In South America, the country of Ecuador has a population of nearly 15 million people. Of that population, 27.3% are living under the poverty line; roughly 4,050,000 individuals struggling to make ends meet. Recognizing the harsh realities of the country’s economy, Greenpacha has emerged as an advocate for making a positive change in the province of Azuay, in the capital town of Sigsig.
In the remote village of Sigsig, the people are experts in creating hand-woven toquilla straw hats, an art that has survived there for many generations. Upon visiting the capital, CEO & Founder of Greenpacha, Florencia Gomez Gerbi, discovered the sacred art and knew that she had to share it with the world.
“We fell in love with this amazing tradition.”
Florencia stumbled upon the hat makers while on a surfing trip with her family. “We were in a town visiting a balsa wood shaper when a friend told me about the ‘Hat Path’,” she says smiling. The “Hat Path” stretches from the city of Cuenca located in the country’s southern region, to Sigsig, a remote village about 40 miles southwest.
While Florencia’s group made their way along the route, they finally came across a quiet, hardworking group of women carefully weaving straw hats harvested from toquilla palms. Their tact was abundant, and their patience was something to be marveled. ”We were amazed at how the people in this small village worked to prepare mainly all the straw hats in the world, and we decided that we wanted to learn more from them.”
Florencia and her sister Julieta made their way through the entire province, and the families they met along the journey revealed to them the special art of weaving. The two were humbled by how much the Ecuadorian people were willing to give considering they had so little for themselves.
The altruism displayed in making each hat by hand moved the two in a profound way, and that transformation motivated them to become something other than a spectator; they wanted to help. “The community really opened their hearts to us,” Florencia says. From there, a love for the tradition blossomed.
“We love the care and patience that goes into making each hat, and they are definitely worth the wait.”
Beauty is not only found within the people of the province, but also within their creations. Every hat is made from 100% hand-woven toquilla straw. This straw is unique to the region, which makes them culturally authentic and limited in terms of availability. To make a hat, toquilla palm is harvested and cut, and then its leaves are boiled in water. Once the leaves dry in the sun, they become straw. The straw is then sent to weaving communities near Cuenca and Monticristi.
Depending on the style of the hat, each one can take between 3 days and 8 months to complete. That means that a single individual is meticulously weaving a hat for days on end, and it is that same tireless determination fueling the driving force behind Greenpacha’s mission of prosperity for the artists.
“Our main hope is to see the business engage with other people in a healthy inspiring relationship,” Florencia says. “One that is more ethical and more green.”
The vision of Greenpacha is a devoted one, and Florencia is determined to see their business provide a better life for her newfound family. “We are working very hard to make Greenpacha get the attention of more people and to let them know about our story.”
“80% of small enterprises in Ecuador are informal.”
One of the main things Florencia strives to do with Greenpacha is to create a better financial platform for the weavers of the community. When she says that 80% of small enterprises in the country are informal, she means that they lack the necessary permits and licenses needed to be legitimate. A major problem for artisans is that they require money to obtain the right documentation, and without proper promotion and distribution of their hats, no money can come in to make a difference. “Without formality, these small businesses aren’t able to receive credit, or they’re given loans with super high interest rates that they can’t pay back,” says Florencia.
To fix this problem, the sisters created Greenpacha as a conduit for promoting a positive financial change for the people, but they also aim to create a socioeconomic change at the same time. Because of Greenpacha, opportunities are created for the artisans to earn higher wages, thus increasing their standard of living. Their goal with the province is to combine tradition, art, and humanitarianism to help preserve Ecuadorian customs. Along with distribution and marketing, Greenpacha reinvests 2% of its total sales back into the communities to generate growth and development.
Even the name itself, “Greenpacha,” means “green times” in the Aymara language (centralized in the Chilean Andes). The name is emblematic of not only a respect for the environment, but also a more secure financial future for everyone involved.
“The ladies always welcome us with open arms and delicious foods cooked with vegetables and animals they raise at their homes.”
Florencia loves the connections they have with small families through Greenpacha. her and Julieta work alongside two traditional families from Cuenca—Hugo Bernal and Homero Ortega. They also collaborate with TESYA, the association of weavers in SigSig. TESYA is comprised of mostly farm women who have been abandoned by their husbands who traveled abroad to make money and never returned.
Florencia and Julieta have developed a tender appreciation for these women, and they visit the families at least three times a year, sharing meals and deep laughter together. All 60 weavers working in the association are considered close friends to Greenpacha, and their bonds grow stronger every day. “Julieta is our product designer, so she stays longer with the women and has even been invited to stay in their humble homes,” Florencia beams.