They achieve success, thanks to a program of small loans

‘This is like a light or a window to the infinite for me,’ said Alexandra Falla of her painting. A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp

Eight years ago Karla Solano was barely making ends meet as she cleaned and worked in the homes of other people.

She envisioned a way that she could pull herself out of this situation through her fondness for knitting.

About seven years ago, she saw her chance. Ms. Solano learned that a government organization was giving out loans to impoverished persons with good ideas and an entrepreneurial drive.

Ms. Solano used that loan to buy materials to make scarves, hats, shirts and other clothing articles and accessories. Her business, Cambiáre, took off from there.

“I’m not poor anymore,” she said.

Ms. Solano, 40, still makes and sells her products at a workshop she has set up in her home in Concepción de Tres Ríos. However, she also sells her products online at and makes a comfortable living.

She told her story in front of a cubicle containing dozens of her products at the Antigua Aduana in eastern San José Tuesday. She had one of the 150 small businesses selling products during the first annual Feria Nacional Empresarial.

A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp
Karla Solano shows Ivianna Blanco a scarf.

The two-day fair began Tuesday and will continue all day today. Small business owners, primarily families, are selling products as common as coffee, strawberries and blouses but also products as uncommon as bean bag chairs, bonsai trees and wood-carved models of cars.

Christmas music, vendors selling hand-made Christmas ornaments as well as tamales set a holiday mood for the event.

The fair was organized by the Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social, the government organization that gave Ms. Solano the loan to start her business. The institute’s goal is to implement policies and initiatives that will end poverty in Costa Rica.

One of the institute’s initiatives is apoyo para la microempresa, which gives financial and technical assistance to persons who want to start a small business. The initiative is particularly designed to assist very poor women and families who have ideas with potential but lack the money to start up.

The businesses featured at this fair are the greatest success stories of people who have turned their lives around using this initiative, said Mayra Diaz, general manager of the agency.

“We have these businesses here today so that they can present their products, so that they can have business between each other and so that the country can get to know them and buy their products,” said Ms. Diaz.

The institute operates 10 regional offices throughout the country. Each office selected 15 successful businesses to have booths at the fair.

A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp
Karla Solano shows Ivianna Blanco a scarf.

Ivannia Blanca, vice-mayor of Moravia, and Lorena Solís stopped at Ms. Solano’s booth to look at some of her clothing products. Ms. Blanca said that she was there to get to know these women, especially from her canton, and to reward them for their efforts with her business.

“The local government wants to empower women of the canton through the initiatives that IMAS offers,” said Ms. Blanca. “What I’m doing is learning about women selling their own products.”

For two shoppers, Yalile and her mother Jazmín, this fair is unique because the products and the people who sell them are much more genuine.

“This is different from other fairs because each person has a different product,” said the daughter.

“The people from these towns are more friendly,” added the mother.

One booth they stopped at was that of Montesland, a quail farm in Atenas. Eduardo Hidalgo, his wife, Jenny Gatgens, and their children all do their share to make the 5-year-old business successful.

“It’s a family business,” said Ms. Gatgens. “We have four children, and everybody works.

Their table featured hard-boiled quail eggs to sample, but the family also sells eggs in different forms as well as quail meat.

Hidalgo worked at a similar farm in Colombia and decided to start his own business in Costa Rica. They originally got funds from a bank, but along the way, the couple also received funds from the institute.

Passionate about green sustainable farming, Hidalgo said that he hopes that he can start selling the products abroad to customers who share these values.

“In this moment we have the product permissions, and we just need contacts to export our products,” he said.

Across the hall, Alexandra Fallas, 39, sat at a booth that she had filled with landscapes she had painted of scenery near her home in San Clemente, Limón. Her paintings feature majestic scenes of waterfalls, beaches, and forests, as well as more mundane but equally stimulating images of homes and railroad tracks in the area.

“I like to capture that which is typical in Limón,” said Ms. Fallas. She added she has been painting her surroundings since she was very young.

She explained the mental process she goes through when painting an image with exuberant rapidity. She said that she starts with a vague image and colors in her mind, and then goes blank while she paints until the piece is completed.

She started her business, Artesana y Pintura Alexandra, three years ago when she received a loan from the institute. She designed clothes and painted images before that, but she said the loan allowed her to start using high quality materials for her business.

She said that the fair is very important for her because it allows her to make contacts with people who want to commission pieces from her.

“It’s important because it lets me meet people,” said Ms. Fallas. “I can get opinions from other people to better my work.”

The fair will continue today from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. The Antigua Aduana is on Calle 23 in San José and admission is free.

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