Delving deeper into the quaint town of Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru, we discover Awamaki, a Peruvian and U.S. non-profit organization, which operates as a unique business incubator for the local women. Among other core activities, they promote community development through fair trade artisan cooperatives, sustainable tourism operations, and local community education. Let’s unravel the story of Awamaki, this very special organization which has recorded the mission statement on their "offices" wall and aims to provide a better future for Peruvian women and their families through education.
Eco Fashion World: The word Awamaki sounds so interesting. Please give us a brief overview of what the Awamaki organization is and please tell us about the meaning of the actual word.
M. Kennedy Leavens: Awamaki is a not-for-profit organization that uses business strategies to sustainably empower Andean women in remote, isolated communities. We connect them directly to global markets so they can transform their communities.
In Quechua, Awa means loom and maki means hand. Awamaki means handwoven, or weaving hands.
EFW: How do you manage to support and empower rural Peruvian women?
MKL: Awamaki empowers rural Andean women with skills-based trainings and connects them to global markets through programs in fair trade artisan cooperatives and sustainable tourism. We teach women the skills and facilitate the opportunities they need to participate in the modern economy, earn an income, and lead their successful small businesses. Our goal is to give them the power to be self-sufficient.
We give intensive capacity-building workshops in technical, administrative and leadership skills. We teach everything from knitting or hosting tourists in their homes, to business administration skills. Then, we connect them directly to global markets so they can earn an income. Increasing women’s income enables them to transform their communities, because women invest in their families and they know what their communities need.
EFW: Who is the initiator and what prompted you to support these women? How did it all begin?
MKL: Awamaki was founded in 2009 by Kennedy Leavens, an American; Miguel Galdo, a Peruvian; and Emma Hague, who is British. The three worked together with a cultural organization, and when that organization closed, they founded Awamaki to continue supporting the 10 women weavers with whom they worked. Since then, Awamaki has grown to include 150 women in weaving, knitting, spinning, sewing and sustainable tourism.
EFW: You are aiming to create a sustainably developing society based on key sectors of Peruvian social growth (ie. clothing, tourism). What are the main projects?
MKL: Awamaki’s main projects are our Sustainable Tourism and Women’s Artisanal Cooperatives programs. The Artisan Cooperatives Program provides skills education to women’s cooperatives in product design, quality and business leadership. Then, we facilitate access to local and global fair trade markets for their crafts, which include woven textiles, knitwear, handspun alpaca yarns, and sewn accessories.
Our Sustainable Tourism program evolved organically alongside the crafts project. Tourists who found us through our store and online were interested in visiting the cooperatives in their communities. We used to just bring them up when we met with the women. The program became so popular that now we run tours almost every day of the week. The women sell almost as many weavings to tourists directly as we sell in our store.
We now train rural women to host community visits and homestays, sell their products, teach Spanish and Quechua classes and offer weaving and dyeing demonstrations and artisanal workshops. Then, the program connects the women to market access in the local tourism economy.
EFW: What motivates and energizes your team most? Ideas, motto, mantra, interaction with society, etc.?
MKL: We are continuously amazed by the women with whom we work. Our interactions and relationships with the cooperatives are a huge motivator. Their gratitude and visible skills progress, and the incredible improvements they have made to their lives, is very energizing. The women are at the heart of everything we do.
EFW: You have volunteer programs. Who can participate and how important are programs and volunteerism for Awamaki?
MKL: Volunteers are essential for Awamaki. We have a small staff. Volunteers and interns play a significant role in keeping Awamaki running by working in our various departments alongside staff.
Anyone who is studying or has experience in tourism, monitoring and evaluation, fashion and design, or marketing and communications is welcome to apply! We give priority to individuals who have more applicable, defined and tested skill sets. Our volunteer team is youthful, impassioned, multinational and flexible. You definitely have to be flexible here in Peru!
EFW: People say that in order to meet and understand a culture, you should meet people and learn their language. Please, in order for us to travel mentally into Peru’s majestic Sacred Valley, give us some unique characteristics of a typical Peruvian woman who participates in Awamaki (clothes, daily activities, appearance, smile, etc.) and five words these women use daily.
MKL: The individuals we work with are as unique and varied as the landscape here. Most women from our knitting cooperatives wear modern clothing, speak some Spanish and are always knitting. These communities are right outside of the town where our office is based, Ollantaytambo, and we get to see them regularly. The women from the indigenous communities of Huilloc, Patacancha and Kelkanca dress in traditional skirts and hats and wear their llicllas, or traditional shawls. They are constantly spinning the yarn they use for their weavings. They don’t speak much Spanish and they can be pretty shy—but also pretty giggly, especially when one of our foreign staff members is attempting to practice her Quechua!
What all the women have in common are brilliant colors and personalities, love for their families, an incredible resilience, and artistry. They are masters of their arts.
Words that our women use daily are: (In Quechua/Spanish/English)
Away—Tejer—Weave or knit
Wawa—baby (everyone uses the Quechua for this!)
Chakra—farm field (likewise, no one uses the Spanish word for this)
Sopa—soup (the Spanish word is most common for this!) Soup is eaten every day as part of the main meal, and sometimes for breakfast and dinner too.
Papa-Papa-Potato This is a staple of the Andean diet!
EFW: How do you envision the future for the Awamaki initiative?
MKL: Our current goal is to graduate all our cooperatives so they can run their own businesses and have clients other than us. There are many more cooperatives in the valley who want to work with Awamaki and in the future, we will be able to. We see ourselves becoming a business incubator for women’s cooperatives.
EFW: Which are the most important collaborations so far and why? What have you gained? What have they gained?
MKL: One of our most important collaborations has been with ByHand Consulting. They run the Artisan Resource market development program of the New York gift show. As part of the program, we were able to get our foot in the door and learn about trade shows and the ethical fashion industry. They were instrumental in helping us make our brand more professional and consistent.
The U.S. Embassy in Lima has been another important collaborator. They funded extensive capacity-building and market access with one of our oldest cooperatives. We learned so much from that collaboration, and it was transformative both in market access and in teaching us what the cooperatives are capable of.
Education First, a large educational travel company, is another essential collaborator. They send us students who work with the cooperatives to build them spaces in which they can meet, work, and run their business. These spaces are transformative for the groups and we couldn’t afford to build them without the support of Education First and other donors.
EFW: What are your next plans/projects?
MKL: Our next big project is to start graduating our cooperatives and connecting them with other clients so they can run their own businesses!
EFW: What is your unique and personal message regarding sustainability and eco-fashion, that you would like to share with the world?
MKL: We think one handmade item with a story is worth more than 100 fast-fashion items. Be picky about what you buy! Save your money and closet space for ethically sourced, high quality products. Better for you, your closet and the world.
A proverbial saying which goes like: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime," suggests that the ability to work is of greater benefit than a one-off handout. This encapsulates at the greatest extent, the story of Awamaki, where a team of people and volunteers, believe that empowering the local Peruvian women through successful market participation, as both consumers and producers, is linked to economic opportunities, growth, and improved well-being that result in lasting social transformations.
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