An Interview with Dr. Tamara Stenn (Part Two)

This is a continuation of Scott’s Interview with Dr. Tamara Stenn of KUSIKUY.

Read about part one here

What is social entrepreneurship? 

I am writing a book. I finished writing that introduction. (Laughs) Basically, I am defining it as a business that addresses a social need rather than a monetary one – keeping it really simple. The social need can be expressed in many different ways. It could be environmental. It could be human rights. It could be giving to a particular charity. It could be making goods accessible to a population that might not have access. It could be having worker ownership.

There’s many different ways worker ownership can be realized. The main thing is there is a piece of intentionality where the person isn’t out there to make a profit. They are out there first to do some social good.

How can sustainability be built into the Social Entrepreneurship model?

That’s what I’m working on right now. I’ve developed it. I’m trying to make it comprehensible. It is the Sustainability Lens. It takes the work that I’ve done over the last 20 years. I’ve done a lot of work with Indigenous models through studying down in Latin American, where the United Nations is working on Indigenous models of governance and sustainability.

Also, looking at Circles of Sustainability, I am a fellow with that project with the United Nations. A lot of the people working with these models are political economists. They are not business people. The difference is I am a businessperson as well.

I am taking this model and seeing how this working different models. These common tools that everyone uses realize their companies. I find that once you put that lens on top. Everything pops into place for sustainability. Because you’re a social enterprise doesn’t mean you are a sustainable company.

Sustainability deals with growth, which is a huge issue right now in the area of social entrepreneurship. How do you deal with growth? What does that mean? Because, right now, the assumption is growth means success. That’s not always the case. Our trees don’t grow to the moon.

That’s the same with business. Not every business needs to be gigantic, how do you know the right size for your business? That’s a part of sustainability. Looking at energy and resources, how is that being used? What is being made? That’s part of a sustainable enterprise and not part of social enterprise.

  What are you spending your time and resources on? And why? There’s nuances that come out there. How wisdom is sourced and given back to the community? It includes a lot more collaboration. This is what happens when sustainability as it impacts all of us because you can have the most wonderful, perfect business that is the epitome of green.

Next door, you’ll have a big contaminating factory. The quality of life for the people in that region will not be good. They will not have a sustainable lifestyle. There’s a pollution. There’s the people that don’t have enough, even though your business is perfect.

So, the idea of sustainability is breaking that down and working together in systems. You have a nice model for your business. But to be a sustainable business. You need to be integrated in your community. What are we doing to help mitigate and support this community to something more balanced?

That becomes exponential. You keep getting this circles that get bigger and bigger and bigger. You’re looking at a state, then a country, and then a region. When everybody is on this sustainability mindset, you start making decisions that benefit all. That’s the difference.

  What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

I teach Social Entrepreneurship at the college and am currently authoring a book (academic text) on how Sustainability can be built into a Social Entrepreneurship model.

  What meaning or personal fulfillment does this work bring for you?

It’s been a great experience having this connection and sharing it with others.  We have brought scores of people to Bolivia to meet the knitters and have brought the knitters here to the US too.  These exchanges remind people of how much more similar we all are then they think and helps people to want to collaborate and cooperate more.  I find this very satisfying.

  With regard to organizations/companies, and so on, like Trusted Clothes and KUSIKUY, what’s the importance of them to you?

Dr. Tamara Stenn8

We are all in this together – by all sharing information, educating others and having honest, open dialogues, we can collectively work to make our world a safer, just and happy place in which everyone can live.

  You have been interviewed as well. People can listen to this in a podcast. You have written for Trusted Clothes, too. Let’s plumb more depths in academic work, especially the impressive Fulbright work. Your research on gender and sustainable development for the Fulbright Scholarly Exchange. It has been that since March, 2015. What is this comparative study on the impact of fair trade?

Basically, it is looking at the impact of quinoa – farming and growing quinoa – on the rural people that live in the quinoa region.

  What are the findings so far?

It is a 3-year study. Fulbright likes to pay you to do something that you know anything about. I went last year never having worked in quinoa. I was familiar with it. My mother grows quinoa. I know what it looks like.

We eat it here. I am near the region where it is grown, but I never specifically worked there. It was great. I got to know the people. Basically, there were a lot of different things going on. There was an educational revolution going on.

