Interview with Krissa Henderson at Awamaki

While in Peru’s Sacred Valley this May, I happened upon the storefront for an organization called Awamaki in the quaint town of Ollantaytambo just two hours by train from the famed Machu Picchu. The pieces in the store were beautiful, and I was immediately drawn to the intricately woven patterns in all varieties of earthen colors that I saw on skirts, coats, bags, hats, and more. Traveling throughout the Sacred Valley and visiting several different markets and exploring all the small towns, I saw many textiles and woven goods, but something stood out about these pieces, and as I learned more about the organization and the mission behind the store, it became very clear why I was so drawn to this place. Awamaki collaborates with the greater Ollantaytambo population to create economic opportunities and improve social well-being by empowering Andean women artisans to connect to the market economy, run successful cooperative businesses, and lead their communities out of poverty. I got a chance to ask Krissa Henderson, the current Creative Director at Awamaki, some questions about the organization and the awesome work being done in this truly beautiful village.

What is your role at Awamaki?

I am the Creative Director and Head of Artisan Cooperatives. I work with our 5 cooperatives of 110 women to connect them with clients, create new designs for the Awamaki Lab collection, and design and organize workshops to help the cooperatives become self-sustaining. I have been living in Ollantaytambo, Peru for the past 3 years and am moving back to the US in June, and so I'm excited to tell you what we've done during my time here!  

How did Awamaki start?

Awamaki was formed in 2009 by Executive Director Kennedy Leavens to work with 11 weavers in the community of Patacancha and preserve ancient weaving traditions by reintroducing ancient natural dye techniques and providing a market to sell the textiles. The only industry in the majority of the communities in which we work is agriculture, so many people are moving away to find jobs. Awamaki provides options for people, especially women, who want to stay in these small mountain villages. 

Why Peru, Ollantay, specifically?

Peru has a rich culture of textiles that is still ongoing and in need of support. Ollantaytambo is the last town on the way to Machu Picchu, and daily we receive over 2,000 tourists, which means that there are a lot of opportunities here to tap into the tourist market, but we find that a very small percentage of the population benefits. Our goal is educate tourists and volunteers about Andean culture and help them make a connection with the people, thereby creating a knowledge exchange and, at the same time, spreading the economic benefits around to some of the more rural communities who normally do not benefit from tourism. 

How does Awamaki recruit/involve women from the community, and how does this involvement change life for these women?

Awamaki looks for pre-existing artisan groups of women to work with. Through our Cooperative Development Model, we help co-ops to become legally recognized Associations with governing bodies and provide them with any necessary support and/or training to learn how to manage their co-op. This includes anything from leadership and self-esteem workshops to technical skills training to accompanying illiterate groups to explain and help them sign legal documents. 

What has the community's response been to Awamaki's presence?

The women with whom we work take the opportunity to work with Awamaki very seriously, and we actually have a wait-list of groups who would like to work with us. Part-time work is basically non-existent in this part of Peru, and women still have very traditional rolls raising children and caring for their families. We only expect women in our groups to work 16-20 hours per week which allows them the flexibility they need to continue caring for their families but also provides them with enough income to make a valuable contribution economically. We find that most women in this area manage their family finances, and the first thing they invest in is improving educational opportunities for their children. 

Can you tell us about the different opportunities for visitors to be hands-on and closely involved with Awamaki?

We accept volunteers and interns into 4 main areas: design/production, tourism, marketing, and education. Everyone who comes to work with us takes part in a 3-day workshop in the high-Andean community of Patacancha where they stay with a family and take back-strap weaving lessons. In the Women's Cooperatives Program, volunteer designers learn first about our different cooperatives and the strengths and limitations. They then work in seasonal inspiration and concepts, product development, tech design, and/or production. We rely on volunteer designers to keep us up to date on global trends because we have limited access to media and even internet down in our little town. 

What is something the world should know about the Ollantay community and these women that we might not otherwise get the chance to learn?

Most people do not realize when they pass through Ollantay that this is actually one of the poorest districts in Cusco. Rural families often make as little as $80/month. The artisans with whom we work are passionate about their work and motivated to help their families. The income generated by the sales of even one product makes a huge difference to the artisans. Awamaki re-invests 100% of our profits into providing workshops and trainings to help our artisans learn lasting skills and become leaders in their communities. 

Is there anything else we should know about Awamaki?

Awamaki is a US 501(c)(3) and recently received fair trade certification. We have received grants from the United Nations and the U.S. State Department as well as smaller, private organizations. Our Peruvian and international staff are incredibly dedicated and passionate about what they do. We are currently selling to stores in the US, but since we're in Peru, we are always looking for suggestions of stores to whom we should reach out. You can see our products at www.awamakistore.org.  

How can interested readers learn more/get involved?

Getting involved is easy! Go to our website, www.awamaki.org and click Volunteer to fill out our application. We have opportunities from people who want to volunteer from 3 weeks to 6+ months. For shorter visits, we provide tours to our artisan communities and homestay accommodations, so if you are just passing through you can check out our website and click Visit to schedule a tour.