Women Transforming El Salvador Through Recycling: Claudia’s “La Vaquerita” Journey

Explore Claudia "La Vaquerita" Alvarado's story in El Salvador, where her recycling initiative fuels the local circular economy, improving solid waste management issues and promoting job creation. Through La Vaquerita, Claudia increases environmental sustainability and provides employment, an important combination for economic growth.

In the heart of Apopa, El Salvador, Claudia “La Vaquerita” Alvarado is transforming the landscape of job creation and environmental sustainability. Her recycling business, La Vaquerita, showcases the circular economy’s power to revitalize communities and protect our planet.

El Salvador faces a big waste problem. Around 25% of its trash ends up on streets, in rivers, or elsewhere in nature. The remaining waste is transported over long distances across the country and distributed between the country’s 16 landfills, driving up the cost of waste disposal.

Truck with solid waste in Apopa, San Salvador. (TechnoServe / Julieta Ocampo).

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is an economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products, especially to continue production in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. 

What are circular business models?

Circular business models are one of the main building blocks of the circular economy, and recycling is one of the main strategies for achieving it. Recycling plays a crucial role in the circular economy by recovering resources from used products and materials, which can then be reintroduced into the production cycle.

In El Salvador and other Latin American countries, the first people to buy recycling materials are those who used to collect them but now run small centers. These centers gather materials from individual collectors who find them on the streets. Then, the centers sell large amounts of these materials to big companies. These companies either recycle the materials into new products or sell them again.

Much of this process happens informally. Because there are not enough formal collection and processing centers, people are forced to take the collected materials to their homes and store them there until they sell them.

What are the benefits of recycling?

Recycling helps reduce the amount of solid waste that ends up in landfills and cuts down on pollution by reusing materials instead of making new ones from scratch. It also contributes to changing the mindsets and behaviors of entire communities.

Promoting Growth Though Impulsa tu Empresa

The Impulsa Tu Empresa (ITE) program, developed and implemented by TechnoServe, provides businesses with mentoring and training designed to spur economic growth. This comprehensive approach enables businesses to navigate challenges and capitalize on new opportunities.

The ITE methodology includes workshops in: 

  • Business modeling/planning 
  • Traditional and digital marketing
  • Strategy and innovation
  • Financial management
  • Access to markets
  • Financial services

The most recent version of TechnoServe’s ITE program supported 1,115 participants representing 566 businesses across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Burkina Faso. Over 51% were women-led businesses. By the end of the project, 68% of participants improved their business skills, and businesses increased their sales by an average of 24%. Entrepreneurs participating in the program invested $10.9 million back into their businesses.

In El Salvador, ITE supported 296 entrepreneurs, 58% of whom were women-led businesses. By the end of the project, 66% of participants improved their business skills and increased their sales by 35% on average. Entrepreneurs participating in the program invested $5.5 million in their businesses.

ITE leverages support from donors including the Argidius and Visa Foundations, along with prior funding from the Multilateral Investment Fund, Walmart Foundation, Citi Foundation, and PIMCO Foundation. These partnerships have proved essential in supporting small and growing businesses, including recycling companies.

Like many recyclers, Claudia finds great support in the ITE program, which aims to make recycling a formal business. The program has helped her use technology to keep track of her accounting and logistics, making her work easier and more organized.

[ITE] has allowed me to save time with logistics and efficiency; better organizing the [collection center] by materials. This has allowed me to sell old materials…I didn’t know I could make a profit on them!”

After joining the program, Claudia’s business has experienced consistent growth. She smartly reinvested her savings back into her business, guided by ITE’s mentorship.

Recycling: A Tradition of Change

Recycling isn’t new to Claudia; it’s a family legacy. When she inherited the business from her father, she began wearing a western hat to work most days. Over time, people started recognizing her and the business as “La Vaquerita,” or cowgirl.

Being in charge of a recycling business as a woman at first wasn’t easy, and filling her dad’s shoes after his passing was a difficult responsibility to take on.

Being a woman [in this business] presents many challenges, as I only work with men. It really is a very difficult challenge, because they [men] don’t want to be directed by women, there’s still a lot of discrimination. But I feel that each of us earns respect through the way we treat others. If I tell someone, for example, this bundle needs to go like this, it’s because I have been doing it since I was 16 years old. I am 39 years old. I have many years [of experience] in the job.”

La Vaquerita’s recycling team in Apopa, El Salvador. (TechnoServe / Julieta Ocampo).

Claudia also notes that over time things got progressively better. “You have to put in a positive attitude to maintain socialization because it is nice when you work as a team. And that is rarely achieved when there is not a focused head to direct a team.”

Since Claudia took charge, La Vaquerita has grown from a local collection center into a force for job creation and an example of the power of the circular economy in her community. Her business helps minimize waste and offers a tangible opportunity for people to have a decent income. By focusing on recycling as a key strategy, La Vaquerita reduces environmental impact and promotes sustainable production and consumption patterns.

Claudia standing by materials stored at her collection center. (TechnoServe / Julieta Ocampo).

Impact Beyond Recycling

But Claudia’s vision goes beyond environmental sustainability. She’s also committed to creating stable jobs in her community. “I have provided them [employees] with insurance and social security. Within the industry, it was hard to find a company that offered those benefits, for example.”

Jose Israel Guzman, 35, shares how working at La Vaquerita has been transformative, offering him stability and hope. He notes a significant improvement in his family’s life since joining Claudia’s team. 

“I was struggling to support my children and buy enough food,” Jose shares. “We were always missing things in my house. But with this job, the situation improved considerably. I can now even take my family out to eat and have a good time at the town plaza, which was something we couldn’t do before.”

Claudia and José inside the collection center. (TechnoServe / Julieta Ocampo).

A Brighter Future Together

Claudia and her team at La Vaquerita are not just recycling materials; they’re building pathways to a brighter economic future for people like José. Through her leadership, Claudia is demonstrating the vital role women can play in driving economic growth and environmental sustainability. 


Julieta Ocampo is a program communications specialist at TechnoServe.