Sani Isla Artisan Project
The Development of Sani Isla’s Artisan Craft Business
The success of Sani Isla is a remarkable story of the women in a remote rainforest community and a partnership that empowered them to start a business. Through this project, the Sani women are making an income - for the first time in their lives. In three years, the women have developed a self-sustaining business and have pledged to fund the higher education of one girl per year with the proceeds from their artisan crafts.
Sani Isla Background: Sani Isla is an indigenous rainforest community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, located at the borders of two protected areas, National Park Yasuní and Nature Reserve Cuyabeno. Sani Isla is among the most biologically diverse areas in the world and home to 302 indigenous Kichwa families. In 1998, the community voted to bring ecotourism to the village, and thus they developed the Sani Lodge. This ecolodge grew steadily and created new jobs for the men, but was not able to provide enough income to support the community. The Sani community began to face pressure from oil companies to open their land for prospecting and eventually drilling, but the community refused. When Sani Isla learned about Rainforest Partnership, the community voted to ask for their help developing a business specifically for the women of Sani Isla. This business has helped the Sani community be a strong voice for forest conservation.
Sani Isla Project Timeline: In collaboration with Sani community leaders, Ecuadorian NGO Conservación y Desarrollo and Rainforest Partnership developed a project plan in 2009 for an artisan craft business, based on traditional craft-making techniques of the women of Sani Isla. The women elected a project coordinator who was originally from Sani Isla and who had also received outside education. Rainforest Partnership funded her work which consisted of evaluating forest resources for craft-making, analyzing the women’s skill set, and building the business from there. The older women led the others by teaching them how to collect seeds and plant fibers and to assemble them into bracelets, necklaces, handbags, and the beaded tops and palm skirts worn by their ancestors. With funding from a family foundation, Rainforest Partnership was able to construct an artisan craft house to provide a home for the developing business, and the women established a nursery and demonstration plot outside, planting more than 2,000 native plants. They began selling their first products at the Sani Lodge. With the revival of these craft-making skills, the women now had a product to sell and a market to enter. Rainforest Partnership organized workshops to help the women acquire the business skills necessary to manage their business, including supply chain management, communicating with tourists, and environmental education. Indigenous women came from neighboring communities to teach them new craft skills, and the women opened a market stand in a nearby town.
Empowerment and Independence: Through this project, the Sani women have taken ownership of their education and learned to self-manage their business. In 2012, the women organized themselves, dividing into five groups of seven, and elected one leader for each group. The groups rotate management of the craft house. They also adopted a mixed economics business model, voting on a percentage of sales for each artisan and a percentage to go into the organization’s group fund. Rainforest Partnership funded a trip for women to visit Quito for a learning tour, where they interviewed craft vendors about pricing and craft supply chain management. Based on this experience, a new marketing plan was developed to expand their operations.
2013 and Beyond: Based on a recent request from the women of Sani Isla, Rainforest Partnership is raising the final round of funds needed to finish the women’s environmental, language, and business education, and to develop new markets for their artisan crafts. For the final phase of this project, and to conduct some of the training, Rainforest Partnership is planning to hire a coordinator that that can stay with the community and also act as their liaison in Quito, as well as assist the women in accomplishing the interactive tasks they do not feel comfortable undertaking yet, such as greeting tourists visiting the lodge, conducting transactions, utilizing wholesale versus retail pricing schemes, and connecting with markets in Quito. The women have also asked for help to further their environmental education and organizational skills to strengthen the community against outside issues that might divide them, such as pressure from oil companies. By 2014, and with the necessary funds Rainforest Partnership is now raising, the business will be self-sustaining, and the women will run the artisan craft house for generations.