August 1, 2012, Totonicapan, Guatemala – Members of the Luz de lo Alto (Light from the Highest) women’s group meticulously hand make crafts that are sold on order to major international companies like Ralph Loren in Europe an the United States. The group, based in the village of San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala, was connected to these international markets by Counterpart International, working through partner agency Comunidades de la Tierra (Communities of the Earth). © David Snyder/Counterpart International.

By Jennifer Brookland

The vertiginous drive to the villages of the Guatemalan highlands starts with a mountain climb, followed by trails of gnawed and pocked dirt roads that become barely passable in the rain. In one indigenous community tucked into the hillside, a flight of steep stairs drops to a house that gets electricity just a few hours a day.

In one of the poorest areas of Guatemala, most of the women who make handicrafts here have never left their communities. They use the natural resources of their villages — pine needles and palm fronds, for example — to create the same beautiful and functional products that their grandmothers did. They used to sell these hand-made crafts, such as intricately woven traditional shirts called huipils and little dolls with smiling thread mouths, on the roadside.

But this year, their crafts, and a few of the women who helped make them, are going a lot farther. Past the Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua and some 3,000 miles away to one of the trend capitals of the world: New York City.

“They love the idea and just to think that their stuff is going to New York. It’s like ‘whoa.’ They can’t believe it,” says Siggy Bataille Holbik, the owner of craft shop Casa de los Gigantes in Antigua, Guatemala.

Holbik was manning one of two tables laden with the women’s handmade items at New York’s International Gift Fair, trying to interest buyers that could take the crafts from roadside to Rodeo Drive. She hoped the crafts would pull in at least a few orders.

“Let’s go steady and make sure we got two happy customers and next year two more,” she says, the pop of her red drop earrings contrasting with a woven necklace of black and white flowers. “Little by little. It’s handmade. It’s one product at a time.”

A lot of artisans, a little profit

Guatemala as a whole has been upping its exports, which in 2011 brought in more than $10 billion. But traditional handicrafts from the highlands have remained largely sequestered in the little towns they’re made in, sometimes hitching rides out in the backpacks of college students on spring break or backpacking nature-lovers who came to visit Lake Atitlan.

Tourists to Guatemala rarely bought the time-intensive huipils, and local customers were not appreciative of the rich traditions and history woven into crafts that were sometimes so unique they revealed which village the artisan who made them was born in.

When Counterpart International took stock of the sector in 2006, the international development organization realized these local artisans were at the mercy of competition based on price, not quality. Women might sell two blouses at the local market and come home with just one dollar. Few of them were benefitting from Guatemala’s rise in the international export market, or the increased tourism to the region.

There are over a million handicraft producers in Guatemala, more than 75 percent of whom are women.

By improving and distinguishing their crafts and linking them up with bigger markets, Counterpart could help the women increase their income, and improve their lives.

Traditional skills meet trendy design

But prospects for expansion were minimal with the crafts they were producing. No one wanted to buy the same typical products- easily recognizable as Guatemalan but low quality and uninspiring. How could women who had never left their poor communities guess what people hundreds, even thousands of miles away would want to buy?

“The artisan knows what to do, but he doesn’t know the fashion in another country or what is in another country, what other countries need in terms of products,” says Holbik.

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Counterpart launched the Community Tourism Alliance project, and sent a technical expert on visits to 20 artisan groups. He selected three of them to produce products for an umbrella brand called Wakami.

Under Wakami, industrial designers analyze current market trends and marry them with the existing strengths of the artisan groups to create new product lines destined- they hope- for profitability.

“Wakami design and innovation is our best weapon,” said Wendy Hernandez, who designs new products for local partner Comunidades de la Tierra and trains community women to execute them.

The products are then sent to tourist shops in Guatemala, like Holbik’s Casa de los Gigantes, or exported internationally. These days, they’re finding a market that is more environmentally-conscious, and one that puts a premium on a “handmade” label.

For the new value chain to work, the women had to make a few changes to their generations-old processes. Some were hesitant at first.

“‘I won’t be able to do it.  I don’t know how to do it, Wendy,’” Hernandez remembered some of the women told her.

Husbands pushed back too, unhappy about the prospect of their wives working. They thought it would take them away from their fields and homes, and the duties considered mandatory for women in Guatemala, a country where male dominance– and violence– is ingrained and systematic.

When the women found they were able to take work home with them and continue to perform household chores and care for children, the arrangement seemed like a boon for the whole family.

