Category Archives: Bolivia

Salt in Your Eye

I returned to La Paz nearly three weeks ago to begin my second round of work with Walisuma, the upmarket retailer of Bolivian crafts that provides poor artisans with an outlet for their goods. Flying in, I saw that the previously snow-capped mountains were now heavily snow cloaked.  It is summertime here south of the equator and La Paz lies in the tropic zone.  But at 12,000 feet and in the rainy season, it feels anything but summer. It rains off and on for a few hours every day.  And that precipitation will land as snow on the mountains outside of La Paz. In the city it will drop below 40 at night.  Wear a coat and carry an umbrella. Happy summer.

While I was in the US for the holiday season La Paz opened its third aerial cable car line.  In a city built on steep mountainsides it is impossible to construct an underground metro system.  How would you tunnel horizontally down a vertical cliff?  With a million inhabitants trying to drive up and down hairpin turns, the traffic is slow and nerve-wracking. One end of town to another can take well over 90 minutes.  If you are poor (like most here) and without a car (like most here), the ride requires two or three mini-bus transfers.

But La Paz, now with three cable lines, offers the most connected aerial urban mass transit in the world. Aerial transit here cuts commuting time by over 60%. The ride costs less than 50 cents and the views are spectacular.  More lines are on the drawing board.

And speaking of superlative, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia´s other-worldly salt flats are tops in the world salt bed competition.  They are roughly the size of Belgium. I drove for two hours across nothing but a salt pan, say from Brussels to Antwerp, or more accurately, from Coquesa to Uyuni.  Nothing but hard crystalized salt as far as the eye could see.  Like a winter whiteout without the snow. And all around the fringes are fascinating sights: four species of flamingos, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, volcanoes reaching 20,000 feet, mineral-stained red and green lakes. As well, a boon for poor Bolivia, Salar de Uyuni offers the largest lithium reserves, yes, in the world.  Battery powered devices – – your iPhone, for example – – will only grow in popularity and so will demand for Bolivia´s lithium.

In order to ensure that Walisuma´s newly developed growth strategy passed the commonsense test, we met with a selection of our most knowledgeable suppliers and friendly competitors to get their views on our plans to export our product, initiate web commerce, and improve marketing at our La Paz outlet.

All indicated support, even our friendly competitors.  I suspect they are hoping to piggyback on our initiatives.  Soon Walisuma will be looking for a full time business director. If any of you wish to move to La Paz and run a growing social business, please let me know.  It promises to be a stimulating job in a fascinating place…once you get over altitude sickness. Bring your umbrella.

World’s Most Dangerous Road

In 1995 the winding road from La Paz to Coroico was christened by the Inter-American Development Bank as the “world’s most dangerous road.” But since that moniker is sort of long and unwieldy, it is known locally as El Camino del Muerte: The Road of Death. I biked down it last weekend and survived to write this post.

But first, let´s talk business. I am nearing the end of my first month of work in La Paz; in a few days I will head home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, then return to Bolivia in January for a final month of work. Walisuma, the upmarket retailer of fine Bolivian crafts wishes to grow so that the increased proceeds from this non-profit organization can be channeled back to poor artisan producers in the countryside. The management of Walisuma is highly talented – – talented enough to ask for outside assistance to help them craft their growth strategy.

Last week we held a half day meeting to sketch the outline of just such a strategy. But before moderating this meeting I needed to understand what sort of artisan suppliers they relied on for product. The craft producers are typically quite small: A husband and wife duo make silver jewelry in their home. A five person leather workshop turns out fine purses, bags, and briefcases using simple cutting and stitching machines.

Only the textile producers who make alpaca sweaters employ more people. But they don´t employ them in a workshop. Instead they conduct “outwork” whereby they provide indigenous Aymara women with alpaca yarn, patterns, and simple looms. These outworkers produce the sweaters at home, while tending to their children and to their traditional domestic chores. The weavers bring the finished sweaters to their employers upon completion. The employers, in turn, deliver these products to Walisuma for sale (by consignment) in the Walisuma store.

With just enough newly acquired knowledge of how Walisuma works with its suppliers, I convened the half-day strategic planning meeting. We have tentatively decided to pursue four initiatives:
1. Add a mid-price product range aimed primarily at Bolivian clients – – those who cannot afford the current high prices.
2. Enter the international market with a focused product range
3. Add a web business
4. Open new outlets in Bolivia

The details of just how we will address this rather ambitious menu will be worked out when I return in January.

