Thursday, 30 December 2010


Another week, another town. This week I am off to Tacna. My host @ MIMDES (the Ministry for Women and Social Development)  is involved in a collaboration project with South Korea to train women entrepreneurs in digital economy skills. 

The pilot program for women entrepreneurs entitled 'Innovative Strategies for Women  to participate in the Digital Economy' stems from a train-the-trainer setup, which required a group of Spanish speaking women leaders to travel to Korea to be trained in website building, e-commerce and e-marketing in English spoken by Koreans! Ruby ~ who has recently returned from Korea ~ has organised a seminar for about 40 Tacna women entrepreneurs at a local private University which is located on the edge of town in a desert like setting. The entrepreneurship faculty is a surprisingly speccy new building.

No sooner do I arrive or I am turned into a presenter and invited to make welcoming remarks (as is the custom here in Peru) alongside the other distinguished speakers. Good thing off the cuff speaking doesn't worry me, but I do have to spend some time preparing what turns out to be a 45-minute presentation slot. 

San Pedro de Tacna , or simply Tacna, is in southern Peru and the regional capital of the Tacna Region. It is located in the desert and presents quite a different picture from all the mountainous areas I've visited to far. Peru has an interesting mix of mountains (Andes), desert (along the coast) and jungle ~ more on the latter coming your way soon ~ and landing at desolateTacna airport for some reason reminds me of Townsville. 

Tacna sits on the border with Chile, inland from the Pacific Ocean and in the valley of the Caplina River. Tacna is a commercially active city. It is a shopper's haven for Chileans who frequently cross the border to hunt for (electronics) bargains in Tacna. I do manage to make it to the vast Bolognesi market but see little point in buying electronics that cannot be serviced, so I am just about the only person not hauling overstuffed shopping bags.

Although Tacna has its charms, I do not find it the most attractive place I've visited even if Ruby takes us to a restaurant to savour local delicacies such as guinea pig (yuk, rodent). On my way back to the airport I spot a surprise. This overwhelmingly catholic city (country) has a mosque !! The first one I've seen and it turns out that the Bab ul Islam mosque the very first one built in Peru (in 2002) by a group of Pakistani immigrants ~ there are about 120 Muslim families in Tacna ~ who have found there way to Tacna where they busy themselves selling Japanese cars - go figure ! 

Monday, 20 December 2010

feliz navidad

here's to a sustainable 2011

posts will return next week  

(do click on the card) 

Sunday, 19 December 2010


Faustos arrives punctually at the arranged time (a miracle in Peru!) to pick me up for our visit up country. I am not sure what to expect but soon find out that we are traveling to a village called Samana in the Socos district of Ayacucho. Faustos does not have a car so he negotiates with several taxis until we find one willing to take us up the mountain for a reasonable price.

The trip up the mountain is simply breathtaking and, if possible, even more beautiful than the one to Huana. Up and up we travel passing green pastures and waxing crops until we reach a village called Samana


We park the car and climb another hundred metres or so uphill where a group of women is clustered, working on a variety of handicraft products. Faustos and I are greeted warmly. The group leader, Esther, points for us to sit down on two low rattan chairs covered with colourful cloths. 

We sit down and start the conversation. Well, sort of. The women only speak Quechua ('qheswa'), the native language (or regional variants thereof) spoken by between 6 and 13 million indigenous people (estimates vary widely) throughout the South American Andes. Quechua was the official language of the Inca Empire. Faustos ~ speaking both Spanish and Quechua, but no English ~ is my translator.  I understand Spanish reasonably well, but have limited speaking ability. Good thing I've come prepared with a list of questions in Spanish ~ the setup works surprisingly well.  

The women talk about how life has changed for them since they became part of the Hilos & Colores Association, which also includes villages in other locations. Many of these women are single mothers and victims of violence and abuse by their former partners.  They speak about life being more stable, more dynamic, of food security now that they have a regular income and of a possible future for their children. One of those children, a ten-year-old girl is sitting working with the women. Her mother 'esta enferma' (is unwell) and she has taken it upon herself to work on behalf of her mother to maintain their income stream.  
Esther, Group Leader

I am touched by the strong community spirit, social support and simplicity of their life. Some of the women have mobile phones, but the signal up the mountain isn't strong so they don't get much of an opportunity to use them and clearly there is no computer connectivity. The 10-year old says she has used computers in school (in a neighbouring village) but nobody else has.

