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Fostering female agency and empowerment

through weaving-related social entrepreneurial ventures in a farming community in the Peruvian Andes: Extension through Civil Society

Paola León, School of Social Work, Michigan State University

Gale Summerfield, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


The concept of social entrepreneurship has been popularized in recent years as an innovative, bottom-up approach to deal with complex social issues and foster socio-economic development. Indigenous communities in the Peruvian highlands face several barriers to economic development including isolation, language barriers, illiteracy, access to credit, and access to markets. This case study focuses on a group of indigenous women who participated in a social entrepreneurship venture to produce value-added agricultural products from 2000-2010 with assistance of an entrepreneur and two NGOs, part of the growing trend of developing extension activities through an array of institutions. The venture consisted of helping women farmers utilize their resources to manufacture traditional hand woven textile products dyed with natural dyes to be sold in tourist markets. The outcomes of this case study will be three-fold. First, it will highlight the benefits and challenges of this kind of endeavor within a specific cultural context. Secondly, using a value-chain perspective, it will assess the role of the extension advisory services regarding their effect on the growth and sustainability of the effort. Lastly, the case will detail the experiences of the groups since they have begun to function independently without direct assistance, provide an assessment of the prospects of their survival and sustainability, and identify key issues that other organizations should be mindful of in designing similar initiatives.


In the year 2000, motivated by a local entrepreneur, a group of indigenous women from an indigenous community in the Checacupe district of Southern Cusco, came together to form the first weaving association in their community. The local entrepreneur was a merchant in traditional weavings; handmade crafts woven with natural fibers and dyes and with stitching that are representative of the community. As he observed the women from this community, he noticed that as older women died, the tradition of weaving was dying as well. Younger women in the community, although they continued to weave, primarily did so for household consumption and they had moved to using synthetic yarn. Recognizing the potential market gap, the entrepreneur talked to a group of women in this community about the economic opportunity traditional weaving could represent for them and their families. With his support, a group of ten women came together to form the association.

For the first two years they operated alone with the entrepreneur serving as a middleman. At the end of the second year, the entrepreneur sought out the help of an NGO (NGO A) that was financed by the International Fund for Agriculture Development. This NGO had worked in Peru since the 1980s addressing the needs of small-scale farmers in the highlands and was convinced of the opportunity available to the women of the community. They invested resources to help the weaving association with technical assistance for activities ranging from raising animals for wool production and growing plants to obtain the dye for dying the yarn to improving weaving techniques. In 2004, a second local NGO (NGO B) became involved. NGO B, largely financed by private donors, had been seeking established weaving associations to provide products for a storefront they owned in the city of Cusco and signed a five-year contract with the community’s weaving association. As part of their agreement, NGO B provided both the storefront space for the association’s products and also committed further resources to provide technical and leadership assistance to the women of the association. The women’s responsibilities, in turn, were to use part of the money they received from the sale of their products to support the maintenance of the store, assist the facilitation of technical training sessions held in the community and to send one or two women to the city for additional training held there as well. In establishing this relationship, NGO B had provided the weaving association with direct access to one of the biggest tourist markets in Cusco.

NGO A and NGO B were involved with the weaving association 2 and 6 years respectively. During this time the EAS provided by NGO A consisted of providing training in weaving techniques and quality control, exploration and experimentation with local plants and flowers for dyes and training in the care and breeding of alpacas and sheep. NGO B focused their efforts on training on improving weaving technique, implementing a marketing plan, which consisted of creating a narrative of culture preservation through the meaning of motifs found in the weavings and that are traditional to the community. They also provided training in fair pricing, marketing strategies and leadership skills as well as provided aid in helping the association open a bank account in the city, registering the association formally at the district level, and writing bylaws. In 2010, they had begun providing training to produce utilitarian (i.e. tourist-oriented) products as opposed to traditional items used in the community.

As a result of their participation in the weaving association, the women reported increased household income, increased participation in household decision making, shifts in gender roles in the home, decrease in family violence, and increased participation in community politics. The women highlighted the three accomplishments they value the most from their participation in the association: learning to read and write, opening a bank account for the association in Cusco city, and receiving rights to a piece of land on which to build a weaving house after petitioning the district government. These gains have come with many struggles and opposition from the all male community leadership. In 2009 the community leadership was contesting the women’s right to the piece of land given to them by the district alleging that it was in communal grounds. In addition, the association still faces several barriers including access to bigger markets and lack of assistance in designing utilitarian items that may appeal more to tourists. When asked about their plans for the future, the women said they hoped to build a small building on their property and set-up stations where they can bring tourists and show them the whole process involved in creating a traditional weaving. The association’s contract with NGO B ended in 2010 thus ending their access to the storefront in Cusco. This raises questions as to the sustainability of the project and the future of the women and their families.

Authors’ involvement:

Paola León worked with this weaving association and the NGOs over three separate periods of time, in 2006 (3 months), in 2007 (3 weeks) and 2009 (5 months) as part of her dissertation fieldwork. For her dissertation research, she examined the perceptions of the indigenous women weavers with regards to the impact that participation in the weaving group has had on their lives. In particular she was interested in the impact on traditional gender roles and the extent to which roles and opportunities may have changed within their communities.

Dr. Gale Summerfield served as an advisor to Paola León during her dissertation research experience and will continue to serve in this capacity for the proposed project. Dr. Summerfield is Director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program and Associate Professor of Human and Community Development and Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


The case study is proposed for June-August 2012. Three weeks of field research will occur in June/July 2012. The final submission of the case study would be by August 31, 2012