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Harvesting Agave For Bath Sponges

By Katherine Zavala, Thousand Currents Regional Director, Latin America

Today I traveled 2 hours north of Mexico City to the state of Hidalgo. Hidalgo’s capital is Pachuca. 45 minutes from Pachuca is the municipality Ismiquilpan, where staff from Ñepi Behña introduced me to the indigenous communities of the region called Valle de Mezquital.

Migration is a big problem in this community. As men migrate to cities in search of work, women are the ones that are left with the burden of caring for children, maintaining the house and finding some work to support the family until a remittance arrives.

About 20 years ago, the women in these communities organized a cooperative to sell natural beauty products to The Body Shop. Agave, known locally as maguey, is grown here. The women go through an arduous process to extract the fibers from the agave, which they then knit into bath sponges. Ñepi Behña has been assisting the cooperative by providing leadership development workshops to strengthen the cooperative and ensure its sustainability.

I met with the Cooperative Board who told me there are 250 women members from 5 communities participating in the cooperative. They have organized the cooperative into different committees to improve communication and coordination among themselves. Now they have committees of product quality, packing supervision, informing members of meetings, trainers, sales and problem solving. They have a Board with a President, Secretary and Treasurer that leads the committees.

I than had the great opportunity of being shown through the process of making a sponge, from chopping off a huge agave leave from the plant, to removing the moisture to reveal the fibers, to spinning the fibers into a thread. Seeing the whole process made me realize how time-consuming and labor-intensive it is. 8 big agave leaves are needed to make enough fiber for one bath sponge. And it takes at least 6 hours to have enough fiber ready for making the sponge. Unsurprisingly during my time there everyone was either knitting or manually spinning the fiber into string while talking to me.

Many of these women also save the money they earn with cooperative group savings plans. Women from the cooperative are trained to collect and track money from their peers. The administrator of this program called Las Abejitas (Little Bees) then deposits the money in a bank account. At the end of the year, they hand out savings interests to the women based on how consistently they saved and not by how much they put in. “It’s a way to put more value on the habit of saving even though it can be a minimal amount,” says Luciana, the administrator of Las Abejitas.

It was a great experience to see how these women are empowering and supporting themselves to initiate local economic opportunities. Plus it was fascinating to learn how everyday Body Shop products are made and supporting each other.

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