We talk about their dreams for the future. I ask the 10-year old. She is reluctant to answer, but eventually says she wants to become a computer scientist. One woman gets up and says that despite the fact that things are a lot better now, she has great fear for her children's future because of climate change. The area has been experiencing drought and crops are ailing. If they can no longer grow their own food, conditions in the village will rapidly decline. I am reminded of Bangladesh and the lack of income the women farmers experience a large part of the year. I am also reminded never to underestimate rural women. They are au fait with global conditions and they know what they want and need.

Faustos says it's time to go and I reluctantly say goodbye to this great group of women. On the way home Faustos and I talk about the work with the Hilos & Colores Association. He is a true social entrepreneur ~ much more concerned about the welfare of the women than profit, although he and his wife run a high quality boutique and sell well through trade shows. He does some direct export but isn't interested in working with Peru's governmental export body as the focus is solely commercial. I am impressed with his dedication and feel like I've been in touch with real life in rural Peru.

My days in Ayacucho have been packed with great experiences and it's time to head to the bus station. True to her word, Tania is there waiting for me with the video (which I have had no luck uploading due to lack of bandwidth) and after the usual kisses from her and her sidekick, I board the bus for the 10-hr ride back to Lima.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Yet more Ayacucho

In the evening there is a knock on the door. I have a visitor. Faustos introduces himself as says that Guillermo has asked him to contact me. He manages an association called Hilos & Colores and he happens to have a small boutique downstairs from the hotel. He opens up his boutique and shows me an array of high quality handicraft and textiles. I am a tad cautious as I am unsure whether he's trying to put the hard sell on me. He is also suggesting we meet the next afternoon and he will take me to meet the women artisans. I take my leave saying I will check with Guillermo and if all is well I will meet him. More about that later.

The next morning the Belgian car comes around to the hotel again, this time with Hugo, regional agent for CTB and another Belgian volunteer. We are off to an association of women farming guinea pig as well as a mixed group of guinea pig farmers in Guayacondo. 

Don't think pets or ~ as their name implies ~ animals being used to test drugs. In Peru guinea pigs (cuyes) are...dinner. Yuk, rodent, but guinea pig is considered a delicacy around here. The country consumes some 65 million guinea pigs per year. Native to the region and bred in captivity since time immemorial, it is widely used in the Andean region as a food source for low-income families as it is rich in protein. Beyond its nutritional value  'el cuy' also has economic and social significance in the rural areas of Peru. Guinea pig breeding provides women farmers with an opportunity to contribute to family income, which adds to food security and strengthens their position within the family (read = reduces violence). 

Hugo explains that CTB, in collaboration with other NGOs and the Agriculture Ministry, supports a food security program, which provides individuals with 1 male and 7 female guinea pigs  ~ they breed fast ~ as well as training in state-of-the-art feeding (alfa alfa, corn leaves and kitchen scraps) and breeding techniques.As a result, these communities are now self-sustaining. They are able to support the high demand for guinea pig in the Ayachuco region, selling to Ayacucho hotels, restaurants and local markets. Guinea pig trade is particularly fierce around Christmas time and leading up to any of the holidays.

  some rights reserved MJames
The disappointing part of this visit is that I do not get to visit inside the guinea pig sheds, take photos and chat with the women. They are cropping in the fields and not available to show us around. Hugo does his best to show me every possible part of the desolate village ~ devoid of people but for a few elders sitting around ~ and explain all the components of the food security program, such health and hygiene practices. He proudly points to latrines that have been built and potable water sources that assist in reducing disease. 

But the disappointment has a silver lining. When I go online to search for a guinea pic, I learn  that guinea pig poop is being turned into electricity! Perhaps old news to some, but to me it's part of pretty cool sustainable farming practices in the Andes.


The Belgian volunteer and I return to the hotel for lunch during which we are visited by Tania, a woman entrepreneur who runs a handicraft association called Manosunidas (United hands), a group of Mujeres Artisanas ~ women producing handicrafts ~ from a town called Tocos. Tania shows me an extensive catalog and also promises to bring a video to the bus depot before I head back to Lima later that evening. 

In an earlier phase, Manosunidas received design and production support from CTB, but they are ~ or need to be ~ self-sustaining these days. Manosunidas sells its products through intermediaries, but Tania isn't particularly happy with the prices she receives. I ask her if they supply products to Sumaq Qara, but she vigorously shakes her head and says she's not interested in doing business with them. Clearly not all associations see eye to eye in the region. Tania also talks of the difficulty of keeping the women from Tocos in work ~ a recurring pattern ~ and her desire to start trading direct.

