Monika Bloching

Guest Post: Setting Up an Export Business (Or Folding a T-Shirt) Without Wrinkles: Brazil’s Maos de Minas helps artisans connect to global market

It’s a winter day in Brazil and I am facing a difficult task. I am participating in a training session hosted by the organization Maos de Minas in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Together with eleven artisans, I am closely watching the video instructions to learn how to perfectly fold a T-shirt. Of course, this is not the first time I’ve ever folded one, but the task is to fold the T-shirt within seconds, and with one single move. The video explains that you have to cross your arms, grab the T-shirt with your fingertips and then lift it up in the air while uncrossing your arms to get a wrinkle-free T-shirt. The video stops. We all get a T-shirt to repeat what we have seen. And we all fail. It is not that easy to fold a T-shirt. Watching the video was not enough to learn the task. Finally, after several attempts and with the help of the trainer we succeed.

The training is not about folding T-shirts. It is about high-impact teaching. The participants are local artisans who are running their own successful business. Now they are preparing to become successful trainers and to pass on their experience. I am going to accompany them to teach artisans in some of the nearby favelas to set up a profitable and sustainable business.

One of the participants is Alessandra. She explains her reason for participating during the introductory session: “For seven years my husband had tried to teach me how to set up my business. But he did not speak the right language to make me understand how to run a business. After attending a one-week training session at Maos de Minas, the way I approached my business changed fundamentally. Moreover, it changed my entire life.” Indeed, Alessandra now runs a model studio and makes a sustainable living from creating and selling art work.

Maos de Minas (“the hands of Minas”) promotes the artisan sector and preserves the cultural identity of the region Minas Gerais, the fourth largest of the 26 states of Brazil, about the size of France. Some 500,000 of the state’s approximately 20 million inhabitants are artisans, and about 7,000 of them are active members of Maos de Minas. The organization helps them with a variety of services, from teaching artisans how to calculate the cost of their product to helping them export their work. The organization’s work is guided by three core principles:The production has to be economically viable, environmentally adequate and socially correct. Maos de Minas considers believes it will be successful when the artisans no longer need it, and there is still a long way to go to reach that goal.

(Left and below: Some more artisan work promoted by Maos de Minas, including a hand bag made from newspapers).

Together with two other colleagues, I am tasked with helping establish a supply chain strategy for the export of artisanal products. The overall goal is to help the regional artisans export more, and ultimately improve their income and quality of life. Currently, Maos de Minas’ main export countries are the U.S. and Spain. An improved supply chain will allow them to expand their business in North America, Europe and possibly Japan. If you happen to attend one of the home decor and gift fairs, such as the NY International Gift Fair, maison & object in Paris, EXPOhOGAR in Barcelona or ambiente in Frankfurt, you can get a glimpse of Brazilian artisan work.

Our project with the Maos de Minas organization is part of the SAP Social Sabbatical program. A group of SAP employees can contribute their time and expertise to help entrepreneurs and small businesses in an emerging market like Brazil.

Over the course of four weeks, we met with artisans like Alessandra who have been associated with Maos the Minas for many years. It helped us to understand how the production of artisanal goods differs from industrial products, and take this into account in the supply chain strategy. While the artistic skills are an almost innate ability, success in exportation demands more: market adaptation of products, meeting technical restrictions, packaging requirements, and, above all, perseverance.

During the duration of the project, my colleagues and I provided business process expertise, analytical skills and expertise in developing software solutions that can help to reach international markets. Improving the supply chain management will make Maos de Minas, and eventually the artisans, a more reliable partner for international buyers, which is a prerequisite for export growth. At the same time, Maos de Minas is better prepared to fulfill an increasing demand.

“Exportation presents a dream market for many artisans,” says Beatriz Santana, coordinator of the artisan certification program.

I hope my contribution plays a small role in making their dreams to come true.

Monika Bloching is a chief product expert at SAP, a global business software provider.

business development, creative economy, skill development, supply chains