The Future of Social Enterprise

When the first COVID-19 positive was found in Guatemala mid-March, we were right about to start our rural textile journey, what we have been calling our Textile Travels. We visit our artisan partners during these itineraries in small groups, and spend time exchanging ideas and working together through textile workshops. That was the plan, but the virus reached the country, and everything changed so suddenly. The president quickly closed both the airport and land borders, banned all public transport, and put forth national travel restrictions for private vehicles, all within days.

For the small group that was already in the country, we headed back to Antigua quickly from Lake Atitlán when these travel restrictions were announced, and hunkered down in our cozy hotel through shelter-in-place orders from 4 pm to 4 am. The streets were deserted in this tourist town with foreign visitors fleeing on repatriation flights and/or crossing by land over to Mexico (leaving Guatemala this way was still allowed), and taking a flight from there onward. 

While Antigua looked like a ghost town, it was rather peaceful in that sense. It felt special to see the colonial town in this light, without the usual masses, and take in the cobblestone-lined streets and views luxuriously without a few people around. 

But in rural towns and villages, communities were shutting down trade with other nearby towns, blocking roads in and out, and in some instances, the sudden tripling of corn prices at the market-led locals to riot. Many rural communities found themselves experiencing a lack of access to food, especially fresh vegetables because trade and transport had been limited. And some of these issues are still continuing now, over three months later.

Under these circumstances, our partner weavers up in San Juan del Chamelco, Cobán, first contacted me to see if I would be willing to sell their beautiful handwoven work. While I love working with this group for custom orders of unique pieces for my small brand, I’m usually not a fan of reselling pieces that I feel I did not add value to somehow. But in this case, their request made sense to me because a visit was planned to their village during our Textile Travels, and this portion of the trip had to be cancelled entirely. The weavers had made sure to stock up their cooperative store for our group, and we weren’t able to get there to enjoy (and buy) them. So my response was, “Sure, of course, I would be happy to receive the pieces,” and asked them to send the box to Antigua.

I manage a small textile sourcing group for people interested in purchasing traditional handwoven textiles, such as huipiles (traditional blouses) and cortes (traditional wrap skirts), along with other mostly blackstrap-woven garments. I thought I would share in this group the items sent to me, but when I opened the box, I realized that I was in for something more. 

The group had sent me about 50 garments, which considering that each blouse takes over a month to weave, represents over 50 months of collective work. The pieces were all gorgeous and intricately handwoven, top-notch quality that they had prepared for the especially textile-loving group of visitors they were expecting. I decided then that these pieces deserved to be dedicated special time and energy for photographing individually and listing online as products one by one. Thus, our Artisan Direct Pop-up was born, a space for sharing and selling independently-created beauties by our artisan partners who are experiencing reduced access to markets currently due to COVID-19. We take care of all the logistics through our website, systems we had already put in place anyway.

This is the first time that we have listed on our online platform items that were independently designed and created without our involvement. Usually, I like to play a role in this process by sketching products, choosing colors, deciding measurements, trying out prototypes, improving them, and so on. But we are not in usual times, and I knew the most important thing at the moment was supporting our artisan partners with a flow of income, for as much and as long as possible. With no physical sales due to stores being closed and tourism shutting down, it made so much sense to offer our online platform this way.

We are now representing five different artisan groups on our Artisan Direct page, and this week we are expecting two more groups to enter the bunch. All this in addition to our normal production and online sales. Though wholesale for us has stopped, we are fortunate to have had a functional online platform with all the logistics figured out for e-commerce. 

This pandemic provided an opportunity to really think about our priorities as a small brand working with talented artisans in Guatemala. The bottom line is this: supporting traditions and talented artisans, and we are doing this for now by creating access to markets abroad through our online platform. Born out of need, but we’re happy to fill this role.

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Mari Gray

Mari Gray

I was born in Guatemala, and grew up mostly between Japan and California. My parents traveled a lot and brought me along, so that explains my wanderlust. Even before high school, I was volunteering in Mexico short-term and then decided to spend a year in Spain as an exchange student when I was 17. During my time at UC Davis, I went to Argentina for a quarter, and then to Panama to intern with UNICEF. I didn’t want to stop exploring the world, so once out of college, I took off as fast as I could. I didn’t even go to my graduation ceremony, I just left – for Latin America. With degrees in International Relations and Spanish, I really thought that my “life purpose” would be to work in development, a long career in nonprofit work. Surprise, surprise - I became disillusioned after a few years of seeing mismanaged NGOs and one-sided projects. Long story short, I turned to starting my own social enterprise, Kakaw Designs, named after the Maya chocolate tree (pronounced ) . We work with artisan groups in Guatemala to produce boots, bags, and accessories in a mutually-beneficial way using traditional techniques.

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