So, all of the people on the countryside became literate. That impacted their ability to negotiate contracts. Quinoa used to be a disadvantaged food. It was shunned. When the Spanish came and colonized Bolivia, they made quinoa growing illegal because they wanted to have their own crops grown – wheat.

They banished quinoa, but it still continued to exist. It was considered sacred crop given to the Andean people by the gods. It grows in remote areas. It is a national grain. People eat it almost every single day.

It was usually marginalized as ‘peasant folk’ food. With the push towards quinoa and the great discovery of ancient grains, quinoa became trendy and very popular. The Bolivians are pretty smart.

They realized that there was demand for the product. They valued it. They set their own prices. They are used to working collectively. They have these strong cooperatives. They did this all on their own. The government didn’t get involved.

Because they are literate, they can negotiate contracts. They created a rural area called Challapata. It became the quinoa Wall St., where they did all the pricing for world markets. They were developed there because Bolivia had the quinoa market.

They were the largest producer in the world and kind of the only producer. For years, they were really able to take advantage of this competitive advantage that they had. They’d raise their prices 20% every year because they could.

What happened was reverse migration because these were the poorest areas of Bolivia, people started coming back who had migrated to Argentina, to Buenos Aires, to Santiago, to Madrid in search of other work.

They are coming back now, farming land that was left fallow, and building parts of the village that are falling apart. They ended up earning more than the middle class in Bolivia. All of the money made was reinvested into real estate or vehicles. They didn’t go into debt.

After 3 or 4 years, the rest of the world caught up with them and started to look at ways for them to join the quinoa market because it was lucrative. Peru had a chemical program. An industrialized program supported by the government and working with USAID to do a non-traditional chemical quinoa production in their lands. Their desert.

Because it grows in desert environments. That was successful enough that I knocked out the market for the Bolivian quinoa. The prices completely crashed. So, I was there during the price crash. Now, the market has stabilized.

The Bolivians refuse to sell their quinoa at low prices. That drove the prices up again. Now, there’s been a differentiation, where organic and fair trade are important. You can get higher price for it.

Bolivia – because of the constitution, people grow it anyway because that’s, in a way, the law. They have a competitive advantage with that because the Peruvian quinoa is not organic or fair trade. There’s consumer education, too. Consumers don’t know the difference between the different quinoas.

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  You noted the gods. According to the traditions and mythologies, what gods?

There’s a story about some women that came down, kidnapped some boys to this paradise. They got homesick and wanted to go home. They sent them with a sack full of seeds. That was the quinoa. They have multiple gods and god-like people.

I’ve seen some psychological studies, where in the development of children the animistic and spiritualist beliefs seem innate. Children are hardwired to see spirits in the world. They are innate animists in a way. The argument that has been by some is that if you leave children alone. They will invent some polytheist pantheon. It’s some evolved framework for conceiving of the world. Anywho, Bolivia provides 45% of the world’s quinoa.

They are producing more quinoa than ever. A lot of it is traded in the common market for everyone’s use. Their export prices are much different than the in-country prices.

They produce tens of thousands of tons, according to the FAO.

They do. All by hand. (Laughs) They are really hardworking people.

  When I think about the first year-and-a-half of your study for the Fulbright Exchange, with the 3 years in total, what are the specifics predicted for the last year-and-a-half?

I have no idea. That’s the nice thing about it. It evolves. I chose a model called Circles of Sustainability that was created by the United Nations as a starting point. I’ve been a fellow on that project.

I’m having help guide me. It is a survey-based, participatory model. One of the nice things is I have all the cell phone numbers of all of the people that participated. I can go back and contact the people that took part in the study.

I am going to have them and redo the study. I am going to do it two ways. I am going to have them think about how it was back then a year-and-a-half ago. I will compare to how they think about the past and the way they reported it when it was happening.

So, that’s something that one of my cohort’s ideas. I am going to work with current groups of people to see the baseline of things now. I do ethnographic research. Some of it is participatory appraisals. It is being there, observation. It is seeing what comes up. I have the survey too.

  Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

I want to thank people for joining in with KUSIKUY and helping to spread the word, every re-tweet, share, link, like, $ donated… helps with educating people about the alternatives to the clothing industry, supporting the knitters, and growing the KUSIKUY message/example.  There are good, ethical, safe, clothing options in the world.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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