“Where is it from?” tourists at the Luang Prabang Night Market would ask Emi Weir more than 10 years ago, when she was in the travel business.
Tourists in Laos wanted to ensure the handicrafts they buy are locally handmade, as an increasing number of factory-made goods from Thailand, Vietnam, and China had invaded the town.
Fast-forward to 2009, when Emi and Cleménce Pabion, a Frenchwoman working in development, decided to establish a social enterprise based on Lao handicrafts, and they needed a name.
“We were looking for a Lao name that sounded pleasing in both English and French, and Ma Té Sai, means ‘Where’s it from?’ in Lao,” Emi said.
Ma Té Sai’s early objective combined the co-founders’ areas of expertise – tourism and development – while also creating innovative designs.
“My background is tourism,” Emi explained, “so I wanted to showcase interesting Lao products from all over the country, and spread the tourist dollar further than Luang Prabang.
“Clem’s background is development. She saw, in the field, how money earned by women through handicrafts was not the major source of household income, but it helps the children go to school and provides money for health issues.”
Over the past nine years Ma Té Sai has found plenty of places around Lao to answer “Where’s it from?” They represent products from 15 villages throughout the country, and work with eight organisations that further stretches their reach. Tours take visitors to many of these villages, and stores sell their crafts.
Many of these villages are in the north-western provinces of Luang Prabang, Oudomxay, and Luang Namtha, and include a mix of ethnic minorities including Yao, Akha, Tai Dam, Lanten, Tai Lue, and Hmong. Ma Té Sai recently began working with Tai O and Tai Bo people in Bolikhamxay, and the Katu in Salavan.
“Among our five individual artisans are a local Lao wood carver, a Hmong embroider and doll-maker in Luang Prabang, and an Oudomxay woman, who makes ginger and turmeric tea,” Emi said.
She stressed, “We are not onlookers, but have been actively involved in developing skills and products with our village artisans.”
Ma Té Sai launched its first project by teaching Tai Lue women in Nambak, Luang Prabang, how to sew. “Now we produce our own designs in the village, and cloth can go from weaver to sewer just a few doors down,” Emi said.
She pointed out, “The women for whom we raise funding for training and sewing machines are their own businesses, and they sew for organisations like The Arts and Ethnology Centre as wells their neighbours.”
Emi also said their work has helped locals create their own designs. In recent months, Ma Té Sai has been working with Luxembourg Development in Luang Namtha to initiate new designs with the Yao, Akha, Lanten and Tai Dam.
“We have seen a 300% increase in sales of their products with new designs, and have injected a lot of money into these remote communities,” Emi said. “We hope we can continue helping them maintain their traditions while developing a sustainable alternative income to agriculture.”
She continued, “I feel the development can only truly evolve with enterprises that can create a market for their products, and are in it for the long term. Without long-term relationships that are fostered through business, development cannot be sustainable.”
In hunting for markets outside the Lao tourism industry, Ma Té Sai has taken textiles and weavers on the road to the US and Australia with support from the Asia Foundation.
“I took a Tai Lue weaver from Luang Prabang and Phou Tai weaver from Savannakhet to the International Folk Art Fair in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and both weavers and Ma Té Sai sold very well,” Emi said. “We also had a pop-up store in San Francisco.
Emi added that Ma Té Sai had a pop-up store in Sydney in November 2017. “The textiles and home-wares are always well received, as well as the clothing made from the hand-woven naturally dyed cotton.”
She pointed out, “The most difficult thing is finding the right partner to help bring along the buyers. Without being a resident of the city where we pop up, it is hard to find the right audience for our goods.”
However, this is set to change this summer when Ma Té Sai’s American staff, Brittany, is opening a pop up in her seaside town.
“We always try and curate our collections based on the consumer base,” Emi said, “So we are excited to see how this will go.”
Emi admits the new patterns are meeting mixed results. “We have many ‘magic moments’, and also some not-so-magic ones, which always teach us a few lessons…For sewn goods it’s always magic opening the bag from the village and seeing the cloth transformed into gorgeous products, I never tire of that. It’s especially rewarding when you choose the right cloth for a piece of clothing.”
She said Ma Té Sai is now slightly altering patterns, but making them look more modern. “The weavers have been very receptive, and I couldn’t have done this without Brittany’s expertise as a textile designer.” The new summer range of cushions features many of these new patterns.
On the other hand, “Our biggest challenge is to grow the market, as we develop more products and work more deeply with a wider group of artisans. This requires a bigger market than Laos, but the cost of taking Ma Té Sai out of Laos is something that requires investment. It is at least 30% higher than Thailand, and that hurts us all incredibly,” Emi said.
“We are getting more and more traction on our website…more small orders and inquiries, but the cost of goods in Laos is high, with the kip being pegged to the dollar. This makes it difficult when you lose 25% in exchange in neighbouring Asian countries and Australia.”
However, she has seen some shining stars. “We have had some great supporters. One Singaporean woman has a villa in Greece which we decked out in textiles and also made beach bags for her,” Emi said.
The Luang Prabang tourism and hospitality sector, as well as the local community, has been very supportive of Ma Té Sai’s products.
“Many local individuals buy from us, as well as the tour companies, who are hosting more incentive groups and looking for uniquely designed items.”
Many high-end hotels in Luang Prabang are merging Ma Té Sai’s goods into their “built environments. Our bed runners, bamboo bins, and covers were incorporated into the Azerai design,” Emi said, adding she is working with the AVANI+, and doing the wall decorations and cushions in Parasol Blanc and My Dream Resort.
“We also have Ma Té Sai products for sale in several Luang Prabang hotels and Pha Tad Ke botanical gardens, as well as Ansara Hotel in Vientiane,” she said.
So when tourists enter these shops or inspect the interiors of some hot hotels and ask, “Where is it from?” the answer is easy. “Ma Té Sai.”