Better Living Conditions

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Leticia Cota-home-banner


In 2000, the IAF received a proposal from the Comité de Promoción Social del Valle del Yaqui (PROVAY) to address two critical issues affecting residents of Cajeme in the state of Sonora, Mexico: their lack of adequate housing and the smog created by farmers burning straw left from the wheat harvest. PROVAY; Fundación de Apoyo Infantil (FAI); the local chapter of the Sistema de Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF); Fundación del Empresariado Sonorense (FESAC), a community foundation representing more than 6,000 businesses in 10 cities in the state; and the municipal government formed Alianza para la Vivienda Ecologica [Alliance for Ecological Housing] to undertake the project and to assure its sustainability after the IAF’s funding ended. The plan was to provide 200 women heads-of-household the training, technical assistance, equipment, and materials necessary to build durable adobe homes. PROVAY calls this kind of housing “ecological” because it uses materials that are available in abundance locally. 

PROVAY expected to create a fund that would provide loans covering up to 50 percent of the cost of construction. Total repayment within six years would allow PROVAY to extend housing loans to others in Cajeme. Additional components of the project included a loan fund for microenterprises and the organization of 150 women into five groups whose members would open savings accounts and receive training and counseling toward eligibility for the housing program. The groups were also expected to form five community banks to capitalize the members’ businesses.

The proposal was developed by FAI from an idea that originated with Bill and Athena Steen, coordinators of the Canelo Project in Arizona and authors of the book The Straw Bale House. PROVAY and FAI agreed that PROVAY would be the proponent because of its experience financing homes. FAI would concentrate on managing the loan fund for microentrepreneurs.

In 2001, the IAF awarded PROVAY $386,400 to be disbursed over three years. Subsequently, the IAF authorized a one-year extension to enable PROVAY to complete its project.


In 2010, five years after the grant ended, a team of evaluators assessed the impact of

the project on the target population and the sustainability of PROVAY’s housing program. The most noteworthy findings include the following:

Old house
Cecilia Gutiérrez Castro´s old house

 New house

  Cecilia´s new house

 GDF levels in pyramid graphic

 Project results were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF). The GDF measures results on three levels: the individual or family level; the organization or grantee level, and the level of the community or society.

At the lower level of the GDF cone, the project positively impacted the lives of 100 families as measured by tangible indicators such as housing, training, jobs and income; and the intangible indicator of self-esteem. At the mid-level of the cone, PROVAY reported on microloans, resource mobilization and partnerships as documented on the tangible side of the GDF cone. At the upper or community level, PROVAY reported on its efforts to disseminate the merits of the ecological housing program, which led shortly thereafter to Cajame's mayor affordable housing program for the poor.

  • PROVAY trained 160 individuals in construction. Of 49 homeowners interviewed for this evaluation, 88 percent applied skills learned in the workshops.
  • PROVAY also helped increase family income by providing training and loans to individuals in various cottage industries processing sausages, yogurt, marmalade, herbal soap and lotions, and herbal medicine. By the end of the project, when 930 loans had been extended to microenterprises, far surpassing the original goal of 150 loans.
  • One hundred families improved their living conditions after moving into their new ecological houses. However, adobe did not catch on. Although it costs less than bricks and provides good insulation, which should be important given the extremes in temperature in Cajeme, it is difficult to handle because of its weight. Participants adding new rooms to existing structures opted for lighter materials that were more durable and less expensive to maintain. 
  • The housing loans did not work as expected. Homeowners fell behind in their payments, prompting PROVAY to apply for subsidies from the Mexican government’s Fideicomiso Fondo Nacional de Habitaciones Populares. When PROVAY’s IAF funding terminated, only 17 homeowners had repaid their loans in full. By 2010, the number rose to 77 borrowers because of PROVAY’s willingness to forgive the balances owed by borrowers who made three monthly payments in any amount they could afford.
    PROVAY and FAI had assumed that loans and technical assistance would enable women to open businesses and they would use the income generated repay their home loans. Some borrowers did; others spent the money on consumer goods. Additionally, not all of the women building homes wanted to be saddled with a second loan.
  • Working in partnership proved challenging. DIF defaulted on its agreement to pay certain wages and salaries, and PROVAY and the other partners had to cover these costs. FESAC was slow in mobilizing resources it promised. Only in 2004, when IAF withheld disbursements from a separate grant to FESAC, did FESAC solicit contributions for PROVAY.


