More training, more links to buyers of rural arts means more income for women
Northern Lao PDR is home to a host of traditional craftsmanship. Think slim skirts with hand-embroidered diamond motifs, or woven textiles dyed shades of blue, or handbags of knotted jungle vine. Generally produced for use locally, these items are also sold to the country’s foreign tourists, and sometimes trickle out as exports.
But having such honed skills does not necessarily translate into good income for the women who create such labour-intensive items. One project in six villages of three provinces with 120 women is trying to change that.
Oudomxay, Luangnamtha and Phongsaly provinces are remote, and there is poor infrastructure. Add to that little access to information about potential markets for unique handicrafts, nor knowledge of what might sell. Addressing these challenges, the Lao PDR Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) have, since 2019, been working to help women in those provinces get more for their goods, and get them to more buyers. The goal? More money in the pockets of rural women, and a foothold for Lao PDR’s handicrafts in the competitive global marketplace for ethically and sustainably sourced, artisanal goods.
Here’s how they’ve done it, and what has resulted so far.
First, the Ministry partnered with Ock Pop Tok, a textile-focused social enterprise based in Luang Prabang. Founded in 2000 by one Laotian and one Englishwoman, the business works in partnership with artisans in remote weaving communities throughout Lao PDR to craft high quality, marketable items, largely through collaborations with donors and the government. The resulting decorative works, clothing and carpets produced based on fair trade principles are sold at Ock Pop Tok’s shops and centre just outside Luang Prabang. The rural women they work with may also find other markets to sell to.
In each of the Ministry project’s target provinces, Ock Pop Tok selected two villages that had potential, i.e. where organization is lacking, where the production of items could increase and where such economic opportunity is needed and welcome. The partnership builds on the government’s vision to enhance the competitiveness of Laotian enterprises and develop its trade sector, stemming from analysis of the country’s trade supported by EIF that identified textiles and handicrafts as a sector with much growth potential. A specific handicraft sector strategy was also developed.
“Each village has its own resources and skills, but they often don’t know how to use them. For example, they don’t know how to select the best quality raw material. They buy it at the most convenient location rather than looking at the quality of the product,” said Soulinda Philiminda, Head of Design and Production at Ock Pop Tok.
Ock Pop Tok is leading the work with weavers, and is providing trainings in the villages of Huayhok, Mang, Sinoudom, Lakkham, Longthang and Phapoon to help women learn more skills like natural dying techniques, ways to make other types of designs, product costing and more.
“The main focus of the design is to use local knowledge, and come up with a product niche,” said Lattanaphone Vongsouthi, EIF National Implementation Unit Director at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.
“One of the reasons why we chose to work with Ock Pop Tok is because they are playing the role of the lead firm. They have extensive experience in bringing out the potential of rural artisans, providing technical assistance to villagers, and also helping villagers to access markets,” added Vongsouthi.
All six villages are home to ethnic minorities with particular, unique traditions. They may not even speak Lao, so conducting trainings has added challenges, as does villagers’ ability to market their products.
“In pricing, they don't know the prices of the market so they will sell their products to tourists at a very low price that does not reflect the quality of the product or time spent on producing it,” said Helen Pengson-Orbe, Head of Finance and Administration of Ock Pop Tok.
Key to the success of this partnership is the production group model. Six production groups were formed to facilitate knowledge sharing and so rural artisans are better able to advocate for themselves as a group and work with outside buyers. The groups were given basic equipment like cotton-producing machines, sewing machines, spinning wheels and natural dyes.
Ock Pop Tok works with groups to produce specific designs, or to produce marketable designs in line with what they traditionally do, or to produce their own, independent works. The resulting items are either purchased by Ock Pop Tok directly to sell at their stores depending on the kind of product, or marketed by the groups themselves.
“Ock Pop Tok itself is a market for these producers, but at the same time we are not limiting Ock Pop Tok as the only market for them. Ock Pop Tok also has a responsibility to help related to establishing business relationships with other exporters,” Vongsouthi said.
As part of this building of outside relationships, newly trained weavers from the six villages – alongside their fresh wares – attended three trade fairs in Luang Prabang and Vientiane in 2020. This resulted in an additional US$4,000 in income from sales.
At one of those fairs, the Lao Handicraft Festival in Vientiane, a bag made from jungle vine and rattan produced by Mang village in Oudomxay province won first prize in quality.
“For the past 15 months, we purchased a lot of products from these market fairs. Two villages weave cotton, they produce a lot of textiles, so we placed orders to buy skirts and wall hangings from them,” said Pengson-Orbe.
It is the continuing development of skills, sustainable production methods and sales that is the goal of this partnership. Next is to increase the connections to international buyers and expand export opportunities – which has been difficult during the pandemic.
Pervasive challenges in getting Lao PDR’s rural arts to outside markets include the lack of business skills, market information and capital. Banks or non-bank financial services are not available in the villages. At the scale of this partnership, the first two are being addressed through the trainings being provided.
Ock Pop Tok is also co-financing 20% of the total costs of the project, which is being funded by the Government of Lao PDR and EIF.
So far, these efforts have resulted in an additional $10,000 in income across the six villages.
But it is hoped more partnerships with more buyers for longer time periods will result.
“We want this business partnership with these villages to continue beyond the project duration, that's how we see the sustainability of this project,” said Vongsouthi.