When climate change dried up their livelihoods — literally — a group of women backed by the World Food Programme turned a traditional craft into a business
By Haydee Paguaga
“It is a beautiful river — it used to be very large, it had fish, but now the water’s gone down so much,” says Elba.
Years of recurring droughts and an erratic climate have taken their toll on the Torola, which courses through the department of Morazán, in eastern El Salvador.
At the age of 67, Elba works as a subsistence farmer and is treasurer of Women with Hope, a cooperative born of the efforts of a group of women who clubbed together to weave hammocks to sell after climate change destroyed their crops.
Elba and her fellow subsistence farmers live in Cacaopera, a municipality within the Dry Corridor — a vast stretch of Central America where drought linked to the El Niño climate phenomenon is pushing more and more people into food insecurity, crushing local economies.
Food insecurity in this area is around 2 percent higher than the national average of 7 percent. In 2015, Elba and other cooperative members took the challenge of transforming their prospects head-on. They organized to start the business of weaving hammocks.
Over a few years, the group’s spirit of entrepreneurship succeeded in taking their traditional craft to the national and international markets.
“We are women with hope, here and everywhere,” says Elba, proudly. Participants are aged 19 to 69. They save money through a cooperative, weave and market hammocks.
At the outset, they held meetings every fortnight, contributing US$1 or less to a savings pool.
In time, they were able to issue loans to members in the greatest need. When they found that this system of empowerment turned a profit, they decided, despite their small incomes, to keep saving — with all of the transactions happening between group members, it was all kept in the family, so to speak.
Elba explains: “With the money we save, we make loans, we don't have to go to a bank, a cooperative or look somewhere else.
“We saw that was very important, for example, if there is a sick person and they need money for a hospital, money to travel or to buy medicines.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic came with all of its challenges. Their savings allowed members to withdraw cash and apply for loans to cover their needs.
WFP support helped the group develop its own hammock brand: Hamacas Marinera.
“They make a lot of orders from us through our Facebook page and the colleagues who have a telephone contact other people to order the hammocks,” says María, a group member who has made hammocks for more than 20 years.
The group delivers the products to customers in San Salvador while also serving Salvadorans abroad. Before joining the cooperative, the women earned about US$5 for each hammock.
Weaving just one hammock took two to three weeks. Today, through the cooperative, they earn US$22 for a four-pole hammock and US$19 for a three-pole hammock.
Through the cooperative, they always have the material in stock to accept large orders, along with the workforce to deliver.
The women opened a shop that during the pandemic served as an oasis for the community — an eight-hour drive from the capital. There is no public transport, and to move outside the community residents must pay for private transport on certain days of the week.
At first, the 'store' was a table with a few items. “People would come and laugh at us, but we would not give up. We knew we were going to succeed,” says group member Delmy. WFP helped provide a prefab structure to replace the table.
Today they have a clean space, electricity, a refrigerator and a scale, shelves and display cases to properly display their products.
They received training on topics such as food handling, nutrition, sales and customer service.
“What people needed at home they bought at the store,” says Elba of COVID-19 lockdowns. “And if the store hadn’t been there, who knows how we would have done."