Gabriela Frers

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Paraguay
Fellow since 2008
Estacion A
This description of Gabriela Frers's work was prepared when Gabriela Frers was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008 .

Introduction

Gabriela Frers is creating a certification stamp for handicraft products that will allow local artisans to earn a fair wage for their traditionally-made products. Through the International Fair Trade Agreement (IFTA) Gabriela is working at local, regional, and international levels with artisans, European distributers, and fair trade organizations. IFAT recently approved her certification stamp proposal and Gabriela is working with partners to develop rules and regulations for the stamp. At the heart of Gabriela’s work is empowering local artisans to have a stronger voice in fair trade, to earn a living wage, and to preserve their cultural identity. The implementation of the handicraft stamp is poised to have historic impact, affecting artisans around the world and, much like organic foods, increasing consumer demand for handicraft products.

The New Idea

Gabriela is pioneering a certification stamp for handicraft products that will allow local artisans to charge premium prices and thus earn a living wage. By guaranteeing that products are made using traditional methods, the stamp will also reinforce cultural heritage and identity. Gabriela noticed that unlike organic food, no certification process existed in the handicraft market and it was being flooded by mass-produced knockoffs that keep prices low, and prevent producers from earning earn fair wages. Through her membership in the IFAT, one of the largest associations in the world, Gabriela established international contacts and started a pilot program between an artisan organization she founded, Station A, a regional artisan network she founded, The Mercosul Solidarity Space (MSS), and distributers in Spain and Germany. Based on the pilot, Gabriela and her partners developed a proposal that was unanimously approved by IFAT in July 2007, thus creating a handicrafts category and global approval for a certification stamp. This stamp will reaffirm artisans’ cultural identities by placing a premium on traditionally produced products. Presently, Gabriela is working with the IFAT network to establish regulating procedures to ensure the certification stamp is a commercial success. In July 2008, her team established monitoring standards and began working on modifying the original proposal. Gabriela also works closely with local artisans through Station A and MSS to see how her work is affecting them and to ensure that cultural identity is encouraged and preserved. Once the certification is implemented it will be one of the replicable models imaginable. Using IFAT’s global network, the stamp could reach hundreds of thousands of producers within a short time and establish fair wages. Like organic foods, it is also poised to transform consumer demand by making authentic handicraft products more desirable despite premium prices because they are recognized as fair trade products.

The Problem

In Latin America, hundreds of thousands of local handicraft-producing artisans are unable to earn fair wages and escape from terrible poverty. Although they use the traditional production methods of their ancestors, it is very difficult for these artisans to earn a reasonable income for this labor. Development policies at local, national, and international levels have tried to encourage traditional production of handicrafts because this appears to be a win-win proposition—cultural heritage and identity are preserved by local groups and there is enormous worldwide demand for these products, thus promising fair wages.

The reality is that despite years of new efforts and policies, local artisans are more impoverished than ever, leading many to abandon their profession and migrate to other areas in search of work. Career changes and migration break up traditional community structures, damage cultural identity, and devalue knowledge of ancestral production methods. For example, one of Gabriela’s artisans in rural Paraguay who has years of experience producing handicrafts and has inherited deep cultural knowledge, is now stamping Disney characters in his workshop. Why have so many programs with so much promise been unsuccessful throughout Latin America?

First, most artisans do not have strong administrative or business skills and have a hard time figuring out how to sell their products at a competitive price to allow them to make a sustainable income. Secondly, prices have continued to fall in local and export markets, forcing local artisans to use cheaper materials that produce lower quality products. Lastly, local producers in rural areas do not have access to export markets or distant markets in capital cities. Years ago, cooperatives were viewed as a solution to this problem that could gain more scale in production, broaden product offerings, and eliminate middlemen. However, cooperatives did not scale successfully, and artisans continued to produce traditional handicrafts for very low wages.

