30 May, 2020 | BX Crew
Images courtesy of Walisuma
Patricia Rodríguez leads Walisuma Bolivia, a brand under which over three thousand Bolivian artisans and producers market their products in Bolivia and promote themselves in the rest of the world through the company's e-commerce platform.
The project was born 11 years ago, when the Nuevo Norte foundation launched a contest that seeked to elevate the standard of artisan work in Bolivia. ‘We were looking for the best products and producers. We wanted to support them without having to compete with the Peruvian or Chinese market,’ says Rodríguez. ‘We knew we could do something great because we have incredible workmanship in our country.’
‘We wanted to help artisans so they could make a living out of it,’ continues Rodríguez. So we joined all these brands under a common brand and the name Walisuma came up. It means ‘the best of the best’ in Aymara and it represents the notion of ‘high end.’ Wali means ‘what is good’ and suma means ‘the best.’ The company grew and spaces opened to sell from the producers. Unfortunately, the Nuevo Norte foundation had to close in 2015 as funds ran out and the foundation couldn't manage to sustain itself. Rodríguez and her husband, who both own Artezzano – a brand that works with alpaca fabric and that worked with Walisuma – decided to take over Walisuma and save the project. ‘In 2015 we learned that Walisuma was closing. We liked the space and we fell in love with the project,’ explains Rodríguez.
So Rodríguez and her husband bought the company. ‘2016 was a difficult year. We bought the company and its debts. We had to work hard to save it and bring it to an equilibrium. The third year we were finally able to frame a business expansion plan.’ In March 2019, they were able to invest in an e-commerce platform. Now, the main issue with the platform is that they have to take photos of all the products which represent a considerable amount of work, and is made harder by the quarantine restrictions. ‘We work with 72 groups of producers, some of them will have to stop work unfortunately. So we'll probably end up with 62 groups which represents 3,000 producers throughout Bolivia,’ says Rodríguez.
All the Walisuma products must meet certain criteria: they must reflect a strong Bolivian identity through the textile, the techniques or the design. The products must be of high quality and producers must work responsibly and sustainably.
Walisuma may not be the first initiative of the sort but according to Rodríguez, ‘we pushed harder and brought a new vision, a larger vision. The level is growing in Bolivia. A lot of artisans have grown and are now mixing modern designs and ancestral techniques.’
With the current crisis, the solution is to ‘push e-commerce, to be known in more places outside Bolivia which is part of our expansion plan.’ This time can also be used to regularise and standardise practices. Walisuma is a social enterprise, who cares and wants to be self-sustainable. ‘We have funded ourselves and are responsible for our spendings. We want to be respectful of the environment.’
The goal is to benefit producers and provide them with a constant stream of income. Another essential element which is part of the strategy of Walisuma is the respect of the environment. There must be a sustainable management of resources and raw materials during the elaboration of each product. Especially when working with vicuñas. ‘We work with only one community in the north of La Paz because others don’t have the required permits. People are still illegally hunting vicuñas. The producers we work with don’t kill the animal. They have learned how to care about the animal,’ says Rodríguez.
Ultimately, Rodríguez stays positive as she anticipates the recession coming and difficult times ahead. Moving to an online platform is a necessity now: ‘During the pandemic we want to know the producers better. We are moving to a virtual shop and use the platform to promote our products and producers.’
‘There are many challenges ahead but we are motivated to move forward. We want to be conscious of the items we buy. Those are products that can last for a lifetime, or at least a decade. It’s an inversion. We want to work on these messages and reflect on the products and who makes them. That’s the positive side of the pandemic.’