Manosunidas has a website sporting their product line but does not deal with direct orders online. There is an atelier quite far away full of sample product, but alas there isn't enough time to visit as I am slated to meet Faustos (having cleared his legitimacy with Guillermo).

Run out of space again, so the afternoon trip up country will become the last of the Ayacucho blogs. Until then, a sampling of mannequins frequently used by artisan associations and local shops to show off their wares. For some reason they tickle my funny bone.

grad gear anyone?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Ayacucho - Part 3

In the early afternoon the Belgian car swings by again to pick me up. This time we are off to Huanta, one of the 11 Ayacucho districts,  where there is a celebration to attend. Twelve women leaders have taken part in a capacity building program of CTB and they are graduating.

The trip to Huanta takes about an hour by car and the scenery is outright stunning. Although this event does not directly link to my work, I am tickled pink to be included even if we are crammed into the backseat and the mountain ride is a tad scary (days later I learn that 12 people were killed and 39 injured in 2009 when a bus plunged into a gorge in Ayacucho province).

Blissfully unaware, I savour the trip up to Huanta and fall in instant love with its lush green square.

Being the Director of the CTB program, Betty is slated to speak, but she's got larangytis and all she can do is croak. She still manages to speak for a surprisingly long time. The ceremony takes about an hour and a half after which wine appears and we all toast the good outcome of the program. We are fed chicken brochettes with potato.The humble potato is native to the Andes and Peru is famous for its multiple varieties  ~ I've heard 4000 and up, but nobody seems to know the exact number of species  ~ being grown in micro climates across the country.

I get introduced to Guillermo, a local CTB team member. Betty is suggesting he can organise some visits for my second day in Ayacucho and Guillermo promises to be in touch. Along with the rest of the CTB team, I get kissed on the cheek by a stream of grateful women ~ did I mention Peru is a 'kissing society' and it is not at all unusual to get kissed by total (male and female) strangers ~ and we all pile into the car again to make a quick stop at a local Huanta handicraft association and wind our way down the mountain accompanied by a most spectacular sunset. 

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Ayacucho - Part 2

My morning begins at 10:00 AM when I am picked up by the Belgian development project driver and a Belgian volunteer who is going to translate for me. Our first stop is a business called Sumaq Qara, which started out as an 'associacion'  ~ these so-called associations seem to be the standard way of collaboration ~ of women who benefited from CTB investment in technology and capacity building during phase 1 of the project. They were trained in how to make and sell quality product, go to trade shows and transfer knowledge. 

These days Sumaq Qara is an organisation run by three sisters, employing some 400 women in different parts of the Ayacucha province which in the 1980s was ravaged by guerrilla warfare led by Shining Path, gross human rights violations and a reign of violent brutality. After the capture of the terrorist leader in 1992, the group largely disbanded, but (according to Sumaq's website) the devastation to the Peruvian countryside and rural populations will take many years to recover from. Today, many people are still displaced and wary of violence, which  has significantly curtailed the pace of economic development in the region. 

Sumaq Qara supports women by finding markets for products. It plays a vital role in the lives of women by training artisans to produce quality handcrafts, offering a foothold in the global marketplace, and helping to create greater income-generating opportunities for local women.   In the process of competing for global market share, Peruvian women come together to discuss common problems and solutions, learn from one another, and celebrate milestones within the group.
Sumaq Qara
Sumaq Qara provides its workers with the raw materials in turn for which the women get paid for piece work. The group leader brings the finished products to Ayacucha where they are finalised and prepared for shipping. About 80% of the products ~ intricately embroidered handmade bags, belts, cushion covers, jewelry and more ~ are exported to Europe, Canada and Australia. Export is facilitated by Prom Peru (think Austrade) through participation in trade shows.  Participation also allows them to keep up with market trends and reverse engineer designs in demand.
Yuu - Commercial Manager

Sumaq Qara has a website and commercial manager Yuu ~ who learnt to use technology in college ~ uses email to communicate with clients. When potential clients approach Sumaq Qara via the web, she gets Prom Peru to do a 'due diligence' check before she enters into trade. 

Yuu says life has changed dramatically for the women who work with Sumaq Qara. Earning their own money contributes to family income, builds confidence and makes the women less dependent on their husband, all of which contributes to reducing violence. A large percentage of the women workers are abandoned single mothers for which income is crucial to feed their children and send them to school. The biggest issue for Sumaq Qara, says Yuu, is the huge responsibility to keep the women in work. I requires belief in self and perseverence.