Despite some poor outcomes, the project had a positive impact. Before moving into the adobe homes, the participants had lived in houses made of cardboard and/or scrap metal, with roofs of plastic sheeting and dirt floors. Most had no running water or indoor plumbing. Of 49 homeowners interviewed, 48 reported a significant improvement in their living conditions as a result of the new houses.

Air quality also improved for a time. The use of residue from the wheat harvest to make adobe bricks reduced the volume burned by farmers. A new ordinance now prohibits burning harvest residues, imposing a $300 fine. PROVAY staff reported the impression that their efforts had made the authorities more aware of the pollution problem.

The project had a major impact on PROVAY and its partners. PROVAY’s interest in housing construction can be traced to a wealthy philanthropist who wanted to help poor families in Cajeme. Before receiving its IAF grant, PROVAY had only undertaken Casa para Todos, which financed housing construction, additions and remodeling for low-income families. Through the IAF-funded project, PROVAY learned that community input was key to success. PROVAY has changed its modus operandi from charity to grassroots development; it has its own headquarters and a dedicated permanent staff that runs three community centers offering programs for children and young adults with disabilities and leadership training for young people. The staff coordinates the academic (or diplomado) program for the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Social (INDESOL).

By partnering with PROVAY, FAI and FESAC gained national exposure and experience that made their organizations stronger. FESAC went on to receive a grant from the IAF toward supporting local development projects managed by community groups in Sonora. FAI acquired the $45,000 loan fund for microenterpreneurs pursuant to an agreement stipulating that FAI would continue providing loans for microenterprises and assistance to community banks after the IAF-funded project terminated. 


Five years after the completion of its IAF-funded project, PROVAY and its partners continue to function, but not in alliance. PROVAY is no longer involved in construction and the community banks, formed with FAI’s assistance, never solidified into viable saving entities. FAI, however, did form mutual support groups, which were to serve as the basis for the banks, but interest disappeared when FAI discontinued its support at the end of the project. 

One of the goals was to demonstrate that reducing seasonal burning could reduce pollution. The 3,000 tons of wheat residues used in building the 100 adobe houses represented a very small fraction of the 525,000 tons produced during each annual harvest. Coupled with the new ordinance, PROVAY’s efforts reduced pollution temporarily. Post-harvest burning continues today because the ordinance has not been enforced.


What worked: In spite of the lack of interest on the part of the poor in Cajame to continue using adobe and straws for construction purposes due to high maintenance costs, the ecological home model has been adopted by some well-to-do families in the community.

PROVAY’s ecological housing program also led to Vivienda Digna, a current program sponsored by Cajame’s mayor to construct dignified and affordable housing for the poor to replace the more than 1,500 cardboard houses scattered throughout the municipality.

What didn't work: The absence of input by the future home-owners in the definition of or approach to improving conditions limited their “participation’ to the bare minimum required. Even that ceased when further benefits were not forthcoming.

Second, many homeowners stopped repaying the loans when they realized that there were no consequences because a government subsidy covered losses caused by default.

Third, partnering with other organizations seems advantageous because of the resources each partner was expected to contribute. However, the contribution expected from the municipal government never materialized. As the IAF has learned from previous experience with local development, elected officials are not necessarily disposed to honor the commitments of their predecessors.

Additionally, rather than memorialize timetables and the respective roles and responsibilities in a document to be signed by each partner, Alianza para la Vivienda Ecológica worked informally. As a result, only 100 of the 200 houses planned were completed. Construction fell behind schedule due to insufficient coordination among the partners, faulty design, cost overruns and lack of resources.

Finally, the idea of constructing adobe homes had originated with the founder of the grantee organization. Poor people in precarious houses wanted better and safer places in which to live, but had they been consulted, they would not have selected adobe. After the IAF’s funding ended, PROVAY did not build a single additional house. When the new homeowners added to or renovated their homes they used materials other than adobe.

Conclusion: PROVAY accomplished two of its three goals: improving living conditions for poor residents of Cajeme and strengthening its own organization as well as its partners. The third goal of reducing pollution proved to be more elusive as farmers still burn residue to prepare for the next crop cycle.

To request the full evaluation (only available in Spanish), email