The challenge of selling local handicrafts to the world

In Tandil, a father teaches his son how to braid rawhide for the handle of a knife which will be used by a businessman in Russia. In Belén, a grandmother shows her grandson a loom and together they make a poncho for a Lebanese businesswoman. In La Carlota a master artisan teaches an apprentice how to make an alpaca buckle for a polo player in India. E-commerce burst on the scene in all areas and there was no reason for the local handicraft market to be the exception.
Antonio Martínez Pagola is passionate about gaucho and native population handicrafts and wants the rest of the world to join him in this passion. In order to achieve this, he created Vakiano, an e-commerce platform that offers autochthonous products to international buyers, interested in what Argentine culture has to offer.

1 A curated model.
“Tandil is the city of knives, where there are masters, such as César García or Pablo Lozano, who have taught how to work with rawhide. In the countryside of the provinces of the Argentine Mesopotamia they use the horse more than the truck because of the water, so there is more development of saddles and lassoes. In Salta and Catamarca they work the loom a lot, they make ponchos and there are also a lot of alpaca metal products”, Martínez Pagola explains about the production of handicrafts in the country and he could continue mentioning regions and their specialties for quite a while.

“We stress the good relationship with the provider”, the entrepreneur states, who knows the 200 artisans that work with Vakiano personally. He defines himself more as a curator than as an entrepreneur and says he has always had a leaning towards handicrafts.

Martínez Pagola has worked several years in different businesses linked to this area, first as an employee and later, with his own enterprise, Claraz, a shop located in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires that has specialized for several years in bringing local products closer to the tourists that stay in the different luxury hotels.

2 A digital refuge for tradition.
The techie quota was provided by his partners Gonzalo Lissarrague and Esteban Algorta. Lissarrague, who worked for Thomson Reuters for 25 years and specialized in digital transformation in the Insead School of Business (France), considers the digital world makes it possible to open new markets for high quality traditional products.

“We want to tell the world what work lies behind each handicraft, show the artisan, allow the cultural component to be seen and how the craft is passed on from generation to generation. There is extraordinary work there that is not only in the knife or in the poncho, but in everything that backs it up,” Lissarrague states. This is why there is a list of artisans on the Vakiano web site categorized according to their specialties.

The undertaking also aims to have social impact: “We want people to be able to grow from where they work, and be able to live with dignity with what they do. We want to link an artisan in Salta with a person in Dubai, who is interested in purchasing a poncho; someone who makes a saddle in Santiago del Estero with a person in Hong Kong who wants a unique product”.

Aside from serving as a showcase for the world, Vakiano seeks to be a secure place for the artisans, which is why they provide the materials and guarantee a certain volume of purchases to allow them to work without worries. One of the measures adopted to achieve this is to allow each provider to decide the price of the product according to what he thinks it is worth.

“Many artisans sell very little and make their products in their free time. We try to give them a hand so they can develop their talent further. We’re talking techniques that are handed down through the generations; there are no schools, just children who learn from their parents and improve gradually”, Martínez Pagola holds.

3 Classic luxury.
This business lays a bet on discovering new segments with the ability to pay in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East where interested consumers usually go for industrialized products because there is no traditional manufacture.

“It’s a premium product. Those who look for these kinds of objects also expect it to come via a channel and with a service quality that doesn’t let them down. We want the person in Hong Kong to receive the Vakiano box and have him understand what lies behind that work, to receive a unique experience that brings him closer to the artisan and to where the piece was made”, Lissarrague explains.
To generate this experience, the company has decided to rely on a door to door delivery system and has implemented a delivery follow up method in real time. In addition, it has created a concierge line which allows customers to customize the product.

4 Artisanal numbers.
The initial project investment was u$s 200,000 and they expect the breakeven point to be reached in the first year, although they understand positioning the brand may take time. The launch was sustained by a digital marketing campaign and it is still at the stage of market exploration.
Although Vakiano is still taking its first steps, the team is already thinking of establishing artisan schools to continue encouraging local talent. “The idea was to develop a platform to bring the artisans closer to the world and the world closer to the artisans. The possibility of having a market that values their art and is willing to pay for it is what will allow these marvelous trades to survive and that they may continue to be shared down the generations”, the company explained.

Martínez Pagola worked for several years in different businesses linked to the area, first as an employee and then with his own undertaking, Claraz, located in the Recoleta neighborhood.

Gonzalo Lissarrague is a lawyer of the UBA, with a master in Marketing from the Universidad de San Andrés; he has studied in Insead (France) and worked for 25 years in Thomson Reuters. Currently he is a founding partner of Latus View.

Esteban Algorta studied Business Economics in the Universidad Di Tella, took an MBA in Insead (France) and worked for such companies as Axion, Pepsico, Nestlé and The Boston Consulting Group. Since 2018 he works with Lissarrague in Latus View. 

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