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Stuart McMillan talked to team heading a bold new social enterprise that links St Andrews to Guatemala.

With the increasingly global nature of business, new social enterprises like Achik are fast becoming a burgeoning industry. Designed to help impoverished communities around the world by facilitating the sale of their goods in the west, they are a type of collaboration that is both fresh and exciting, and also as old as time. This one boasts such high profile St Andrean collaborators as the Microfinance Society and the Hispanic Society. When I meet Hibak, Josh, Ane, and Fiona, they are heading a young organisation, less than a year old, in fact. But they already seem to have big plans.

‘Ane [Singleton, Creative Director] and I were actually travelling last year for six months, and we came to Guatemala,’ Josh Crandell, Co-Founder of Achik, tells me. There they met the Guatemalan weavers who would become the producers of the product which Achik seeks to market. ‘We were staying with a family over there and we were just mostly impressed with the intricate weaving. Seeing how well-made the products were, we thought it would be a really cool idea to connect the products with things over here and share the culture, share the process.’

Meaning ‘dream’ in K’iche’, the local language of the family with which Josh and Ane stayed, Achik intends to turn its passion for the product into cash for its weavers. Put simply, the job of Achik is to buy the products from Guatemalan and Bolivian weavers to then sell them in St Andrews at a competitive price for the benefit of the communities, to whom they then send the profits. ‘My Mum makes Norwegian national costumes, so I’ve always been surrounded by those traditional sort of things, and I love stuff like this,’ Ane tells me. ‘We wanted to bring in an open market for the people here and the producers there [in Guatemala].’ All of the sales are directed by the small business-owners, meaning that they decide what they want to produce and sell.

Their aims are simple; Ane is clear that they do not want to ‘revolutionise the world’. But the money that Achik could make and send back to the indigenous communities would allow them to send their children to school, which is free in Guatemala, but there are no subsidises for work materials like pens and pencils, or school uniforms, meaning that many children simply cannot attend. ‘The main reason was really that we wanted to connect these products to consumers over here,’ Josh says.

The traditional, home-made woollens of Guatemala are anything but simple, however. ‘We basically tried the most simple scarf you could ever make, and …they did not turn out well!’ Ane informs me. Achik’s aim of bringing them to St Andrews seems smart as well as profitable; they are items which students, and probably the vast majority of the British public, would be unable to replicate. ‘The women there can do it and close their eyes –it’s in their fingertips; it’s tradition.’

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‘All the economics papers that I read are saying people aren’t altruistic —I don’t think that’s true,’ she says. Ane is referencing studies claiming that young people would sooner head to H&M and Topshop; recognised, established youth brands, that they aren’t bothered about charitable causes like this one. But to her it is something different. ‘It’s a question of how easy is it?’ Achik intends to make it easier to access these wares from far-off communities whose popularity could easily match the established brands amongst the student population.

One question that might be raised of this kind of organisation is whether they are cashing in on the works of these impoverished communities. ‘We do get some kind of profit,’ Josh tells me, ‘but because it’s a social enterprise our goal is to put that into an education fund for the communities.’ At present, all of the money is being reinvested in the hope that Achik can expand. ‘We’re still setting up new small businesses, working with new [groups of] women’ Finance Director Fiona says, ‘when we have enough money we’ll give out another loan and start another small business.’ They currently have 3, but it seems evident that the intention is for that number to grow much larger. Administrative costs, they note, are necessary to keep the business afloat.

For those who might be left with a bitter taste in their mouth at the thought of a business-cum-charity, Hibak, Head of Marketing and Outreach, makes a good argument. The world is consumer-based, she tells me, and so this form of social enterprise tries to feed off of the current, very successful, structure, as opposed to putting itself up against it. Achik’s intention is to form a bond with these communities, as opposed to simply act as wholesaler. ‘It’s not the usual structure in an organisation where there’s an employer and an employee; it’s a partnership.’

Achik kicks off in earnest with a launch party on February 27th, which they see as their shot at getting the word out there, and really showing St Andrews what Achik is all about. ‘It is a way of making a statement and saying “we’re here”,’ Hibak says. The back room of Zest will play host to a gallery of the women who are making the products which Achik is selling, which will also detail the process from Guatemala to your wardrobe. Josh believes that the launch party will be a great way to connect consumers and producers whilst promoting the business.

The enterprise is still in its infancy, but with so many grand plans afoot, I am keen to ask one question: can Achik run indefinitely? ‘That’s the hope,’ Josh says. He is echoed by his colleagues. ‘We’ve had a lot of support from the University, and the St Andrews market is very unique,’ Fiona says. ‘But the goal is probably to expand further than St Andrews.’ ‘The goal is to keep it sustainable,’ Ane notes. The best businesses outlive their creators. The clue is in the name: Achik. The dream begins here.

 

The launch party takes place on Thursday 27th February at Zest from 6-9pm.

 

For more information on Achik, click here.

 

Stuart McMillan

 

Image Credits: Gillian Gamble: Illustration and Photography

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