Oct 27, 2017

Setbacks that Launch Us Forward

Sonia and Matilda prepare weavings for tourists.
Sonia and Matilda prepare weavings for tourists.

This project report is a submission to GlobalGiving's 2017 Fail Forward Contest, where organizations are asked to share a story of when they tried something new that didn't go as planned and how they learned from it. Enjoy!

“You’ll have to get out and walk from here the rest of the way,” our driver announced to the passengers on our small tour bus. Carrying all of our belongings for the weekend ahead, we began the near vertical hike up to the community of Huilloc Alto, tucked in a pocket of the Andes. We were at nearly 12,000 feet of elevation, breathing hard and sweating in the cool mountain air. The road to the community was supposed to be finished by now and yet thanks to the water running down from the streams on the mountain peaks, our car was stranded just beneath our newest tourism cooperative community. Strike one.

We, at Awamaki, have been growing, expanding our reach to even more women’s cooperatives, helping them develop their businesses and improve their families’ well-being. One of our most exciting additions has been Huilloc Alto, home of our newest sustainable tourism cooperative. After approaching us two years ago in search of guidance to start their own sustainable tourism project, we’ve been excitedly awaiting their first tours. “We started to do workshops with them, to figure out how many ladies, how many homestays, what activities there are to do in the community based around culture and nature,” Juan, our coordinator of sustainable tourism explained. We planned and prepared and trained and yet it took just one attempt to realize we had quite a ways to go before it would be smooth sailing.

It was one of my first weekends in the Sacred Valley, as the brand-new Marketing and Communication Coordinator at Awamaki, and I couldn’t have been more excited to catch my first glimpses of life in one of our partner communities. A group of five staff members would be the guinea pigs, so to say, for the weekend. We had been expecting a fun and relaxing time, giving the women pointers on how to improve the tour; maybe reviewing the details of the schedule or discussing boiled or fried potatoes for breakfast. The unexpected hike in was just our first surprise. When we arrived, we were welcomed graciously by each of the women, necklaces of Cantuta flowers, the national flower of Peru, strung around our necks...but what next? We looked left and right waiting for a plan or an order to the weekend’s activities. The women stared and we simply stared back. Hmm. I had expected something maybe just a little more structured.

Finally, Juan stepped up to help guide the community and encourage them to assert their leadership, and plans began to take shape. “They were expecting for me to tell them what to do,” Juan remembered. He had been unsure of his role, and intimidated that the tour wasn’t going as well as he would’ve hoped. There was so much work to be done to get this group ready for actual tourists!

Juan continued to make suggestions throughout the weekend. “Maybe you could tell us where everyone will be sleeping and introduce yourselves, then show the way to your homes. Help the tourists carry their things, show them where they will eat, where they can use the bathroom, and so forth,” Juan explained to the community members. If this had been an actual tour, for paying customers, we would’ve been close to disaster-- failing not only them, but also, the women of the Huilloc Alto cooperative who were not 100% prepared for the tour. “All of these little points indicated to me that it required practice for them to feel comfortable and understand… to take initiative and be comfortable with the activities they proposed,” Juan added, reflecting on the process that the group went through to plan and prepare for visitors. Figuring out how the schedule would work proved to be an important and missed preparation step. Without even planning on it, it turned out a trial run with staff was exactly what the group needed.

The mishaps continued. As my roommate for the weekend and I headed to our homestay for the night, we realized there was no real path. We tossed our bags down off a ledge and made the leap ourselves, we skipped over puddles and squished through muddy terrain. Not exactly ideal for impressing future customers. What was proposed as “just around the corner” turned out to be much more like a mini-hike. Finally, a delicious traditional lunch of hot quinoa soup and vegetable pancakes with rice-- no mishaps there! Afterwards, we hiked up just a short bit around the outskirts of the community to learn about their use of local plants. The aim was to have one of the hosting women partner up with each of us to go look for some of these various plants. I can’t lie: things we’re a bit awkward as each woman was so shy, nearly unwilling show us around. Juan yet again stepped in to do some delegating and to encourage each of us to actively participate, discuss, and learn. Partnered up, and separated from the intimidation of the larger group, boundaries finally began to thin and opened the platform for short, but very sweet conversation. The weekend progressed in baby steps with Juan preparing the women to host confidently and independently, as the women gave me my very first weaving lesson, with some good old-fashioned hand-holding. Making this interaction feel comfortable was much harder than it may have seemed, for both of us, as it wasn’t just the weavers who had to push themselves to make connections across cultural and language divides.

