created a more comfortable two-piece design made of lightweight, waterproof material. Though their income is not what it was before the pandemic, they’ve kept their prices low so that the suits are accessible to those that need them. “That is a way in which I want to contribute. We are offering lower prices so that [people] can take care of themselves,” says Carolina.
“BancoSol helped us grow as a family, as a microenterprise.”
Right from the start, Carolina and Rómulo realized how difficult it was to start a business with their own money and knew they needed help to grow their business. By working with BancoSol, a commercial bank serving small and micro businesses in Bolivia, they’ve been able to purchase the machinery and raw materials they need to grow. “The most positive change that BancoSol has made for us was to trust us as clients. The trust BancoSol gave us, I believe that is the fundamental support that every microentrepreneur needs,” says Rómulo, “BancoSol helped us grow as a family, as a microenterprise.” With continued trust and support from BancoSol, they can continue working during the pandemic.
Since the pandemic has unfolded, BancoSol has been working to assist their small business clients. Together with Accion, they developed data-driven customer segments to better understand their clients’ business needs during this time. They’re incorporating these findings into a new mobile saving application that leverages gamification to enhance user engagement. By evaluating entrepreneurs’ mindsets, use of administrative tools, potential for growth, and technological savviness, they can group customers with similar needs and provide targeted solutions to help entrepreneurs reinvest in their businesses. We’re currently working with BancoSol as part of our ongoing efforts with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth to drive the digital transformation of millions of microbusinesses and the financial institutions that serve them.
Fighting to move forward
This pandemic has threatened the livelihoods of entrepreneurs everywhere, especially those small and microentrepreneurs that were already vulnerable to challenges. But Rómulo has found a silver lining: “As a family, it has affected us economically, but the good thing about this pandemic is that as a family, we have been able to unite much more; with my wife, my children — we have been able to interact more. For every bad thing in our family, we are able to bring out the good, that the family has gotten closer.”
As an entrepreneur, he and Carolina have overcome past challenges and grown from them. Rómulo is optimistic about the spirit of Bolivians during this crisis, saying, “There are entrepreneurs, fighters, who adapt to change rapidly. Just how it has happened in this pandemic. There are people who have turned 180 degrees to move forward, to continue the fight. I think that what characterizes Bolivians is the fight to keep going, to keep growing.” He and Carolina are doing just that.