Photo: Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi works at the booth she runs with Mujeres sin Limites, an artisan collective in Montero, Bolivia. MCC photos/Matthew Sawatzky
It’s a hot, humid morning and Maria Elena Algarañaz de Masabi is working at a booth displaying brightly colored handicrafts for sale. She carefully lays out cloth purses and drawstring bags and hangs up knit children’s clothes.
Masabi is the president of Mujeres sin Limites (MSL; Women Without Limits), an artisan collective in Montero, a city in the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia. The group of 12 women work together to make and sell handicrafts to supplement their household incomes.
All 12 women learned these skills at El Comedor de Niños, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner. The Comedor provides after-school care for children but also offers workshops in everything from nutrition, self-esteem and basic health care to cooking, hairdressing and sewing.
Between 2003 and 2006, the women took part in workshops at the Comedor. During this time, they learned to knit, sew and weave fabric called Aguayo, which is traditional Bolivian fabric with colorful patterns. Members of the collective began making products, including guitar cases, wallets, purses and clothing. As they improved their work, the women analyzed the quality of their products and eventually decided to start a business together.
None of the members attended university, and Masabi didn’t even finish primary school, but all feel they have learned a great deal from the workshops.
“We don’t have education, but we’ve graduated from the Comedor,” Masabi says. “The Comedor has opened the door for us, and because of that we’ve gone very far. It’s so beautiful.”
In addition to learning how to make the handicrafts, the women were taught basic business-management skills through the Comedor, including the importance of saving.
Each month, members of MSL put aside 10 percent of their earnings to buy more supplies and grow the business. Together, they’ve been able to buy three sewing machines. The savings are also used to pay for transportation and food when one member represents the group at fairs around the country. They split the profits equally.
All materials and machines are collectively owned and shared.
“With these rules we’ve been able to keep the group going,” Masabi says.
The group also helped Masabi overcome a personal obstacle.
Masabi’s husband verbally abused her when he found out she was attending classes at the Comedor. She stood up for herself and went against the cultural norm because her family needed the extra income.
“I decided I needed to do this when I saw my children were suffering from malnutrition and being underweight. We didn’t have enough money to buy nutritious food and we didn’t have enough food,” she says.
She and her husband managed to work through their differences, and today he is supportive of her business and her part-time work as a social worker at the Comedor. She credits the Comedor and the other members of MSL for their support.
“It was a challenge but not impossible. We do it all together and we’ve succeeded,” Masabi says. “That’s why our group is called Women Without Limits. We don’t have limits.”