• Green Office

UvA Alumni Portrait: The local community supporter - Rebecca Braak

Updated: May 25


Rebecca Braak completed her Master’s in Business Administration with a specialization in International Management, and is the founder of Ecuafina. With Ecuafina, Rebecca buys handmade artisanal products from small communities in the Ecuadorian Andes, supporting the local artisans and ensuring fair trade.


In the interview, we talk about the value of social responsibility in business, as well as the challenges she has encountered in doing business both in Ecuador, and in a fairtrade way.


Gabriel (interviewer)

To get started, could you briefly tell us a bit about yourself and about Ecuafina?


Rebecca

I studied Business Administration at the UvA a couple of years ago and then I did my master's degree in International Management. After I graduated I worked for KLM as a junior project manager in the e-commerce department. It was a very nice job, but I was still very young and started thinking - is this life, should I stay here forever? So I decided to go to South America for a couple of months to work with horses, which I really like. I found a farm in Ecuador that needed help, and when I got there, I just really loved the country. Ecuador is a small country, but you have the Andes Mountains, the beach, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon - it's very diverse.


At first I started organizing horseback riding tours for KLM crew members that were staying here. But over time we branched out to organizing and operating other types of tours and holidays too with Rebecca Adventure Travel. On all these trips throughout the country I encountered a lot of communities that were making these beautiful handmade products for a very good price. But nobody really knew about it. So this year, when Covid-19 hit, and the travel business hit zero, I started to develop Ecuafina.


I visited different communities in the Andes Mountains and together with them developed different products that we could sell in the Netherlands - and worldwide. Right now we have a physical shop in Zutphen, but we mainly sell online. Our clients are mostly Dutch, but we’ve also sold to people from other European countries, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Japan.


Evanna (interviewer)

So why did you decide to set up your business in this socially responsible or Fairtrade way?


Rebecca

Well, I’ve been here now for almost seven years, I got married to an Ecuadorian, and I have a son who's half Ecuadorian. So I just really like the people and the country, and I just want to help them develop. I think with our link to the Netherlands or this part of the world, we can help them to develop new products, branch out to new markets, and make sure that they are getting a fair price for the product.



Evanna

So, you do direct sourcing, which you already touched a bit upon. But could you explain a bit more about the process of this and why it is so important?



Rebecca

My way of doing business means ensuring that we buy our products for a fair price.

I think it is important that we can assure that I have been there with the artisans, that I know how they make their products, and that I know that they are happy with how they sell their product! That way I oversee the whole process, all the way from the raw Alpaca wool up to the products you see in the shop.


Evanna

What are these products that you mainly sell in your shop?


Rebecca

We have ponchos, scarves, panama hats, and even little ponchos and booties for babies. But the most important products are these Alpaca throws.


Evanna

And they're all made by different communities in the Andes?


Rebecca

Yes, for example, the Panama hats are produced mainly in the Andean part of Ecuador, so in the highlands of the south. So all the different villages and communities each have their own specialty.


Evanna

And what is the feedback that you have received from these communities themselves? Of course it’s a good opportunity for them, but I can also imagine that it's perhaps a bit strange for them to have someone coming in from the Netherlands and wanting to export their products there. How have they responded?


Rebecca

Well especially during this past year when there were no tourists, they were very happy whenever we could help them to sell their products. But we have actually encountered some difficulties with our agreements, because these people are not used to producing 100 items that are exactly the same. So sometimes we will receive products that are irregular in size, or sometimes we won’t receive them on time. So sometimes we do have some difficulty agreeing on certain standards.


Gabriel

I wanted to ask how you have managed these gaps in standards? Could you tell us maybe what has worked and what hasn't?


Rebecca

Well, I think it’s just a learning process. So sometimes I can learn from them, and sometimes they can learn from our way of doing things. I think it’s very important that you don't have very high expectations, and that you, for example, give them at least a couple of weeks of slack to make sure that you receive all the products. What we also do is that we work with different producers. So whenever one group cannot comply with their delivery, we have another one.




In general, we just have to be very open and flexible. For example, we had a specific design in mind for a new poncho, but after receiving it after two months, instead of being green it was red. But what can I do? I could say - no, I didn’t order this, I'm not going to pay for it. But I know these people personally, and I know that they worked hard on it. So then instead of a green poncho you sell a red poncho.


The same goes for the next step in the process. The slow and inefficient bureaucracy is a very big problem in Ecuador, so organizing the paperwork and everything else for each shipment is so hard. But in the end, it works. So we’re learning as we go.



Evanna

Why do you think that people like your customers value this Fairtrade way of doing business?


Rebecca

I think this is a global development, people are just stopping to think more and more about what it is that they are buying. If you notice that things are not being produced in an ethical way, whether that is because there’s a lot of chemicals involved, or even child labour, you just don’t want to shop there. It’s very important that you know the story behind the product, so if - as a brand - you can communicate that story, then I think you have a very big competitive advantage.


Evanna

I agree! I think it's already an established niche in the market in which people really want to send a message through what they buy that they care about people and the environment. It's not just another thing they own, but rather something that contributes to some broader positive change.


Rebecca

I think so too. But, as you’re saying, it's still a niche. So hopefully more people will be willing to spend a little bit more on Fairtrade products instead of choosing mainstream mass production items in the future.


Gabriel

So as the UvA Green Office we wanted to ask you what you studied at UvA and how did that impact your career path?


Rebecca

Well I did my master’s degrees at the UvA focused on international management. So I learned how to manage different types of groups, for example

different types of cultures in the business setting. So I think it helped me to broaden my view about doing business in the rest of the world, and that it's possible to do business in the Netherlands, but also in Ecuador, or anywhere else. It's very easy now to live abroad, to learn a language, to learn about different types of cultures and to work with them. And that is something that I really like.




Gabriel

So this is our last question that we always ask each of our interviewees. We would like to know what advice you could give to the students that will be reading this, that want to have a positive social or environmental impact, but are maybe not sure where to start, what they can contribute, or how they can find their place in this world to do something positive.


Rebecca

I think you should always follow your gut feeling. So if you have the feeling that you want to go to Ecuador or to another country, wherever, just go! And there you will find your path and you will see what works for you. And don’t be afraid to start small. Then little by little, you know that you're making a difference. So yeah, I suggest just start small and follow your gut feeling.


Evanna

Thank you! I think you're definitely a good example of how following these steps can really turn into something positive and successful.


Rebecca

Thank you.


34 views0 comments