Against all odds, small individual or family businesses have bloomed during the pandemic in Cuba.
Yanitza del Toro is the founder of Maxi Bebé cuba small business
Yanitza del Toro is the founder of Maxi Bebé. Photo: @maxi_bebe_habana Instagram

Diana Bermúdez couldn’t find any cosmetic products that suited her. Due to her extreme allergies, her skin often broke out in a rash. Then she began to research and take some courses. By the end of 2020, she transformed her need into a new source of income: D’eco, a line of handcrafted natural cosmetics. 

While at first the catalogue only had soaps, now it includes different types of creams, oils, lotion, hair wax and face masks. Everything is carefully presented in small units, either in cardboard boxes or recycled bottles. 

Against all odds, small individual or family businesses have bloomed during the pandemic in Cuba. Boldness defines them, as well as diversity.

She confesses it was difficult to run the business along with her work as a language therapist in Havana’s hospital Manuel Fajardo. Despite being afraid, and her parents’ reluctance, she made the decision: she quit her regular job and just fully devoted herself to D’eco

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To  this day, her mother and father, grandparents, and her partner complete the team behind this initiative. “We will keep growing, if everything goes well,” Diana said. 

Quintessential Cuban Resilience

Against all odds, small individual or family businesses have bloomed during the pandemic in Cuba. Boldness defines them, as well as diversity. There are gardening shops, like Vivero Online; bakeries, like Migas and Panpana; knitted accessories online stores, like Chulita Teje and Sutileza; baby food manufacturers, like Raizes and Maxi Bebé.

“I prepare home-made food for my three-year old daughter, and I believed this could be a way to help other moms that maybe had less time,” founder of Maxi Bebé, Yanitza del Toro, describes. Adults also enjoy healthy food, such as fruit compote or peanut butter, so the menu and the clients have been expanding. 

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Yanitza says that perhaps she felt the uncertainty of jumping into something new. However, it was precisely the pandemic situation what gave her the impulse to start. “The experience has been enriching, it’s nice to influence eating habits and contribute to education in that regard.” 

“Social media is the ecosystem where we have grown”,  asserts Yanitza. Now we sell  in some private stores in Havana, but, before that, we (just) existed in WhatsApp groups and our Instagram account. Word of mouth doesn’t let us down, though”. 

Yanitza del Toro, Founder of Maxi Bebé

Unsurprisingly, one of the key problems for her is to find quality supplies at reasonable prices, so the output didn’t rocket. Worsened scarcity and the increased, rising prices of nearly everything due to the financial reform initiated last January  – the so-called Tarea Ordenamiento – are, no doubt, major issues that entangle daily life. To make matters worse, during these last months, frequent power cuts have complicated things, too. 

On the other hand, the semi-lockdown brought about some positive aspects. Coinciding with the trend worldwide known as “ghost kitchens,” businesses like MaxiBebé don’t need a physical place (nor the corresponding investment) to sell their products, but only the Internet and delivery. 

“Social media is the ecosystem where we have grown,”  asserts Yanitza. Now we sell  in some private stores in Havana, but, before that, we (just) existed in WhatsApp groups and our Instagram account. Word of mouth doesn’t let us down, though.” 

elephant hands cuba small business
Elephant Hands is a brand of cold ceramic earrings. Photo: @elephant.hands Instagram

This is actually a common factor for several entrepreneurs. Camila Sabido, creator of Elephants Hands, a brand of cold ceramic earrings, doesn’t rely on a physical shop. She wasn’t a social media person, but now she is, because that’s the way she takes orders and shows her colorful craft.  

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For Camila, being online means also the possibility to build alliances with other owners.  Organizing raffles, contests, and other joint activities has become a proven method for attracting customers, as well as gaining more visibility. For instance, Diana Bermúdez recently attended a Fair of Eco-Friendly Experiences, in Havana’s Quinta de los Molinos, along with other private initiatives. 

And again, difficulties with sourcing raw materials  caused Camila have to raise prices. “It was hard. I was delaying that moment until it was inevitable,”  she acknowledges. “Everyone who now runs a business has been through the same.” 

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Fail Again. Fail Better.

“Good afternoon, all. Sadly, we are going to be forced to stop working for a while,” Dania Hakim wrote in Elaboro’s WhatsApp groups, on October 23rd. The message explained to customers that, having seen the struggle to find consumables, they would rather close than increase prices. “Hope you understand the situation we are facing. We are hopeful about being back.”

Based on their supplies, week in, week out, Elaboro used to deliver turnovers, home-made desserts, croquetas, burgers, meatballs, spices… even a seasonal vegetable pack which might include guava, sweet potato, pumpkin, avocado. The sort of offer that would ease household chores, “always thinking about stuff that we would buy ourselves,” Dania highlights. 

They didn’t generate great profits but they maintained a fair price point and they did receive many favorable reviews. “We were very pleased knowing that people liked many of our products,” Dania said.

vivero online gardening cuba small business
Vivero Online is a gardening shop in Havana. Photo: @vivero.online_habana Instagram

It turns out that this kind of business represents more than making profit, but a way to reach personal fulfillment. “I do this because I like it and it makes me happy,” Camila Sabido added. Autonomy, a flexible schedule, positive feedback from clients, to enjoy work – these benefits are often as valuable as earnings. 

Since she does everything –  from designs to sales – Camila would want to hire somebody else, in order for Elephant Hands to continue to grow. In the meantime, she has kept her regular job as a foreign trade specialist in a state company. 

Dania Hakim assures they are not done with their business idea, but in the current situation they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. “We can’t forecast when it’s going to get better.”. 

Last August, the Cuban government issued eight decree laws that recognized and broadened the scope of micro, small, and medium-sized companies (Mipymes). They could be state-owned, private, or joint-venture. According to official statistics, 43% of them are new businesses. Though that is certainly good news, this sector needs more than a proper legal frame to develop. 

Individual and family business have shown a remarkable capacity of adaptation, as well as a good sense to seize opportunities, even in the midst of harsh circumstances. 

While in the early stages of private initiatives in Cuba, most owners likely targeted tourists and foreign companies’ officials, the businesses that emerged during the pandemic seem to confirm the importance of the domestic market, always greedy for consumer options. 

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Eileen Sosin Martinez is a journalist committed to reporting interesting angles on impactful issues. Even when her beats are the economy, society or gender issues, she’s written about hip hop, technology and culture. Eileen is a 2012 graduate of the University of Havana with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism. Her work has been published in media around the world, including Spain, Germany and Latin America. She’s been awarded with the Premio Sandra 2018, in the Travel Chronicle category; and received an Honorable mention in the Annual Economical Journalism Award (2013), granted by the National Association of Cuban Economists and Accountants (ANEC).

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  • The article fails to mention– most importantly — that the Cuban government only allows service-type entrepreneurship, harmless businesses like restaurants and nail salons. Why can’t a Cuban open a factory? Or aspire to lead any type of industrial or manufacturing plant? Because with that comes economic power that can translate to political power. I wish you would do some hard reporting for a change, instead of always peddling a touristic-centric side of a Communist Cuba in which the average Cuban has no means to participate.

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