I’m up early this morning to spend the entire day visiting more businesses at some of the small towns around the lake. Though the morning light is beautiful, and our trip by boat across the lake refreshingly crisp, I’m tired from staying up reading last night.
My first visit is to San Juan La Laguna to visit Lema, an association of women who make dyes from natural sources and weave the fabric into about 33 different products. Rosalinda is explaining to me about the details of her business, the number of women who are part of the cooperative (15 work intensively, another 65 make partial contributions, and nearly all are illiterate), the range of prices for their goods (5 quetzales (USD$0.68) for a small woven hackeysack to 550 quetzales (USD$75) for a duvet), and their general margins (about 30% for direct sales, a bit less for items sold through intermediaries at markets farther from Solola). After six years of business, nearly all of which have seen year-over-year growth, Rosalinda’s comment about success is: we must always innovate (“tenemos que innovar siempre”).
My next stop is back on the eastern side of the lake at the workshop of Matea in San Antonio Palopo. Matea has been in business for 20 years, dying fibers from leaves and then spinning them into thread. She sells some of the thread to markets as far away as Mexico, and uses most of the rest to weave into fabric. Like Rosalinda in San Juan La Laguna, she makes a variety of products. However, as is somewhat typical around the lake, the designs and colors vary quite significantly from town to town all around the lake. In San Juan, the patterns were more simple and colors more subdued; here in San Antonio Palopo the colors are more vibrant and designs a bit more intricate.
Matea takes me through her workshop and shows me the different stages of making a finished product and the machines she has bought (from her father, who is a carpenter) to be able to produce the goods faster (making a scarf on a foot-powered loom takes only 1 day, whereas it takes about 4 days of work to make the same one by hand). She comments that much of this is typically a man’s work, but that she is able to do it equally well.
Matea is very proud of the fact that, though she had to leave school, she is able to earn money to send her children to school. She is a bit upset that it has become more difficult to profit from her goods in the local markets as more people have entered the textile business and more people now know the costs of production. This has forced her to look for markets farther away and to deal with intermediaries, who also cut into her profits. She would like more money to invest in thread, but says that the requirements necessary to take out a loan are too much of a burden and would require her to spend her time doing something other than producing or selling goods – time that she does not have.
I spend the rest of the day visiting other businesses including Magdalena in Santa Catarina Palopo who also sells textiles and Carmela in San Andres Semetaba who grows organic mushrooms. On my way I pass many fields, some in cultivation, such as this onion field, and others lying fallow.
The opportunities here are immense, but many of these people have been caught off-guard by the fast pace of today’s world market. A generation ago, markets changed slowly, patterns were subtle, emerged slowly, and allowed people sufficient time to adapt. Today, markets are flooded with new products daily – yesterday’s hand-made ceramic masks are replaced by inexpensive wooden snakes from China. The success of the first friend-chicken stand at the market invites 5 others the following week, no longer one more the following year. Selling at the market was a skill passed from generation to generation, the same way Maria learned to sell tortillas from her mother and now sells mangoes. However, prior generations have not passed along the skills to know what to do when competition arrives not with a whisper, but with a deafening crash. It is my hope, our hope, that the Barefoot MBA will infuse into the generational market knowledge a few ideas about how to adapt to the rapid changing of the markets.