The next stop is Asocacion Carmin 11 de Junio where we are greeted warmly by Alejandrina who is the leader of the association, supported in an earlier phase by CTB. Asocacion Carmin is considerably smaller than Sumaq Qara, employing around 30 women in the region. They make alpaca shawls, gloves and toys using only natural materials and dye. 

The association is not in a position to directly compete in the marketplace and sells its goods via intermediaries including Sumaq Qara. They do not always receive fair market price for their product but have little recourse. After covering overhead, there is little left for expansion, training and knowledge transfer and the organisation would need  Alejandrina is not computer literate and depends on her daughter to communicate online. Not that she really needs online technology as she mostly interacts face to face with local women and local intermediaries either face to face or via mobile phone.

One of the ongoing issues for the association is continuity of work which ~ while not related to climate change ~ is reminiscent of the situation in Bangladesh. The association would need financial assistance to increase its output and diversify to keep up with market trends. Yet despite these issues, Alejandrina has great hopes for the future. She wants to start selling direct to market and look more 'professional' by building a showroom for clients, despite the fact that the outdoor setting has its charm. It takes courage and persistence, but Alejandrina says she is destined to help the women of the region and the struggle makes her stronger. 

Quality Control


I return to the hotel for lunch and ponder the fate of these women and their organisations.  Clearly the support from organisations such as the Belgian Development Agency helped to get these organisations on their feet. But I am told that phase 2 (2008-2012) of the CTB project ~ stretching across all 11 Ayacucho districts ~ no longer has an entrepreneurship component, so struggling organisations are either left to their own devices or need to secure support elsewhere (another example of 'dead aid'?). Clearly it also helps to have direct access to market, have ICT knowledge, and the entrepreneurial savvy to compete for market share. There seems little collaboration between associations which adds the pressure of competition to the already heavy responsibility to keep Ayacucho's rural women in work, on top of which one can only wonder how long before the market is saturated?


Sunday, 28 November 2010

Ayacucho - Part 1

This is a big week!  I am going on a field trip organised by a section of MIMDES that administers the 'Program Nacional contra la Violencia familiar y Sexual'. Family violence against and sexual abuse of women is a huge ongoing issue in this macho society and there are many streams within this large national program. 

Violence against women is rooted in women's lack of power in relationships and in society relative to men. In many societies, women are expected to be submissive and sexually available to their husbands at all times. The World Health Organisation ((WHO) puts abuse by a partner at 11%  in provincial Peru, but I am told that in reality a substantially larger proportion of women experiences (sexual) violence.

I am introduced to Betty, the Director of an integrated program to combat violence supported by CTB ~ Belgian Development Agency which is the equivalent of AusAid ~ in the Ayacucho region. Phase 1 of the program started in 2005 in 4 of the 11 provinces of Ayacucho ~ also the name of the capital city ~ with violence prevention, awareness raising, training of social workers and police, fostering collaboration between prevention agencies, and supporting the pathway from violence to entrepreneurship. It is the latter component that will be my focus in Ayacucho.

Ayacucho is 500 kms south east from Lima in the south-central sierra of the Andes and the mode of transport to get there is either on a small plane, which leaves at 5:00 AM or an overnight bus. I am told buses and roads are quite good and safe, so I opt for the 10 hrs bus ride. Compared to Bangladesh, the Cruz del Sur bus is sheer luxury! There is only a small but... Ayacucho is 2.746 metres above sea level and the bus driver has to shift gear on every corner as the bus crawls up the winding mountain road. It doesn't do much for sleeping but beats looking down into the steep valley worrying about a big bus on a small mountain road..

Cruz del Sur bus
But it's all worth it when I get there in the morning. Founded in 1540 Ayacucha is a remarkable colonial settlement known as  the"Ciudad de las Iglesias" (city of the churches) for its 33 churches ~ which represent each year of Jesus' life ~ and beautiful buildings. My hotel is in a prime location, looking out over Ayacucha's main square Plaza de Armas. 

Plaza de Armas

The handicrafts of Ayacucho are some of the finest in Peru and apparently admired all over the world.  I am slated to visit several women-led handicraft associations as well as a guinea pig farming cooperative. There is a fair bit to cover and rather than cram it all into this blog, I will post a couple more blogs on Ayacucho in the days to come, so stay tuned.