Crafting a Creative Business in Ecuador’s Highlands


I feel so spoiled and fortunate to live here,” says Tracey Krause of her life in Cotacachi, Ecuador. “There’s a real gentleness of life; it’s just beautiful in the mountains, and I love the weather.”

The year-round mild climate of Ecuador’s highlands was one important factor that Tracey and her husband Rob Hamm considered before moving to Cotacachi. Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, Tracey says, “I couldn’t bear the weather there anymore. It’s really hard on your body to live in such extremes of cold and heat. My skin always hurt from being so dry during the excessively long winters.”

Cotacachi’s equatorial location and high altitude usually keeps the temperature at a range of low 50s F to high 70s F nearly every day of the year. There’s no snow or ice to contend with, and Tracey doesn’t need to drain bottles of hand lotion or tubes of lip balm to ward off dehydrated skin.

But it wasn’t just the great weather that brought the couple and their children Nik and Cassie to this beautiful equatorial country in 2012. “Before we had kids, Rob and I used to travel and work in a lot of different countries, and we always thought we’d want to do that with our children. We wanted to take them out of North America, because we think there’s a lot of learning to be done abroad, and it would help them develop a social conscience,” she says. “In Canada, it’s a cultural norm to cater to children, and they can come away thinking they are the center of the world and should have everything they want. Really, the point of education and learning should be to develop one’s gifts and talents, so you can give back in the world. In Ecuador, my children aren’t only surrounded by kids who are well-to-do, and they can see some of the needs that exist.”

When the family began looking for countries that would suit their needs, they found that Ecuador offered a great variety of activities. “There’s so much to do here.

We’ve been to the Amazon a number of times, as well as the coast and to different hot springs around the country. We’ve gone whitewater rafting, paragliding, hiking, and zip lining.”

Though they make the most of their time in Ecuador through exploring and finding new adventures, they still need to fund their life here. Rob immediately got to work photographing the country’s beauty and selling his shots on stock photo sites. In the meantime, Tracey has developed a business that she loves. When she arrived in Ecuador, she knew she wanted to build something that would earn money and also help locals in a practical and lasting way. She does this by working with local indigenous artisans.

It took her about a year to find people who produced good quality products and were willing to make multiple items of the same design, but now she has a network in place. “I work with 10 different artisans from different communities around Cotacachi. They work mostly with tagua, which is a nut from palm trees, and also açai, which is a seed,” she says. The tagua is sliced and shaped and then it—as well as the açai—is dyed and used to make necklaces, bracelets, and other types of jewelry.”

Some artisans also produce colorful woven scarves. Tracey typically collects the goods quarterly, but she also asks the artisans to make additional products before the busy Christmas season.

Tracey uses the local postal service to send items in bulk to a fulfillment center in the U.S., and lists them on the website for her business, Artisans in the Andes. (See: Artisansintheandes.com.) Operating on a relatively small scale means she doesn’t need to pay customs duties on what she ships up north. Customers can order online and the fulfillment center ships the orders out.

Because she operates on a fair-trade basis, Tracey pays the artisans up front and makes her profit when the item sells.

Knowing that she’d be starting her business from the ground up, Tracey wanted to be somewhere with an affordable cost of living. Luckily, Ecuador delivers on that front. “We live on less than $1,000 per month. The rent for our three-bedroom apartment is $270, and our utilities, including internet, cost less than $100. I can’t even compare that to what things cost in Canada, it’s such a huge difference.”

Their budget even allows them to send Cassie to the local private school, Las Lomas, for $70 a month, plus an additional $30 or so in expenses for supplies and fees. (Son Nik has returned to Canada for college.)

While Tracey works most days until around 5 p.m., her relaxed Ecuadorian life allows her to enjoy simple pleasures as well.

“In the mornings Rob usually makes me a batido (fruit and milk smoothie), and that really gets me going for the day. Then in the late morning or early afternoon, I’ll go for a nice walk outside. And we usually shop for food every day and buy everything fresh.”

She also volunteers with a local program that provides scholarships to low-income high school students. She gives a portion of her business profits to this program, as well.

She’s also found that her work gives her a creative outlet. Tracey designs much of the jewelry, and she recently began another online business based on designs she creates in Photoshop. The designs are printed on items like tee-shirts and mugs, and everything is printed and shipped directly from the U.S.

“I feel really fortunate to have built a business I love and that I feel has social value,” says Tracey. “I love that it aligns with my personal values and I can work with things that are handmade, and each item is just a little bit different.”

She says her family has no plans to move elsewhere. “I feel like I live in paradise. Where would it be any better?”

 

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