THE BLOG
07/30/2012 12:04 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012

Building a Market for Bolivian Artisans

Kirah Design is a company created to generate real job opportunities for artisans by producing high-end home accent and decorative pieces.

In a country with great inequalities, my greatest challenge was to figure out how to create beautiful and high quality pieces for the high-end market around the world and at the same time offer sustainable jobs to artisans throughout Bolivia. After taking a sabbatical in Washington, D.C. to take business courses at Georgetown University I decided to translate my dream into a business plan. I started by analyzing and understanding the U.S. market, i.e. buying trends, wholesale purchasing cycles, the process of creating a purchase order, etc. At the same time, I attended trade shows in New York, D.C. and North Carolina. After 18 months I realized that the problem was not the market but the production process, so I decided to go back to Bolivia and founded Kirah Design.

My first goal was to understand the bottlenecks on the production side, to contact artisans to create my network, and, finally, the hardest part. I made the decision to work with artisans from the base of the pyramid using only recycled materials like FSC discarded wood, post-consumer recycled glass, led free pewter and llama and alpaca fibers using only natural dyes. To start the process I decided to use the strategy "from the market backwards." I hired designers in New York that were up to date with international trends and were willing to collaborate with my project while I focused on rescuing traditional techniques and cultural values to be applied to those designs and therefore, be able to create unique pieces with a soul and cultural identity using only Bolivian raw materials. My main problem at that moment was to convince the artisans to join my project. It was something new to them because it had a different approach, a business approach rather than a paternalistic view. A project where design, quality control, consistency, tradition, transparency in cost-structure, deadlines and win-win alliances were regular words but sounded as bizarre concepts to them. To change mentalities in each community has been a titanic job. To understand and deal with situations like poverty, lack of opportunities, high drinking indexes or domestic violence, and low self-esteem have been my most important challenges and the biggest lessons learned during these four years. To rescue cultural values, showing Bolivia's cultural richness through the talented hands of gifted artisans, has been my major achievement.

I once participated in a seminar related to measuring social impact. In a moment of desperation I literally jumped onto the speaker and told him in five minutes about my concerns and worries on working with artisans that live in extremely poor and miserable conditions, and about my intention to create a methodology -- used in the traditional business world -- to give incentives or bonuses, and about my idea of providing better access to education and health care. The nice patient speaker, who has more than 40 years of experience working on development issues, took a long breath and told me that he was going to answer all my concerns in three words: production, production, production. He said, "focus only on giving your artisans the means to produce and earn money". That was an enlightened moment for me and helped me focus on generating a balance between the market and the production process to ensure always sustainable production and sales to my artisan. I am still making my best to achieve that goal.

Another challenge has been to deal with the fact that although Kirah's customers fall immediately in love with my project and value the work we are doing, they want "Chinese" prices for the pieces we produce.

That combination is simply not possible. I guess this issue has to do with a constant debate in our society. How green are we? Does fair trade work?

Through the years I have learned to look for and find new opportunities in the midst of strong economic crisis, like the one in the U.S. during 2008. The U.S. market was practically closed to us and therefore we had to search for an alternative customer base in order to place our product. I have also learned that I only have to work with artisans that are willing to work and want to have an opportunity to change their lives.

It's been a dynamic, intense, fascinating walk and now we can say that we have a great name in Bolivia. We are exporting; we have trained more that 700 artisans in indigenous and rural communities and in urban areas. I have discovered great social entrepreneurs that not only help me on the day to day work but are also key for me to understand the cultural values of each community and translate from native indigenous languages (Quechua, Aymara or Guarani) what the artisans want to communicate.

I have developed a "radar" to find talent and give our artisans the pride of working with their hands beautiful pieces that help them improve their lives in the ways they choose. I personally have learned to respect, understand and value strategic alliances to make this project generate the impact I so much look for. An impact that can be measured and enjoyed by everyone that is part of Kirah or buys a Kirah piece!

Gabriela is a 2012 Cartier Women's Award finalist. For more information, please visit http://www.cartierwomensinitiative.com/editions/2012/