International fair trade groups that emerged in the 1970s held great promise for local artisans. These groups grew into a powerful, worldwide movement that provided international standards for quality and production. Although the movement includes hundreds of local producer organizations, it has been dominated by buyer organizations from the U.S. and Europe, which means that local producers have had little voice. The fair trade movement creates a more stable outlet for artisan products, but prices are set by the free market and these prices are not always fair. Since fair trade groups are not involved in pricing and attempts to impose ‘fair prices’ have been unsuccessful, wages for local artisans are still below the poverty level.

Goods and foodstuffs are both included in the fair trade market, in which IFAT is the main player. IFAT is comprised of over 300 fair trade organizations from 70 countries, and members include buyer organizations, distributers, and local producers. In light of the dilemma over pricing and fair wages, to remain competitive the food market created certification processes for organic crops. The market for organic food has exploded over the last decade, causing IFAT to focus on implementing and improving the organic food certification process. As a result, attention for handicraft products has decreased significantly.

What’s more, a huge competition crisis has emerged with the urgent situation of foreign manufacturers in places like China that flood the handicraft market with phony products such as clothing, ceramics, and jewelry. These products are mass-produced in factories and can be sold at much lower prices than authentic handicrafts. Mass-produced products are unchecked because the fair trade system does not have a system for verifying that products are made by artisans using traditional methods. As a result, local artisans are suffering on two fronts: Fair trade organizations are primarily focusing on organic foods and traditional handicrafts are competing with cheaper, mass-produced look-alikes. All this leads local handicraft sales to stagnate, keeping producers in poverty and driving them away from their professions. There is thus a considerable need for some means of differentiating artisanal products from their mass-produced counterparts.

The Strategy

Gabriela is working to establish a handicraft certification stamp that will ensure fair wages, cultural preservation, and access to foreign markets for local artisans. She is orchestrating this certification by coordinating with key players at local, regional, and international levels. Gabriela works with artisans through Station A, and her regional network, MSS. Through IFAT she has also made global connections with other fair trade organizations, distributers in the U.S. and Europe, and outside parties who will audit the certification stamp.

Gabriela began working with local artisans in 1992 when she invited nearby artisans to showcase their work to tourists at a train station in Aregua called Station A. Through Station A, Gabriela was able to identify key problems affecting artisans that caused low quality and uncompetitive handicrafts. She developed trainings and support mechanisms to focus on building business skills and improving handicraft production based on ancestral production methods. This work introduced more transparent production processes with simple, yet effective accounting, and it allowed artisans to broaden their product offerings and quality without lowering costs. Artisans were encouraged to use traditions when introducing new products and practices, which helped instill cultural identity and pride in the production process. However, the local market was not big enough to sell products for fair wages, and Gabriela realized that Station A needed to access export markets through a network like IFAT.

In 2001 Station A received support from AVINA and the Canadian embassy that allowed it to broaden its scope and successfully apply for IFAT membership. Gabriela soon realized that IFAT rules were stacked against local producers and seeing that the root of the problem was global, not local, she volunteered for as many work groups as possible and quickly acquired international contacts and credibility. At the same time, Gabriela noticed that Latin American producers were ineffective in IFAT forums because they were not well-organized and did not agree on many issues. As a result, she founded MSS to be a regional network for producers that promotes commerce in Latin America, strengthens local capacity, and shares best practices. Gabriela thus strategically positioned herself to change the fair trade system from within by working globally through IFAT, while also maintaining close contact with local producers through Station A and MSS.

Gabriela had the idea that if organic foods certifications could be applied to handicrafts, it would create a price premium that increased wages and would also protect against knockoff competition. Her idea was received favorably and she began working with distributers in Spain and Germany on a pilot program. Consequently, Gabriela transitioned out of day-to-day operations at MSS and Station A, and began working on a certification proposal in conjunction with MSS, Station A, and IFAT members. The proposal was approved at a regional IFAT meeting in Latin America, which qualified it to be presented at the worldwide IFAT General Assembly in Brussels. In 2007 the General Assembly unanimously approved the proposal on a global scale and established sub-committees that Gabriela is working with to establish rules for the certification system, including a subcommittee of local producers that is led by MSS. Gabriela aims to reform IFAT’s top-down structure, which means that not only did a category for certified handicrafts have to be created, but she must also focus on making these handicrafts a commercial success in a way that is low cost and not bureaucratic.

