Women having their cake (and e-commerce too)

Cakes and computers are Mara del Carmen Vucetich's passions.

And although the two objects may not seem to have a lot in common, the Lima housewife has come up with a way to combine the two. Now she goes into cyberspace to provide her family a second income without leaving her home -or her cake pans.

Her idea is Tortas Peru, an e-business targeting the 2 million Peruvians who live outside Peru -primarily in the United States -and who might like to send family and friends back home something with a personal touch, like a homemade torta, or cake.

"I love to bake cakes, but I also like computers," says Mrs. Vucetich. "This business allows me to do both."

Her entrepreneurial success mirrors that of a growing number of women throughout the developing world. From Peru to Mexico and India, women whose cultures might impede them from working outside the home are having an easier time starting businesses - with the help of everything from microfinance loans to increased Internet access. In fact, an entire forum at last week's UN Women's Conference in New York was dedicated to bridging the digital divide among third world women. Besides the Peruvian pastry chefs, women in Cameroon are now hawking handmade baskets to an international cyberclientele.

By ordering through the Tortas site (www.tortasperu.com.pe), Pedro in San Francisco or Maria in Miami can send a homemade cake to his mama in Cusco - prepared and delivered by another mama in the Tortas network of home bakers. So far, Tortas Peru covers seven Peruvian cities. But by August, Vucetich and her husband, Edwin San Rman, plan to extend the baking network across the country.

With plans moving forward with help from a US-Peru Internet venture for the home-baked-cake business to move into other countries, ovens across Latin America could soon be baking cakes ordered a continent away over the Internet.

By setting up a network of women around Peru to bake cakes ordered for their area, Tortas Peru is helping mothers settle a conflict they faced between finding a job or being with their children.

And since working with Tortas Peru will require knowledge of and access to the Internet to receive and complete cake orders, the job will promote computer literacy among women who might otherwise have missed the cyberage.

Between preparing cakes (average price $20) ordered in the US for delivery in Miraflores and Callao, two communities near Lima, Vucetich explains why participating in her business can mean more for women than just baking.

"This is a way for women to become comfortable with technology," she says.

"For them it can open so many possibilities. But for us it's a requirement," she adds, "because it's the only way a business dependent on communication, mostly at long distances, can operate inexpensively."

In a country where most of the 25 million residents don't even have a telephone and less than 3 percent of homes have a computer, becoming part of Tortas Peru's cake-baking network might seem limited to a very thin economic upper crust of Peruvian women. Fortunately for Tortas Peru, Peru has an innovative national network of public computer booths where Internet access is cheaper than phone calls.

Created by Red Cientifica Peruana (RCP), Peru's top Internet service provider, the 600 centers with Internet access make participating in the network, well, a piece of cake.

"I admit I don't know a lot about the Internet, but going to the cabinas (booths) is helping me get used to it," says Adriana Valdivia of Ica, Peru, who just took an introductory baking business class in Lima and is now joining the cake network. "Working in this project is forcing me to learn a lot, but I figure that's always a good thing."

Mrs. Valdivia said she was looking for a job "but there's not a lot of work open to women in Peru," a country with double-digit unemployment.

And while home cake-baking might not sound like a big money maker, it shouldn't take too many orders to provide a housewife with an income above Peru's minimum wage, says Mr. San Rman, an electrical engineer.

"We've done studies showing that with a workload of 2 to 3 cakes per day, a woman could earn double the minimum wage" of about $125 a month, says San Rman.

That kind of income possibility is attractive to thousands of Latin American women who find that either the macho culture they live in or their own lack of skills relegates them to minimal-income work.

It was this ready pool of in-home workers, combined with the huge potential customer base of Latins living in the US, that made the Tortas Peru idea particularly attractive to Red Uno, a US-Peru joint venture. Red Uno plans to extend Peru's network of public Internet booths to 15 countries throughout Latin America by the end of the year - and it wants the e-business of cake-making to grow along with the network.

"They've already bought the rights to all the names, like Tortas Argentina, Tortas Chile, Tortas Salvador," says San Rman. (One glitch could be Mexico, where a torta is a sandwich and the word for cake is pastel.)

"The thinking is that with cakes and a variety of other services, this network based on women working at home could be extended throughout Latin America."

The prospect of being able to work from home yet feeling part of a changing world is what drew Nelida Schialer to the Tortas network.

"Right here in Peru we are part of the globalization process, and even as a housewife you feel that," says this Cusco, Peru mom. "But at the same time my husband doesn't want me to have to leave the house for eight hours to work."

So Schialer will try baking cakes for Cusco, ordered by Peruvians in Miami or Duluth. "I like the idea of feeling a part of the bigger world," she says, adding that her children think it's a good idea, too. "They have this idea there may be an extra cake for them from time to time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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