Seizing opportunity - Changing lives

15 April 2013
ITC News
Preserving traditional skills and cultures through sustainable community businesses in Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Peru

Although entrepreneurial businesses are outstandingly diverse, they share a common theme of opportunism: intentionally or otherwise, the individuals that founded them spotted an opportunity and, coupled with determination and passion, took a chance to create something new.

But while for some entrepreneurs the end goal is personal reward, others do it for greater, more magnanimous reasons. We spoke to two such entrepreneurs who have built successful, sustainable businesses that benefit scores of families and help preserve traditional skills and cultures.

Veomanee Douangdala

Co-Director, Ock Pop Tok Textiles and Living Craft Centre, Lao People’s Democratic Republic

TF: Tell us about your company
VD: Ock Pop Tok began as a textile manufacturer and retailer, but we also have a textile centre called the Living Craft Centre where people can learn about weaving techniques, and a small café and hotel. I started the company in 2000 with an English friend who shares my passion for textiles. We grew up together and I helped teach her to weave – she enjoyed it and we thought that other Westerners would also be interested in learning to weave and in buying handmade Lao textiles.
We wanted to create a business that was new and different, but which retained the Lao identity and culture. This seemed a good way to support local people, create products we like and build a sustainable business. We started very small and never planned to be a big company, but we now have about 40 weavers working full-time and roughly the same working part-time producing scarves, rugs, throws and other home textiles.
We also have a non-profit side of the company called Village Weaver Projects, which we started in 2006. This works to create economic opportunities for artisans in rural locations through training and ecotourism, and we showcase their designs so that people can see the diversity and beauty of Lao products. It’s not a non-governmental organization, but it is run under fair-trade principles.

TF: What professional challenges have you faced?
VD: When Ock Pop Tok started to grow, we felt like it was beginning to get a little out of control – we had many people in lots of villages producing textiles for us, but the market varies and it’s not always easy to sell the products. With so many people depending on us, we felt a lot of pressure. That’s why we started the craft centre in 2005 – it gave us a better way of showcasing how the products are made, which encourages sales. As people understand the work that goes into creating a product, they value it more.
We export to USA, Singapore, Japan and other parts of Asia, but it can be complicated dealing with international markets and coping with the demands of selling wholesale. For example, when demand is high and you have a very big order, it would be easy to let the quality slide, but we think it’s very important not to let this happen.

TF: What support have you received from ITC?
VD: I am president of the LuangPrabang handicraft association, and ITC was one of the main supporters of our handicraft festival in December last year, where we launched LuangPrabang as a ‘brand’. From that connection, ITC is now assisting Ock Pop Tok and seven other association members so that we can show our products at Lifestyle Vietnam, which is a big craft show in Ho Chi Minh City. ITC is also helping us to get ready by choosing the right products to show, preparing price lists, and advising us on how to approach wholesale customers.

TF: What business achievement are you most proud of?
VD: The Living Craft Centre. It’s not just for the company or the tourists; it’s for local people and for the people from all over the country who come to learn.

TF: What’s next for your company?
VD: We hope to build a textile museum – we already have the exhibition space at the centre, but we want a proper building where we can have permanent displays that tell the history of Lao textiles and the traditions behind them. And we want to support more communities – we work with villages in more than 12 provinces, but we would like to work with more and showcase their products.

Wallis Winder

General Manager, Amazon Health Products, Peru

TF: Tell us about your company
WW: Amazon Health Products deals in natural products, most significantly with sacha inchi, which is a seed that grows in the Amazon that has a very high nutritional value, especially in omega-3 fatty acids and protein. It’s regarded as a ‘superfood’ and is growing in popularity with people who want to live a healthy lifestyle. About 45 people work for the company, split between working in the forest with farmers and in our processing and manufacturing facility. We produce a range of oils, powders, protein supplements and nuts, and about 90% is for export, mainly to North America, and to a lesser extent to Europe and Asia.

I started the company in 2008 with a group of friends. After we finished our studies and had worked abroad for a time, we returned to Peru and started to think how we could make a positive difference in our country. We decided to focus on reforestation because of the devastating effect that deforestation was having on Peru’s landscape and culture.
We purchased a lot of land in the Amazon, which was very cheap because, although it’s rich in nutrients, it lacks communication and transport infrastructure. Initially it was mainly to save the forest, but we decided to try and create a replicable formula that could help break the vicious cycle that is happening with a lot of subsistence agriculture.
Most of the people who live in the Amazon are poor, but they grow corn or other crops that require lots of deforested land and also sell for very low prices. Our mission was to create a product that could be grown in the Amazon sustainably and that benefits the farmers and the forests. So while corn sells for US$ 0.20 per kilogram and requires a lot of land to produce, sacha inchi can earn the farmer as much as US$ 5 per kilogram and grows in a natural forest environment.

TF: What professional challenges have you faced?

WW: Not all communities are ready to work with companies like ours. Sometimes they’ve had bad experiences with other outsiders, but it’s also because what we’re asking them to do is different, is quite a slow process, and requires a lot of hard work. Another challenge is that when we invest in a community and pass on the benefits of our research into how to cultivate more sustainable crops – something that’s come from a lot of trial and error and investment – there are intermediaries and speculators who will offer fractionally higher prices. That means we have to take a long-term view on the benefits and strategy and spend a lot of time on building strong relationships with the farmers.
It’s worth the effort, though – we now work with more than 1,000 families, and it’s rewarding to see them benefiting from switching to a more sustainable and profitable farming method. They’re starting to build their houses with brick and cement, and have basic amenities such as electricity and running water – simple things, but as their standard of living rises it makes it easier for them to devote more time to other beneficial activities, such as education.

TF: What support have you received from ITC?
WW: We’ve taken part in ITC training workshops that have really helped with the marketing side of the business and how to break into new territories. As part of that, ITC helped me travel to California to meet with prospective buyers and build relationships with American companies. ITC’s large network of contacts makes it easier for us to identify the right people to speak to and who are interested in doing business with us.

TF: What business achievement are you most proud of?
WW: It’s a mixture of things – I’m proud of the growth of our company because in 2010, when we started exporting, our sales went from US$ 5,000 a year to US$ 100,000, and last year we sold US$ 1 million worth of products. But I’m more proud of the positive changes we’ve helped make to the lives of the farmers and their families. That’s what makes this a rewarding job.

TF: What’s next for your company?
WW: More growth, hopefully, and more community development. We’ve started to run farm ‘schools’ to help educate farming communities about how to cope with the challenges they face – things like how to plan ahead for the rainy season or even where they should build their community centre.