Times are changing in Cuba, you can see it slowly happening, even though the US trade embargo is still in place. The country won’t move dramatically forward like China, but it will be a slow evolution similar to Vietnam. Normal relations with the USA will slowly start in 2016, with the introduction of charter flights from Miami. So why will women entrepreneurs in Cuba have this incredible opportunity for business success? Because they are smart and ingenious. Let’s introduce you to a few enterprising women.
Darius – Jobsite Superintendent
We met Darius at our hotel. She is in her early 40’s and head of the jobsite for an extension to the hotel’s main dining room. Not your typical jobsite superintendent. Every day she appeared on the jobsite, looking awesome. Panama hat, stylish clothes and PINK shoes. No pink work boots and no hardhats, as the worker safety rules are different than those in North America. We asked Darius about working in a male environment she said “the men respect what I have to say, I have a checklist of items that have to be covered every day and I make sure everything gets done. I’m on the jobsite at 7:00 am for the whole day just like the crew”.
Luba – Independent Tour Guide
Meet Luba. With a university education and excellent English, Luba can earn as much as 500 pesos a month as a tour guide. This doesn’t sound like much money, but the average monthly salary is only 12-24 pesos a month. She is connected to lifeguards and waiters at the hotels in Varadero who act as agents. When they see groups of tourists on the resort grounds they are able to recruit people for the tours. Luba arranges the transportation and individualizes the tours for the tourists. This is a personalized experience for the groups. If you want to dine in Old Havana at one of the mini restaurants, or see specific sites, Luba arranges all that quickly. What does she have to say about being a tour guide? “I love meeting so many different tourists from different countries. Most of them come from Canada or Europe with a few Americans who get humanitarian visas or come via Canada or Mexico. These visitors are looking for a different experience than the large tour operators, so my business operates in a different space to theirs and is not really in direct competition. Before 2010, my kind of business was not allowed, but now it is and I can keep my profits.”
The Informal Economy is Alive and Well
There are notices at the hotel saying tipping is not allowed, but we tipped and saw tipping all week during our stay. Giving the staff tips meant the service you receive is extraordinary. 5 pesos to a tourist is nothing but to a Cuban it is an enormous amount. Take the wait staff or maids, they can pocket at least 750 pesos a month, because they work 16 hour days and serve so many tourists. 2 million tourists travel to Cuba per year, 1 million from Canada, many from Europe and approximately 60,000 Americans who either come on a humanitarian visa, or come via Canada or Mexico.
The average stay in Cuba is only 7 days, so every 7 days they are able to earn more tips from incoming guests. The richest women in Cuba are those that are in the tourist service area. They are also very creative in how they create their opportunities. Our maid, Barbara left this little handwritten note on the bed.
She let us know two days ahead when her day off would be. Knowing that, we put together a little package for her, (bottle of rum, toothbrushes and toothpaste, couple of blouses, and 5 pesos). What will she do with that stuff? She will take the clothes, toothbrushes, toothpaste and rum and re-sell them within her own community. That’s 100 percent profit for her because we gave them as gifts. She probably cleans up to 60 rooms per week and accumulates lots of cash and gifts. Some maids get so much given to them, they do not have room to store the items in their own homes and need to rent space!
Gail from Duncare Cleaning Services (part of our mastermind group) said that it would be easy to set up a complete cleaning company in Cuba, because the costs wouldn’t be too high. The transportation issue could be overcome by renting a van to transport the maids to the smaller hotels in the area that would need this type of service. It would be cheaper for the hotels to use a cleaning service rather than having a staff of their own maids.
Meet Tania, an independent taxi driver contractor.
Yes, this funny little yellow vehicle is a taxi. There are 11 million people in Cuba, but only 1 million drivers’ licences. Tania is one of the few women taxi drivers. This day it was raining and she was in yellow foul weather gear, wearing what looked like motorcycle goggles. She sits up front in a driver’s seat. She has room for 2 passengers behind her. The route is from the resort hotels in Varadero into town (approx. 10 minute drive. Unfortunately you can’t see her face in the picture. She spoke excellent English and loves meeting all the tourists. Talking about her unusual career she said, “I like being able to meet so many interesting tourists (lots of Canadians) and practice my English. I get great tips so it is becoming a business for me that helps my family income.”
