Hilltribe craftswoman turns social commerce pro

This hilltribe entrepreneur’s online marketing skills helped revive her community’s ancient crafts and send her kids to school.

Every year, the Lahu, a hilltribe of Northern Thailand, gather at a village square in meticulously embroidered clothes and intricate ornaments to celebrate their new year festival, Kin Wo. They also carry bags featuring intricate embroidery, brightly colored pom-poms and stylized bottle gourds, which are symbols of prosperity and abundance.

“These bags have been closely associated with the Lahu. Initially, they were created for household use. When local women did not toil in the fields, they spent their free time during a dry season weaving and making bags, similar to Isan’s traditional weaving culture.” Benjalak Jahae, a member of the Red Lahu tribe in Ban Pang Makham Pom, a small village located in Chiang Mai, told dtacblog. She is also a Lahu totebag maker, who participated in dtac Net for Living’s digital upskilling program.

The Cycle of Uncertainty

In the old days, most hilltribe villagers in the North were farmers. They grew rice, corn, and vegetables. Some raised livestock and foraged food from the forests. However, in the face of growing urbanization and volatile crop prices, many of them decided to head out to town in search of better income. Things were not so much different for Ms. Benjalak.

About 15 years ago, Ms. Benjalak, followed her friends to Bangkok, right after she completed grade 9, in hope of finding a stable job that can support herself and her family. To her disappointment, she worked for eight months as a noodle shop worker and earned about 1,200 baht per month (US$37). The meagre income hardly covered her living expenses.  

Eventually, she decided to return to her village with her then boyfriend who would become the father of her two children. The couple grew ginger, corn and beans and sold them to middlemen, but it was hardly a fruitful attempt.

“First we lost 10,000 baht on ginger rhizomes. Then we invested a few thousand baht more in corn and beans and got almost nothing in return,” she said. “We continued for four years before giving up farming entirely.”

Venturing into Businesses

Due to poor farm yields, Ms. Benjalak and her husband headed out of their village again to work as construction workers in the city center. Not long after, her husband teamed up with his friends to start a small construction business while she worked as a nanny at a local school and pursued her studies into senior secondary education and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in education.

Ms. Benjalak also weaves and sells Lahu` totebags, a skill she picked up from her fellow villagers during her time as a farmer.

“In the past, this traditional skill of weaving on the backstrap looms was very common among us villagers. But the knowledge and skills have faded over time. Today relatively a few of people are known to practice this weaving style,” Ms. Benjalak said.

There are five steps in Lahu bag production: stretching threads, weaving, forming bag straps, making the bags, and sticking all the parts together. It usually takes about a day or two to produce a single bag, depending on the size of the bag and craftsmanship. While working as a nanny, Ms. Benjalak earns an additional stream of income from selling these bags, which enables her to provide her two children with good education.

Empower the Community through Online Marketing

“Thanks to Lahu bags, I could send my kids to school and raised them well,” Ms. Benjalak said and explained that initially she made these bags to sell to fellow hilltribe people. But when the Office of the Non-Formal and Informal Education (ONIE) learned about their products, they advised her to form an occupational group and requested a fund for her group to expand their business. Later, they also gained support from the Royal Foundation and the Ministry of Interior, enabling them to expand their markets to major cities.

“We had opportunities to introduce our products to city people at markets and fairs. Several of them came to us saying they had not seen such handicrafts for a long while,” she said. “At these events, we got to demonstrate our traditional weaving techniques, which attracted a lot of interest to the point that there were customers following us to the village to learn the skills. We were very happy that our tradition is being appreciated and that we could sell many bags.”

Plan International Thailand has also been active in Ms. Benjalak’s village. In addition to offering family-planning advice to locals, they joined forces with dtac Net for Living and brought them in to provide digital upskilling trainings to villagers. dtac Net for Living teaches social media commerce skills such as product photography and the basics of creating a solid online presence.

Thanks to the online marketing skills they acquired, their weekly bag sales jumped from 4-5 pieces per week to 40-50 pieces. This created more jobs within the community, and Ms. Benjalak is now setting up the Lahu Chai Prakan Community Enterprise.

Through local wisdom and traditional craft skills, Ms. Benjalak successfully revived the almost lost art and grew a sustainable income to support her family. Today, she continues to work with the group on improving their products and expanding into new markets.

To get your own Lahu bag, visit https://www.facebook.com/LAHU.handmade14/ (prices start from 300 baht).