My weekends are free so I do my best to explore my current temporary home. A bike ride down the Road of Death seemed like suitable exploration. Early Saturday morning Gravity Assisted Biking, a tour company with a stellar safety record, bused 14 of us tourists from La Paz to a 15,400 foot high pass outside of town. There we received our $2,500 mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes. Since the Road of Death descends nearly 12,000 feet on a steep switchback lane over just 30 miles, top quality bikes with true stopping power were a must.

We descended from the high altiplano wearing layers of clothing topped off with warm foul-weather pants and jackets. We shed layers as we descended, arriving about six hours later in the Yungas cloud forest wearing shorts and tee shirts. The Yungas is in the upper reaches of Boliva´s Amazon Basin.

Now, going downhill doesn´t require a lot of exertion, just concentration. We had to share a one lane dirt and rock road with upward bound vehicles. By convention, downhill traffic (we bikers) had to ride on the outside – – the chasm side. And we were usually three feet from the edge. Not to worry, we all wore helments. But I doubt they would have helped much had we gone off the 1000 foot drop. Some drops, however were not so profound, just a few hundred feet of sheer cliff.

With disc brakes we were taught never to grip the front brake hard. The bike will stop abruptly and its rear wheel will somersault over the front. Well, the 22 year old Dutch lady hit a small rock, bounced a bit, and panicked. She threw on her front brake full force and found herself and her bike flying head over heels through the air. She landed on her back three feet from the cliff edge, bruised and likely chastened. Her bike was less fortunate. It somersaulted into the abyss.

But this story has a happy ending. The $2,500 bike hung up on a small tree jutting out from the cliff, about 20 feet below the lip. Our two guides used a saftey rope to rappel down to the bike and recover it.

I suspect the Dutch lady will never again slam on her front brake. I know I won´t.

Hooked on Cocaine

Last week I arrived at the highest international airport in the world – – serving the highest capital city in the world: La Paz, Bolivia. The airport sits high in the Andes, 13,000 feet above sea level…so high, that in the thin air, airplanes need a runway 2.5 miles long.

I had arrived from sea-level Boston and within 30 minutes I began to feel the effects of SOROCHE, altitude sickness. One gets a sort of low grade flu feeling. The passage of time will eventually cure SOROCHE, but if one must go to work the next day it is necessary to speed up the acclimatization process. For this, one can take a mild stimulant. When one´s heart beats faster, it will pump more oxygen-bearing blood through the body, speeding recovery time. The stimulant of choice high in the Andes is MATE de COCA, made from the leaves of the coca plant, which you may know can be refined into illegal cocaine. In Bolivia, growing coca and chewing the leaves or brewing in tea (MATE de COCA) is perfectly legal.

So, I followed the lead of the Bolivians and drank coca tea for several consecutive meals. Now before you think I have become a coke addict let me point out that the cocaine impact of coca leaves is tantamount to becoming a heroin addict from a morning poppy seed muffin. Or a wino by eating grapes. Or a crystal meth addict by watching two seasons of Breaking Bad. But I digress.

Time and coca tea cured me of altitude sickness and I went to work.

Walisuma is an upmarket retail store offering traditional, but refined, Andean crafts. Think alpaca sweaters and pure silver necklaces. The sweaters are so upmarket and refined that they sell for as much as $500. In fact, in the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages, Walisuma means ¨Best of the Best.¨

Now you may wonder, how in the world could a poor Bolivian, living on less than $2 per day afford such a sweater? The idea, dear reader, is that you, not the poor Bolivian, will be able to afford the butter soft, stylish, natural tone alpaca sweater. And the $500 that you (and other wealthy tourists) cough up for the product will go to a poor Bolivian artisan. Though not yet in the product line, Walisuma may someday even offer a sweater from the rarest of all wools: vicuña. A vicuña sweater can cost $5,000. I only mention this in the event you are at a loss for an appropriate Christmas gift idea for me.

My assignment is to help Walisuma grow so that it can help more craftsmen make more than $2 per day. I will work with my client to develop a growth strategy – – inside Bolivia and internationally – – so that more and more poor, but talented artisans can find outlets for their products. Artisenal products offered by Walisuma include woven fabrics (sweaters, shawls, dresses, wall hangings, table cloths), wooden ítems, leather goods, silver jewelry, home furnishings, and specialty foods (coffee, chocolate, wine)…all 100% products of Bolivia.

I have already been introduced to the team behind Walisuma, evaluated their business results, been given a workspace in the back of the store, visited competing retail shops, and toured a local crafts fair. Tomorrow I am scheduled to visit and interview several of the 40 or so artisans who supply product to Walisuma. Armed with this background, we will begin a series of strategic planning discussions that will lead to a Best of the Best growth strategy.

So until my next blog post, I leave you with this final thought: my favorite fabric color is natural coffee-colored vicuña wool. Size: medium.