The Fabric of Success
“This shop gives our families more opportunities. I use my share of the profits to help send my son to a business school in Vientiane – we are investing in the future.” Mrs Khantama Vilaphanh, Mahaxai Women’s Weaving Group.
Mrs Khantama takes her foot off the pedal and the sewing machine stops whirring. She smiles at the first customers of the day and rises to show a group of foreigners the range of products made by the Mahaxai Women’s Weaving Group.
Half an hour later the group has gone, leaving the shop’s stock a little depleted but the cash box around US$60 better off. Khantama is pleased – she doesn’t get such groups every day. A founder member of the weaving group, which started informally in 2005, she has been running this shop since it opened in 2008.
In 2007 the group started getting support from the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC). In that year the then president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, visited Mahaxai village to check that people living downstream of the project were satisfied by the consultation and compensation processes set up by NTPC during the construction of Nam Theun 2. “It was then that my friend from the Lao Women’s Union asked him to build a shop for the weaving group,” remembers Khantama. “He looked a little surprised, but said he would see what he could do”.
Both the World Bank and NTPC contributed funds to build a shop, which opened in 2008. With previous experience in running a silk business, and not having rice fields to tend, Khantama took on the retail and design responsibilities. She is the only person working full-time on the textiles, but there are currently nine weavers in the group, with the main products being naturally-dyed cotton textiles and accessories. The weavers have received training in dyeing, while Khantama has taken courses in designing and marketing. Gradually, the group is expanding its range of products and sales potential.
“A few years ago we just sold bolts of cloth,” she says. “When we started the shop I borrowed some money from the village fund set up by NTPC, and I bought more equipment and material. We set out with a very basic range, but NTPC has helped me to travel, attend various trade fairs, and exchange ideas in many places. Our bags are popular just now, but we are moving into tailored shirts as the market looks promising, especially for traditional Lao designs”.
According to Khantama, each weaver earns around US$250 per year in profit from the shop - a useful contribution to their households from a part-time activity. The members are mainly rice farmers who also keep livestock and tend home gardens, in addition to raising their families.
The main challenge for the group is expanding their customer base. Mahaxai lies around 20 km from the main road and is not on any major commercial or tourism routes. “Most of our customers are civil servants, or foreigners visiting Nam Theun 2,” says Khantama. “My husband, who works for the district, recommends the shop to visiting government officials, and NTPC brings guests here. We depend on outside trade and need help to advertise our products over a wider area.” She pauses and then smiles. “Perhaps my son can help with this when he has finished his business studies!”