And the work, while grander in scope, still connected them to the past and their culture.

“Handicrafts are something directly connected with the culture,” says Aida Fernandez, executive coordinator for exports at Guatemala’s Exporters Association Artisan and Craft Commission. “Without a doubt, for those living in more rural areas it is something they feel close to. It is something that they can pass on to their children.”

Modern products open doors to new markets

Their experience producing handicrafts made it easy for them to transfer those skills to new products that are more marketable: cases for computers, iPods and cell phones, cosmetic bags, and dishware.

“We are not calling them handicrafts anymore,” says Counterpart’s Guatemala country director Rony Mejia. “We are calling them handmade gifts and décor items because that is what they are really.”

Counterpart partnered with local groups like Grupos Gestores (Management Groups) and Comunidades de la Tierra to train the artisans on strategic business planning, quality control, group governance and  management. They received a four-month course on using sewing machines, designing clothing from patterns, and marketing their products in the local area. They started buying more supplies in the capital to guarantee high quality, and ensure everything was lead-free. They also learned how to make their products more standardized- by using precise measurements instead of eyeballing it, for example.

The increased quality, and mindfulness about what designs consumers want, is bringing these traditional methods into the modern world; Holbick sells the women’s crafts in Guatemala’s WalMart stores during the company’s annual month-long craft fair.

“We are bringing these products that we designed that are usually for the outside. Why not sell them within the country?” says Holbik. “We have people who understand immediately the product because it’s close to their tradition, except they got a modern twist!”

Women who decorated plastic bags were previously happy to sell three bags a week. Holbick loaded an entire flatbed truck with their bags and drove it to Wal-Mart. Three days later, the truck came back empty, ready for another load.

From the roadside of San Francisco el Alto to the largest tourist town in Guatemala and now to markets in Central America, Mexico, the U.S, and even Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, the increased sales reflect the success of the new value chain these rural women have become a part of.

Successful sales create opportunities

At the International Gift Fair in New York, Hobick got the two orders she was hoping for. Then a few more. And even more. In the end, it was the greatest day in the Wakami brand’s seven-year history, with about $20,000 in sales.

“They really like the new collection, all our products.  They love that they are handmade in Guatemala.  They love the idea that we are helping people with selling these products,” says Hernandez.

The designer was happy her ideas were a hit, but even more proud that she was able to represent the women of Guatemala.

“It’s because they have this income that gives them liberty to decide what to do, the women,” Hernandez says.

The women who make the crafts have completely changed their lives, she said. You can tell because not only do their children go to school, but they even have shoes to wear.

More than 800 women in five of Guatemala’s 22 provinces have benefited directly from Community Tourism Alliance projects. The initial investment of $1 million led to more than $6 million in sales. And the money goes straight into the pockets of poor, rural Guatemalans. They spend it on clean water, electricity, and education.

Some are even spending it on education for themselves.

Sara Tzun might be the proudest 22 year-old to be enrolled in middle school. With education only free through sixth grade in Guatemala, and boys privileged over girls after that, Sara never got the chance to continue past elementary school. But as leader of one of the participating artisan groups, Sara has overseen bimonthly sales of about $1,200 – more than most people in the community make in an entire year. Now finally able to afford school fees, Sara dreams of becoming a nurse.

For the other women, the change is apparent in little ways. The women, previously out of touch without money for phone calls, now have the extra change to spend on communication.

“You can see the difference that when we first started working with them, all the phones there are pay-as-you-go,” observes Peace Corps volunteer Hilary Kilpatrick, who is assisting in the project. “So no one would ever have any money on their phones. You couldn’t get a hold of them and now they’re calling us all the time and checking in.”

Extra money for the women means more spending for the local economy on things like phone credit, school fees, and nutritious food for their children.

“We invested our money into buying basic technology for our homes,” says Olegaria Xic, an artisan in San Francisco El Alto. “Each of us is buying eco-filters to make the water in our houses cleaner. We’re also buying more efficient stoves and solar panels to bring electricity into our houses.”

And they are proving to their communities and husbands that women can be economically productive in their own right.

“Before, when we were working individually, we were at home working in the field with our husbands, so the money went to them,” Xic says. “Now, because we work in this association, we learned that women can earn money and we are able to contribute to the household.”

Women not only gain financially, they earn a sense of dignity and pride, too, said Holbick.

“So imagine, says Holbick of Casa de los Gigantes. “All these women now have money in their pocket and they can buy what they need and how good it must make them feel. They earned it.”