In 2009 when I came to Luang Prabang in Laos, I would hear many people in the night market asking the vendors “Ma Té Sai?” Where is it from?”. They would nod their heads and confirm, “Laos!” However, many of these products were not from Laos, but from Northern Thailand, Vietnam and China, where handicraft is mass-produced at a lower cost. At that time I had attended a Fair Trade Laos meeting in Vientiane, and noticed that several companies with quality products were not represented in Luang Prabang. It was here I came up with the idea of Ma Te Sai – a community and fair trade store that demonstrates to buyers the quality and variety of goods produced in Laos .
As a non-Lao speaker with a sales and marketing background I realised that connecting with producers would be difficult. I was introduced to Clem Pabion, a young Lao-speaking French woman who was working in the development sector and had the contacts, passion and understanding for increasing women’s livelihoods in rural areas. Clem saw the difference extra income earned via handicraft, could make for children’s’ education, health and general family wellbeing. She became the co-founder.
In the early days Clem relied on NGOs or projects to connect to producers. For example, Helvetas had put us in contact with the recycled UXO (unexploded ordinance) producers in Xiengkhouang Province, because they had undertaken a project there training safe collection and safe storage for UXO. Another small German project had helped women in Udomxai province package and market their ginger and turmeric tea. For our cotton range, we started with a cotton company in Udomxai, then a hotelier introduced me to a weaver based in a cotton weaving village a few hours from Luang Prabang, and our cotton range grew. Over time we began to deal directly with these producers and develop our products hand-in-hand.
Whilst our relationships were growing our business was not- the tourist season in Luang Prabang was short and it was clear we needed to produce and sell higher-value items. In order to do that we first had to solve a problem. We were buying cotton yardage and sending it to Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women (HHVTW) in Vientiane where jackets, hats and other items we had designed together would be sewn. These items were selling well, however HHVTW could not always meet our demand and it was very difficult and costly transporting the cotton and making the products. It was obvious that we needed to reduce the cost of production and create and sell more items in order to make the company sustainable.
At that point, an angel appeared in the form of a Malaysian investor with a fund to support training and education. I worked out that if we trained the women of the cotton weaving village to sew, then we could make the products in the village. Additionally this provided income and skills to young women who were not all interested in weaving and were raising young families. In 2014, with support from the foundation, Ma Té Sai sent four women to HHVTW to learn to sew for 2 months. The following year we sent two of them back for an additional month. The investment made several impacts including increased production as some of the funding went to purchase materials, reduced cost of production with no transport and less cost for sewing in the village, better margin on products and an ability to design more products. Additionally the increased interaction with the weavers and sewers in the village enabled us to develop more products in terms of weave and design.
This project was supported by two years of pop-up shops in Vientiane, and we have now opened a permanent outlet in Vientiane, a partnership with HHVTW in their retail space, True Colour. This project was a definitive turning point, and with the aid of smart phones and apps to communicate with voice and images, we have surmounted all the challenges of having our producers a few hours away. Now Ma Té Sai is able to grow from strength to strength on the base of our village production. We’re happy that Pacific Artisan is stocking our products - see the Laos page of products for more.