My last weeks in Colombia I've spent at Fundación Talento Colectivo. It's a fair trade organization, which works with wayuu women in La Guajira province in Colombia.
I thought I knew what fair trade was. Just asking more money for a product, so the producers of the products get a more fair price, right? No, turns out I was quite wrong on that.
What Paula Restrepo is doing over here has more to do with attitude (actually more with changing the attitude) then with prices. The attitude of tourists, but most of all the attitude of the artisans she works with. Let me explain this a bit more.
The wayuu people experience a lot of racism: other Colombians look down on them, because they are 'poor', they don't get an adequate education, they are being exploited to sell their bags at ridiculously low prices. When you experience exclusion and racism all your life, and so did your parents, and your grandparents and so many generations before that, it will have a huge impact on you and how you act and feel about yourself. This is what Paula is trying to change more than anything. She focuses on human development, on empowering these women, she makes it clear that the bags are real pieces of art; the change in attitude is about making the artisans more proud of what they do, show them the true value of their work, and show them that they too are human beings who deserve to be treated the same way as anybody else.
The women get lessons in Spanish (their mother tongue is wayuunaiki), a bit of English, but also mathematics and geography for example. Some of the women I talked too had never been to school, because the place they live (their Rancheria as it is called) is too far away from any school. One women told me that she moved from her Rancheria to the city Riohacha after childhood, where her children did go to school. She learned Spanish through her children.
They learn mathematics, so they can calculate their margins, and avoid losing money when selling a bag and being pushed to sell at lower and lower prices.
The Fundación offers a platform to the women. A place to come together and to learn, not only Spanish, mathematics, etc, but also new designs for their bags, to talk to the volunteers and learn what colors and designs are popular. It opens new ways of selling bags, through the webshop for example, and they organize fairs, etc... When I was there a client who organized an event in Bogotá wanted to give his international guests a typical Colombian souvenir, so he ordered 80 custom made bags at once. Thanks to the Fundación the wayuu women who are associated with the organization were able to find a client like that.
There is an innovation laboratory, where they think of new products. For example, I needed a strap for my camera bag so they made a prototype for me while I was there, and based on that experience, they can offer this product now too.
Talking to the volunteers and people at fairs, it became clear that there was a demand for bags that have a zip to close them, so they started making those too.
The Fundación also has a 'Banco de hilos', which is a 'Bank of threads'. Here the women can get the materials they need to start working on a new bag, instead of getting a loan at a bank (and having to pay a high interest).
In the end, besides all of these advantages, the women also get a higher wage then they would receive when selling their bag in the mercado.
During my stay I had the opportunity to join Paula when she was visiting one of the women and her family and thanks to the big order of 80 bags I could see upclose how they work. Paula knew so much about the wayuu, fair trade, the history of Colombia, ethics ... I had a room in Paula's house and was living closely together with her and her husband Victor and daughter Margarita, I so not only learned about the wayuu and the foundation, but also about the Colombian family life.