“It is extremely valuable for them, rewarding for them, and it is an interesting process for them because they’ve never had tourism before,” Juan explained, “when you do something the first time it is never going to turn out perfect. Practice is everything.” This was their first time doing something new, and a little scary, and while maybe it didn’t come naturally, practice does make perfect, and practice is exactly what they will get. We have since continued to work with the group, promoting organization, planning, and taking initiative in their work. To date, Huilloc Alto has since hosted four successful tours, the most recent of which I was lucky enough to tag along on (as Marketing and Communications Coordinator this time, and not as guinea pig!). It has only been a few months since their trial run and it is clear the progress this group has made, from a planned itinerary, to the women asserting themselves to lead the tours confidently. I was so impressed by what strong and capable women they are, and our tourists surely were as well. With a little additional help establishing leadership roles and learning the nuts and bolts of running a tour, our newest sustainable tourism cooperative is on the path to great success. At the start, we may have failed, but we definitely failed forward!

Jesusa and Florentina teach about medicinal plants
Jesusa and Florentina teach about medicinal plants
Jesusa leads a tour on medicinal plants.
Jesusa leads a tour on medicinal plants.
Sonia, Alicia, Avelina, and Josefina lead a tour.
Sonia, Alicia, Avelina, and Josefina lead a tour.
The most recent tour group to visit Huilloc Alto.
The most recent tour group to visit Huilloc Alto.

Links:

Sep 19, 2017

An Awamaki Graduation

The Rumira Women's Cooperative
The Rumira Women's Cooperative

Dear supporters of Awamaki,

This month, an important piece of our vision for the future actually happened. How often can you say that?!

For three years we have been telling you about our goal of graduating our cooperatives as independent businesses, and we developed the Awamaki Impact Model as a way to encourage the women to make improvements in their businesses and to take initiative in their work. Our vision is that through our program, they will not only earn an income but also learn to run successful businesses beyond our guidance. When we made the goal to graduate our partner cooperatives as independent businesses, we weren’t even sure that it would be possible.

Well, as it turns out: it is! Earlier this September we graduated our first cooperative of hardworking women. “One of the goals of Awamaki is that our groups can be self-motivated, that they are groups with the capacity to manage themselves,” Mercedes Durand, head of our Women’s Cooperative Program, beamed during the recent graduation ceremony for our Rumira Women’s Cooperative. The Rumira knitters show that this is possible.

Located just down the valley from Ollantaytambo, Rumira is home to 24 motivated women. With your generous help, we have been providing business and knitting trainings for four years, including helping them build an artisan center. Once they had their own space, they gained a home for their floor looms, and landed several orders from the local train company for placemats for their tourist train. We also connected them to a store in Cusco, for whom they knit sweaters, and they are currently making samples for a third potential client. In total to date, the women have earned over $20,000 in nearly 25 orders from clients of their own. In this group, 42% of the women have only had access to either primary schooling or in some cases, no schooling at all. “We have learned from the difficulties… Now we can continue fighting and continue working to make things better, and continue achieving our goals,” Martha Zuniga, Awamaki production coordinator and Rumira cooperative member, exclaimed during the ceremony. For Martha the Rumira graduation signified an “important passing for all of the women, they will be able to continue to develop as businesswomen.” Graduation marks this group transitioning from a loosely organized group of women to a professional and highly successful artisan cooperative. This is something we couldn’t be more proud of accomplishing!