Gabriela knows that to have commercial success, local producers must have close working relationships with major buyer groups. Prior to Gabriela’s efforts, the fair trade system lacked a coordinated way to foster these connections, but Gabriela is working with IFAT to encourage direct relationships between producers and distributers. She is building on the pilot program with Spain and Germany, and creating mechanisms for communicating consumer demands as well as distributer concerns such as packaging, shipping, and marketing. These buyer-seller relationships will create a foundation for the price premium of certified handicrafts. Improved communication systems will allow IFAT to justify higher prices—producers will be able to convey why the price premiums exist and consumers and distributers can communicate their demands regarding the quality of higher-priced products. As part of the transparency process, all certification stamps will include a description of the product’s history and how it was made.

The local producers’ subcommittee, which is led by MSS, is creating a certification process that gives local artisans more agency and control than they currently have in the IFAT system. In order to do this, MSS is identifying outside auditors who can help establish and implement a regulation system for verification and validation of the certification stamp. These people will be responsible for making sure that certified producers are following the rules—that they are using local materials, are part of the ancestral community, and so on. Gabriela has adapted the Station A accounting model so that it can be used by artisans when they are applying for certification stamps. The simple system will allow producers to keep track of their costs and profits and will help them pass the certification auditing process. As a result, it both helps IFAT producers develop better business skills and it creates a consistent accounting system. The subcommittee must maintain a fine balance when making the rules: If they are too easy to comply with unfair competition will not decrease, but if they are too rigid, the rules will discourage local artisans from participating. As of July 2008, the subcommittee had successfully integrated monitoring standards with IFAT’s global policies and it is working on modifying the original certification proposal.

Gabriela has had regional impact through MSS, which is active in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Once the certification stamp is implemented, it can immediately be used by IFAT members, and will greatly benefit countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico, which have the largest handicraft markets in Latin America. With over a third of IFAT’s membership in Asia, Gabriela plans to go global with the certification process and she will have a major impact almost immediately. If the stamp works, it could reach hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of local producers from around the world in a short period of time. This is because the IFAT network is so large and because the stamp will be extremely attractive to local artisans, who will be able to earn a reasonable income for the first time in decades. The stamp will also create a larger market because, similar to organic food, consumers will recognize the added value of the handicraft products and will be more inclined to purchase them at premium prices. As a result, the number of sales and the number of handicraft distributors will rise sharply.

The Person

Gabriela has always identified art as a powerful tool of personal and professional growth. She was born and raised in Argentina, and was strongly influenced by her mother who was an actress and her father, a well-known playwright in alternative theater. When she married and moved to Paraguay, she lived in the capital Asunción, where she worked in theater and dance. After nine years, she and her family moved from the capital to Aregua, a small community steeped in artistic and artisan traditions.

Her move in 1992 coincided with Paraguay’s emergence from decades of dictatorship and a local governor was elected for the first time. He created a new Secretariat for Culture and Tourism and asked Gabriela to lead this fledgling agency in Aregua. Gabriela saw this as a great opportunity to effectively promote culture and tourism by showcasing the many artisan activities which had a long tradition in Aregua. She began working with artisans in nearby villages and organized a weekly event in Aregua where they could bring goods to an abandoned train station, ‘Station A’ every Sunday. The government accordingly began a tourist train service from Asuncion to Aregua on Sundays so that tourists could see traditional song and dance, and purchase artisan crafts.

Through her government position Gabriela discovered a passion for working with local artisans, and she left her job to found Station A. Gabriela worked closely with each village and was able to identify the key problems affecting low quality and unimpressive market appeal. Despite Gabriela’s remarkable ability to work at local, regional, and global levels, at the core of her work has always been empowering local artisans through cultural identity and fair wages.