Equal Opportunities for Women
50% of Women in Cuba have higher education and Government Policy is geared towards equal opportunity.
Women in the workforce is now at the 40% level. Only 10% of the women have reached management positions due mainly to lack of role models, mentoring and networking opportunities. Relevant ministries and institutions have developed programmes to help change socio-cultural patterns. There are also programmes to educate women about exercising their rights. Efforts are made to provide more training for women and opportunities for redeployment.
The most important non-Govermental group is the Federación de las Mujeres Cubanas (FMC). The FMC is recognized by the constitution as the responsible body for promoting policies for the advancement of women. The FMC represents a large proportion of women in Cuba. 85% of Cuban women are members of the FMC and they enable and influence government policies and decisions. The FMC is represented in all the regions of the country, even at local level. It organizes seminars and lectures about topics related to equal opportunities. The FMC plays an important role in the empowerment of women.
Under the Government of Raúl Castro, since 2010, the economy is now open to private sector businesses. If you have your own business, you are allowed to keep the profits. There are now approximately 102 authorized areas for business development, many of them linked to tourism, agriculture and medical tourism. Despite the mountains of paperwork, and lack of seed capital, this means any woman who can start a business in any one of these 102 sanctioned businesses. These are areas where women can excel, ie tour guides, hairdressers, medical procedures for foreigners, family restaurants, homestyle restaurants (serving up to 15 people). Non-traditional sectors are also opening up for women such as masonry and other construction areas.
So what is the future for women entrepreneurs in Cuba? Seed capital can be an issue for Cuban women. However, if there is access to family in Miami, family loans could help kick start more enterprising businesses in Cuba. For example, a family hair salon in Miami would be able to sponsor a similar business in Cuba (perhaps an independent salon at the hotels in the tourist areas of Havana, Varadera and Holguin. Other businesses can migrate from solopreneurs (room maids) to cleaning services.
In the Eastern parts of Cuba, far away from the spotlight, where tourists don’t go, women have been quietly driving change. Oxfam focused on these rural women She-roes and said
these women have to push the limits and to make change happen.
Oxfam and Cuba‘s National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) did discover them though, as part of a process in which they were not the specific focus. With funding from the European Union, the Basque Agency for Development Cooperation and the Japanese Embassy in Cuba, thousands of people from 85 cooperatives across three Cuban provinces and ten municipalities would benefit from a project aimed at supporting urban and suburban agriculture, with the reduction of gender-based disparities in Cuba‘s rural communities considered a complementary area of activity. But the magnetism of these women, their ability to rewrite the rules and push the limits of their own reality would end up turning their stories into one of the focal points of this project over the course of the five years.
Now that the US is investing into Cuba, by building new hotels and buying up and remodelling the older ones, the future is bright in the next 10 years for women to start their own businesses. Since a doctor only earns 25 CUC (convertible pesos) a MONTH, then entrepreneurship is looking pretty inviting. Doctors will be able to create for profit businesses for themselves in the future, by specializing in cosmetic procedures, bariatric surgery and cancer treatments for overseas visitors. Women could excel in these areas, too.
24 CUC sounds like a ridiculous amount to live on, but housing and electricity are only a few pesos a month. There is also a sugar allowance per family and a typical menu item in Havana restaurants is only .45 per person if you are Cuban, but 10.00 pesos for tourists. So although you wouldn’t be rich on 24 CUC per month, you can live ok, especially since education and healthcare are completely free for Cubans.
What is coming…a little fear by Cubans as change is about to happen and they are uncertain about the future. Among the changes could be a huge reduction in government workers and the turnaround towards a for profit economy. Not all will be good, but if managed properly by the Government, interesting times and great opportunities for entrepreneurial women may be in the future.