This group of women has transformed significantly over the past four years. “At first they didn’t know how to knit professionally, and secondly they didn’t know how to interpret the patterns, they didn’t have good communication, and they weren't organized, Martha commented. With your support the artisans  have been trained in women’s empowerment, weaving and knitting techniques, quality control standards, fashion, marketing, exportation, tax brackets, and even computer classes. “First of all, they know how to interpret the patterns, and they can create samples without my help, and they organize for whichever activity they have,” added Martha, of the changes she’s seen take place among the women. They also keep track of their orders from other clients, bill those clients and manage artisan payments themselves. After four years of working with Awamaki, nearly 46% of the women are earning as much or more than their partners. With the money they make, they support 70 children and disabled or elderly adults in their homes.

Rumira’s graduation gives us the capacity to begin working with new cooperatives and allows us to direct our energy into empowering even more women from the Sacred Valley. This year we have added a new group of spinners and knitters both in the community of Huilloc, something that we wouldn’t have the ability to do without the anticipation of Rumira’s graduation. This recent expansion brings the total number of artisans in our partner cooperatives to 168 women. Thanks to the support of all of our donors we are able to continue our work everyday towards more graduation ceremonies like Rumira’s and continuing to grow and expand the communities with which we work!

The first Awamaki Diploma!
The first Awamaki Diploma!
Leonarda looks over the framed certificate.
Leonarda looks over the framed certificate.
Irma, current president, accepts the certificate.
Irma, current president, accepts the certificate.
Sep 19, 2017

Developing Design

Ale works with Cristina and Yolanda in Patacancha.
Ale works with Cristina and Yolanda in Patacancha.

Dear Awamaki supporters,

As many of you know, when Awamaki started, were only selling raw textiles. It has been a long journey since those early days. Over the course of the past six years we have been working on growing the abilities of our women to produce high quality and fashionable textile and knit products. This year, we are taking it a step further with texture and designs that combine the new and the Andean, in ways we have not before, led by our new designer Alejandra Carrillo-Muñoz.

Alejandra has challenged our cooperatives to incorporate “new concepts of color and material combinations, as well as material manipulations to create surface texture.” This requires them to reinterpret traditional weaving motifs through different, new and unusual  techniques.” Examples of these techniques can be seen as she inspires the weavers to include ribbons of different texture and to tie tassels mid-textile. These techniques would be difficult to do on a machine. They create a noticeably handmade artisan look, signaling to the customer that this is a one-of-a-kind piece produced by a skilled artisan and thus deserving of a higher price.

Alejandra, and Mercedes, our artisan coordinator, were initially met with hesitation when they introduced the new concepts.“Seeing as this was 'foreign' to their normal techniques, they were initially very intrigued, yet baffled and intimidated,” Alejandra acknowledged, as some of the weavers initially resisted the new styles. It was in a conversation that took place in Quechua between Mercedes and the weavers that they expressed that they didn’t think they could do it. This, however, is where Mercedes shines. “You are professionals,” she reminded them, “if this is possible, you can do it.” Alejandra explained that “at the end of the day, they know the loom, the yarn material, and the motions;” they are capable of the designs, but wary of trying something so new.”

After working on some of the first sample textiles of the 2018 line, Yolanda, one of the weavers from the community of Patacancha, expressed that she is “excited for what will come of the products, these quality products.” “I feel very good about the new textile designs, and the beautiful new weavings that come of it. They are beautiful, I love these designs,” she added.

We have come a long way since our early days of raw textiles, and many of you have been with us on that journey. We are so excited for these next steps, as we continue to push ourselves and our partner artisans to innovate and grow their skill sets to develop their products and lead their families to prosperity. Thank you for all you have done to support our mission; stay tuned to see the 2018 collection where we will be showing these new techniques!

Ale helps to explain her designs to the weavers.
Ale helps to explain her designs to the weavers.
Ale helps Maria to measure out her textile sample.
Ale helps Maria to measure out her textile sample.
A Patacancha weaver works on Ale's new designs.
A Patacancha weaver works on Ale's new designs.
Two weavers of Patacancha weave together.
Two weavers of Patacancha weave together.
Alejandra explains a design to Cipriana & Elena.
Alejandra explains a design to Cipriana & Elena.
 
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