Andean Fashionistas!

15 May, 2016 | Rodrigo Barrenechea

Enterprise & Industry

Virtual boutiques connect Bolivian artisans with global markets

Photo : Iván Rodriguez Petkovic

A strange fact about Bolivian business ventures is this:  according to the World Bank, a very high percent of businesses established in Bolivia are not officially registered and undertake their business informally. 95% of these businesses are small or medium-sized, with the owners acting as the business’s main employees. Or they are family businesses, or ones which only employ an average of five people. There are too many obstacles, caused by a lack of knowledge or training, which prevent them from being able to develop as enterprises and to penetrate new markets.

In Bolivia, many business ventures fail upon entering the market and, working with the same few clients they have had since the start, they sometimes never manage to expand into the international market. Nor do they see the need to do so. At present, there are many non-governmental organisations, mostly foreign, who have tried to shed more light on the issue and to help these small enterprises develop their business strategies.

I have always been curious about the trading of specialist artisanal textiles which takes place on Calle Sagárnaga, in the city of La Paz. This place is better known by foreigners as ‘The Witches’ Market’, a tourist area of great prestige, where hundreds of these manufacturers gather together to sell their famous ‘backpacker’ favourites – items made from alpaca or vicuña wool; leather artefacts; and fabrics sporting traditional andean designs, native to the culture of this part of the world. Mostly, these are used as gifts from tourists who delve into this corner of the city and bring the products they find back to their native lands.

This kind of clustering of businesses is seen in other touristy spots of the altiplano like Cuzco and Puno. And there are many connotations associated with this group of small businesses who are dedicated to selling their products. Firstly – and this is known by almost all – is the fact that these salespeople have had to make little effort in order to sell their items. Rather, they just wait until the clients arrive on their doorstep and hope that, if luck would have it, they don’t move on to the stall next door. Secondly, these small ventures mostly came, or still do come, from families located in the rural communities bordering La Paz, and, thanks to the sale of their hand-crafted items they continue to support their children and household. Finally, it’s worth noting that just about everybody is aware of the market potential of these items.

The wider market viability of these products is particularly notable when speaking to former Bolivian Express interns – and that’s over one hundred people – who reaffirmed the potential and success that these sorts of products could have. This is due, first and foremost, to their high quality, but also to the climatic conditions experienced in Europe once winter arrives. This is a market still in its infancy, but with great potential.

Recently, there has been a substantial increase in the promoting of businesses through social media. This has been the main source of commercialisation and publicity for all sorts of product and services, not just in Bolivia, but all over the world. The correct usage of these enormous media outlets can see products flying off the shelves not only in the interior market of whichever country it happens to be in, but also in the foreign market. Tools as accessible as Facebook ads, a good Instagram hashtag, the correct approach to Google Analytics or a memorable ad campaign can revolutionise a business venture instantaneously. This is so widely known that every salesperson gets to grips with the technology, and becomes familiar with these outlets.

Today, there are more and more new businesses making a name for themselves in La Paz city, such as Mistura or Walisuma, two local boutiques renowned for working with, and in some way promoting, artisanal Bolivian producers. And they are using the media platforms previously mentioned. This is the case with Entremetteuses, an ‘intermediary’ business venture – as the name suggests – that provides yet another link between artisans and the global market.

Launched in February of this year, Entremetteuses was brought to life by Laura Lapointe from Canada and Marlene Bevillard from France. Thanks to their experience working in Bolivia with a Canadian NGO, both realised the need of many Bolivian artisans to launch their textile and leather products into the market, often as a way to leave behind poor living conditions and get ahead. Despite being a for-profit business, which has the aim of selling their products through their website and Facebook page, the company also has many aspects of a social project. The company’s two founders work with various communities, including with women who worked previously as escorts and with small-scale businesses who mostly produce leather items. The designs are the artisans’ own creations, and in working with the company the producers have to be innovative and work hard. Their webpage, which reminded me a lot of London-based online retailer Asos due to the method of buying, is very accessible and user-friendly for all, and is impeccably designed.

We at Bolivian Express strongly believe that this type of business venture promoting Bolivian products should be encouraged. We support the daily effort of these artisans who are trying to create better opportunities for themselves in this world. A world which demands our creativity and expects us to do our bit for the economic and social development of our land.  

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