The Family Breadwinner
How one woman overcame poverty with the help of an oven.
It’s 2 a.m. and Chepita Caballero is already starting her day in La Trinidad, Nicaragua. This early in the morning the only noises that fill the cool darkness are the occasional calls of the neighbors’ roosters and the intermittent hum of trucks making their way down the Pan-American Highway.
When she flips the light switch, the dim bulbs just barely illuminate the mountains of empty tin trays stacked chest-high across the sizable room. A worktable, several chairs, and piles of fifty pound flour bags are scattered throughout the space. It’s calm right now, but Chepita knows in another couple of hours it will be far from it. She grabs a large bowl and combines water, flour, sugar, yeast, butter, and eggs. She then begins to mix.
By the time 8 a.m. rolls around, the two large brick ovens have already been fired up and trays full of dough bake inside. Just a few minutes later, a heap of freshly made bread is pulled out and placed aside to cool. The next batch goes in the oven.
It’s hard work, but Chepita never thought owning her own business would be a piece of cake. Each week, she and her ten employees produce and package two tons of baked goods that are distributed all across Matagalpa. In total, they bake twenty different products including an assortment of cookies and breads. But what may be more impressive than the bakery itself, is how it all came to be.
It wasn’t that long ago that Chepita was jobless and in search of opportunity. As fate would have it, EOS International Country Director, Alvaro Rodriguez, was looking for someone just like her. A nonprofit focused on giving Nicaraguans opportunities to improve their health, generate wealth, and preserve the environment, EOS International has improved over 167,000 lives in Nicaragua since its formation in 2008.
Their fuel-efficient oven is among several of the simple, life-changing technologies EOS builds and installs in different communities. The oven, which consists of a metal barrel surrounded by clay and brick, stands about four feet tall. The ovens are safer to use than traditional Nicaraguan ovens and use ninety percent less firewood, reducing deforestation and preserving the environment. Moreover, the efficiency of these ovens save families much needed money that would be used to purchase firewood. These savings are significant when living in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere where the average income is less than two dollars a day.
Alvaro happened to be a friend of Chepita’s sister, who knew he was installing fuel-efficient ovens in the communities surrounding San Isidro, where the EOS offices are located. So, Chepita took a chance.
She had learned how to bake from her sister-in-law awhile back and thought she just might be able to make it as a baker. The next thing Chepita knew, she had an oven. The first loan she was able to procure allowed her to bake 100lbs of bread. Her second loan allowed for 800lbs and another oven. The process continued.
A few years later Chepita stands in her bakery a little larger than a two-stall garage where the sweet smell of cookies permeates the air. Light filters in from both the doorway and the translucent blue panels scattered about her tin roof. It’s early afternoon now, and the bakery is absolutely bustling.
Two employees shape dough into cookies and bread loafs while another two feverishly shove the dough into the ovens and pull out the finished products. Another man moves the finished goods to the packaging area where a young man and woman seal them in plastic bags.
All the while Chepita stands supervising her employees, many of them family members, many of them previously unemployed. Her husband, son, and three daughters are all a part of the family business. Some pack, some sell, and one of her daughters takes care of the accounting and administration, which she went to school for a few years before the bakery opened.
By now, Chepita and her family have outgrown EOS’ fuel-efficient ovens and in their place stand two industrial-sized brick ovens heated by propane-fueled torches, which are better able to produce the mountains of baked goods awaiting delivery around the Nicaraguan countryside. As amazing as Chepita’s story is, it is not unique.
Almost an hour away in the rural village of El Tule, several women stand in their home delicately shaping dough into triangular cookies and placing a spoonful of red pineapple jam into the center, a popular treat named rosquillas con piña. The group consists of several neighboring women working as a cooperative and sharing an oven. After preparing the rosquillas and situating them neatly on a tray, they are laid on the roof to dry before finally being placed in their newly installed oven just outside the home.
As the women diligently shape dough in the waning afternoon hours, the local school adjourns and their children return home. The kids cheerfully approach and stick their heads into the living room turned bakery to say hello. The women look up at the silhouetted children standing in the doorway to answer the greeting then return to the task at hand.
Watching the group work, it’s hard not to think of Chepita and her journey from struggling mother to successful entrepreneur. It’s hard not to imagine these women on a similar quest. And it’s certainly hard not to see that their future is already growing noticeably brighter.
The only hard part to grasp is that it’s all because of a simple oven.
Create a better future with EOS International
Our 2,325 installations of simple, inexpensive, and locally serviceable technologies have helped over 534,167 Central Americans access safe drinking water and opportunities to generate income. Please help us invest in the future of millions of Nicaraguans by supporting EOS International.
Photos & Story by Slade Kemmet (www.sladekemmet.com)