Karen Yesenia Torres Villamizar grew up surrounded by sweets. For her entire life, her mother, Ofelmina, has made specialty wafers and sweets in their family-owned confectionery business in Piedecuesta, Bucaramanga, in Colombia. Ofelmina taught her daughters how to make her special recipes, and now 21-year-old Karen runs the business’ storefront, called La Torre Dulceria. Karen and her sister have taken on a leading role in the business, but their mother is still their guide. “My mother is the engine, she takes care of everything,” says Karen.
Karen decided to open La Torre Dulceria’s retail store to expand her family’s wholesale business and sell directly to local customers. But the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to shut down their business permanently as customers could no longer visit her store and providers were hard to reach. Karen found a way to keep her business open for delivery by promoting and selling their sweets online — with help from Accion’s interactive edtech platform, Ovante.
Selling traditional wafers in a modern way
Karen’s confectionary business makes obleas, a popular Colombian dessert made of wafers with a sweet filling. She and her family make their handmade, preservative-free obleas with both traditional and unconventional sweet fillings like strawberries, passion fruit, chocolate, caramel, and M&M’s. Like countless small businesses around the world, La Torre Dulceria took a big hit in March when the COVID-19 spread to Colombia and customers couldn’t visit the store. “At first it was hard,” said Karen. “Sales were obviously lower because of chaos and fear. We even thought about closing for good, but after a week or so we realized that everything could be adapted and everything could be delivered, and — you know — it is all about adapting.”
The sudden hardship and need to adapt propelled Karen into action. Her business had always been cash-based, and Karen only sold to her customers in-person at her physical store. She started thinking creatively to find ways of selling wafers without face-to-face interaction. She decided to use social media to connect with her regular customers online and expand her market. Karen was already familiar with social media networks like Facebook and Instagram, but she learned about their potential to strengthen her business from Ovante. “Now everything is on social media,” says Karen of her new online sales. “Our biggest weapon is really that: social media.” Karen was given access to Ovante by Fundación dela Mujer, her mother’s financial provider, to help them strengthen their business.
Karen attributes the rise in sales from new customers to social media, describing it “like a wave, so when people try the product, they like it and they post it on their social media pages, and more and more people see it.” She’s selling on Instagram, Facebook, and her city’s digital directory. She hired a delivery person to carefully deliver her online orders to customers’ homes by moped, taking care not to damage the delicate wafers and sweets. Karen also knew from Ovante that she needed to be able to accept payments online. She added digital payment options to accept online payments from multiple vendors.
Developing business skills through online education
Before the pandemic began, Karen was one of the 15,000 Colombian microentrepreneurs who received access to Ovante, an interactive digital platform designed by Accion Global Advisory Solutions, and made possible by support from FedEx. Ovante helps entrepreneurs develop digital understanding and business management skills and learn how to use financial products and services through a series of interactive modules. Ovante users build healthy financial behaviors so they can be resilient and plan for a better future. The pandemic was a spark for Karen to accelerate the plans she put together through Ovante to build a digital presence and use the internet to lift her business. “I found [Ovante] to be very practical. It taught me a lot that you don’t take into account, or you aren’t aware of, or maybe you thought weren’t important. I did learn a lot on the platform. I even put several things into practice that have served me well. I’d say the course is very good,” says Karen. Once she gained knowledge and confidence from Ovante, Karen was empowered to leverage digital tools to open opportunity for her business.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a devastating toll on low-income populations in Colombia and around the world. In its wake, the digital divide between the under-connected and hyper-connected is deepening. This time of crisis presents an opportunity and an urgent need to close the digital divide. Edtech, or educational technology, can help microentrepreneurs and informal workers acquire new skills and enter the digital economy — a critical move as the pandemic forces businesses online. Edtech platforms like Ovante provide easily accessible resources and information at a low cost. Ovante incorporates insights from Accion’s decades of experience providing financial skills training and education to empower entrepreneurs to improve their businesses in real-time. Ovante was designed using principles of human-centered design to offer practical, easy-to-use tools that incentivize behavioral change and help people overcome mental barriers and build confidence.
Participants can take Ovante’s courses from home on their mobile devices and on a flexible schedule that works for their lifestyle. Karen takes her courses at home with her mother. Access to an edtech tool like Ovante gave her the knowledge and the confidence to implement the changes needed to save her business. “I think that the pandemic is obviously bad, but I feel that it drove me [to keep going]. Thankfully we have done very well, and sales have gone up a little.”
Six months into her new model, Karen isn’t slowing down or losing optimism, saying, “I feel very good, more motivated than ever. The pandemic also made me understand that we must adapt and not stop dreaming. You have to keep moving ahead no matter what.”
Learn how accelerating the adoption of edtech platforms can power financial inclusion during the pandemic in our webinar, Edtech can close the digital divide in Latin America.
To learn more about Ovante, and how the tool may help your customers enter and adapt to the digital economy, please reach out to us and let us know how we can support you.