December 2017

AHA BOLIVIA - Creating a fair trade community

By: Anne Louise Michel
Projects Abroad Volunteer

The Bolivian fashion company that specializes in accessories inspired by traditional Bolivian clothing has not only marked itself themselves by its products, but also by creating an educational structure for their workers.

Photo by: Anne-Louise Michel

This initiative comes from Anna Hosbein de Aliaga, a Californian woman who now lives in Bolivia with Carlos, her Bolivian husband. Surprisingly, the story starts with the rescue of three pumas that were abandoned by their mother. After contacting associations and zoos, al which refused to take care of the animals, Carlos couldn't resign himself to kill the pumas. The idea came to them to sell good quality bags in the United States, but manufactured in Bolivia by Bolivians, to finance the cost of feeding and accommodating the animals. Successfully, the pumas finish their life peaceably. The story could have ended there, but the rescue of the two pumas initiated the creation of AHA BOLIVIA, which proposes a full and fair price for high quality accessories. This company has remarkable professional ethics equally towards its clients and its manufacturers. For 15 years, this company offers accessories, clothes, and bags inspired by the colorful plastic bags used in the local market, "la cancha," and manufactured with all the traditional Bolivian know-how. Definitely, the story of this enterprise is definitely as colorful as the products it sells.

▲ Handbags inspired by traditionnal Bolivian clothing line the shelves
Photo by: Anne-Louise Michel

AHA BOLIVIA is also a member of the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization), which promotes market access for marginalized producers, sustainable and equitable trading relationships, and fair trade as a "social contract." This is confirmed by Eladhio, the son of Anna and Carlos: "This enterprise wants to be as transparent as possible. Regarding composition of the price of our products: one third is directly for the materials, one third for the producers, and the last third is for the functioning of Aha Bolivia."

The story of this enterprise is as colorful as the accessories it sells.
"We simply wanted to do the right thing."

▲ Knitted rabbits decorate the interior of the store
Photo by: Anne-Louise Michel

"The difficulty is not only to help people, people need to have confidence to join our program."

One of its sentences in its Facebook page summarizes its commercial philosophy: "Fair trade highlights how a successful company prioritizes people." Anna Hosbein de Aliaga explains, "We work with around 300 women to produce and export high quality handcrafting products. My husband and I began to see the incredible skill artisan Bolivians had to offer. On practically each street corner you could see women wearing traditional clothing who were spinning wool knitting or weaving small belts. We decided to form a business to provide designers in the United States and others countries with high quality products and also to give to this woman more stable economic opportunities. We had never started a business before and we are not yet experienced in production or design. However, we knew that if we started a business employing female artisans it would have to be geared towards the people and the environment. We simply wanted to do the right idea. "Many of the programs initiated by AHA BOLIVIA allow to improve their employees' daily lives, like a dentist program, a gynecological program, nutrition courses to prevent the onset of diabetes, or even a microcredit program. The most recent one is a mathematical program that benefits the employees' children. The goal is to complement the academic program.

The place for these kinds of products is at the margin of the commercial economy. Indeed, the fair trade market in America Latina needs to find customers who are aware of this problem. Unfortunately, despite goods initiatives, Eladhio admits that "it is not like an easy market, it is still difficult to find a place in the Bolivian economy. Paradoxically, it is easier for us to attract our products to Bolivians since they are sold in United States, in Europe, or America Latina. "From my point of view, Bolivians swell with pride knowing that traditional Bolivian know-how has a good reputation abroad. Those become more attractive to them." AHA BOLIVIA has five shops in Bolivia, but most of its revenue come from its exports.

However, AHA Bolivia has not overlooked this. "The difficulty is not only to help people, people need to have confidence to join our program. We want to strengthen our mathematical program in terms of hardware and infrastructure. For example, we need more computers. On the other hand, we want to continue to collaborate with national and international organizations. "

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