How to reduce poverty by empowering female entrepreneurs – Interview with Kennedy Leavens from Awamaki

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Kennedy Leavens, Executive Director of Awamaki

Awamaki was one of the finalists in the Sense of Place category of the 2017 National Geographic World Legacy Awards hosted at ITB Berlin.

“Not far from Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley of Peru, a non-profit organization is helping indigenous women artisans lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty while allowing travelers to experience Quechua culture in an immersive, sustainable, and respectful manner. Awamaki focuses on traditional Fair Trade crafts, and rural community tourism. The organization works with Andean cooperatives to provide education, skills, and opportunities that help women create strong, independent businesses while celebrating and promoting local cultural traditions.” National Geographic

For this interview, which is part of a series with all the finalists for this year’s National Geographic World Legacy Awards, Anula Galewska speaks with Kennedy Leavens, Executive Director of Awamaki.

ANULA: Why did you enter this award?

KENNEDY: Awamaki entered the World Legacy Awards Sense of Place competition because we believe that our tourism model, which has been refined alongside the communities we work in, could serve as a model for other sustainable tourism initiatives in Latin America and around the globe. We hoped that by sharing our work, we could demonstrate to others that sustainable tourism can be profitable for local communities and rewarding for travels who experience the Sacred Valley of Peru.

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ANULA: What positive impacts have your efforts to be a sustainable tourism business had on the communities and region where you operate?

KENNEDY: Awamaki’s sustainable tourism model is built on the belief that putting money into the hands of women and families is the surest way to lift communities out of poverty. The positive impact of our work is evident every time a woman is able to pay school fees for her child and put food on the table – and not have to choose one or the other. Or the impact is evident when a community pools its tourism income to construct a weaving center where they can centralize their artisanal work. The impact is evident when other organizations in the region come to Awamaki to seek guidance on how to develop their own sustainable tourism initiatives, near and far. These are just a few anecdotal ways we know that our work makes a difference. We also conduct a more formal demographic survey, which measures changes in quality of life based on nutritional diversity, building materials for homes, educational attainment, and other lifestyle indicators.

ANULA: How do you engage with the local community to ensure they have a positive opinion of your business working in the area they live?

KENNEDY: Awamaki’s business would not exist without the continued buy-in and support of the communities we work in. Awamaki places travelers with homestay families and regularly solicits feedback from both traveler and host about the process and how it might be improved or streamlined. In rural indigenous communities, Awamaki has helped cooperatives form, who now govern the process of hosting travelers and tours. Awamaki staff meet at least monthly with the cooperatives’ leadership to take feedback and work together to create a more dynamic, mutually beneficial, and sustainable tourism experience.

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ANULA:How do you communicate to guests about your responsible tourism practices?

KENNEDY: Each traveler is accompanied by an Awamaki staff member who orients the individual or small group to the region, its cultural heritage, the fragility of the indigenous way of life, and the role of the traveler and foreigner in respecting culture and place. The model of a personalized guide for each traveler ensures that (1) the message of sustainable tourism and each individual’s responsibility is clear, (2) the traveler has an opportunity to ask questions or be sure his/her behaviors and culturally responsible and (3) the traveler never feels alone, unsafe, or unsure of how to interact with the community he/she is visiting. Then, once the traveler is in a homestay, he or she is well acquainted with the experience already and feels more at ease once alone in a community or family’s home.

ANULA: How do you make sure your staff care about your efforts and support them?

KENNEDY: Awamaki’s tourism staff is small but mighty. Our new leader, Juan Camilo Saavedra, is a young professional whose impressive career thusfar has taken him from the fishing villages of Colombia to indigenous communities in Canada, and now to the Quechua speaking region of Peru. He is a sustainable tourism professional whose first interest is social wellbeing of the communities we work in. Other staff join the NGO because they share the mission to “collaborate with the greater Ollantaytambo community to create economic opportunities and improve social wellbeing.” Staff could choose to work with a different tour operator who might pay them more money – but they see, appreciate and share the vision that Awamaki has to help women lift their families out of poverty, and so they choose to work for Awamaki.

Awamaki also enjoys the efforts of volunteers and seasonal interns, who lend their talents to the organization in a shorter time frame. As part of both staff and volunteer onboarding processes, all are funded to spend at least two nights in a rural village with a homestay family, so that they can better understand the experience and therefore do the best job possible in helping the traveler understand, acclimate and integrate into this beautiful indigenous way of life.

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ANULA: What’s the best lesson you have learned over the years of developing a successful sustainable tourism business?

KENNEDY: The best lesson we’ve learned was a confirmation of our early hunch as a nonprofit – that the most powerful way to reduce poverty is giving women access to income. Awamaki helps women start and run their own businesses so we can do just that. We invest in their skills and leadership, and we connect them to global markets for their small businesses. Though we use business strategies to accomplish our mission, we are a non-profit.

To find out more about Awamaki, visit their website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


World-Legacy-Awards logoThis article is part of the interview series with the National Geographic World Legacy Awards 2017 winners and finalists, with whom we explore the best practices in sustainable tourism communications and stakeholders’ engagement.

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