During a trip to see her Columbian family as a teenager, Caroline Kuis picked up a crochet bag made by an indigenous group from the north-east of Colombia. This was where her obsession with artisanal products began. Now, she runs her own business – wuchii – selling ethically-sourced Columbian homewares…
Caroline Kuis is the founder of wuchii, selling Columbian heritage crafts. Here, she tells us about her travels, why she started the business, working directly with artisan families and co-operatives to empower remote rural Colombian communities with few other economic prospects and how spirituality has helped her along the way…
Tell us about your business, what do you sell?
wuchii offers handmade Colombian heritage crafts with a focus on natural design. Currently this includes a selection of intricately handwoven tableware, wall art, rugs, baskets and bags.
What led you to these products?
My obsession with artisanal products started as a teen on a trip to visit my Colombian family where I picked up a mochila, an over-the-shoulder crochet bag made by the Wayuu, an indigenous group from the north-east of Colombia. When I came back to England, I felt like I had a little piece of Colombia with me.
Since then, I have developed a deep-rooted appreciation of beautiful crafts and I’m drawn to impactful products with inspirational stories. I love feeling connected to what I buy. Working with artisans in Colombia has been a dream for a long time and last year I finally took the plunge to make it a reality.
During lockdown I realised the importance of connecting with nature, not just outdoors but indoors too. I envisioned a business that brought beautifully-crafted Colombian products made from natural materials into people’s homes. And I wanted these products to be produced ethically and sustainably, delivering positive impact for people in my mother country.
What made you decide to launch your own business?
After leaving university, I became a chartered accountant because I grew up in a household where money was scarce and I believed that the security of a stable career would bring me happiness. My accountancy career has taught me a lot about business and it continues to provide me with an income but it doesn’t bring me the kind of fulfilment I want in life.
I desire the freedom that having your own business gives you; to make money in a way that is deeply personal and unique to me and in a way that also makes a difference elsewhere in the world. I decided to call my business wuchii which means ‘bird’ in Wayuunaiki, the language spoken by the Wayuu; my aim is for wuchii to make me free as a bird!
What are your values in business?
I set up wuchii as a social enterprise, which means 51% of profits are locked into our mission to empower women in Colombia. I believe that we cannot keep consuming at current rates and that changing the way we do business is fundamental to living a more sustainable life by focusing on the 3Ps: People, Planet and Profit.
That’s why I work directly with artisan families and co-operatives, empowering remote rural Colombian communities with few other economic prospects.
Colombia has the eighth-highest income inequality in the world, with indigenous women being amongst the most marginalised in society. When women have access to economic resources they have options, so I would love to enable women and girls’ access to education and skills training.
My mother grew up on a farm in rural Colombia during the bloody civil war; it was her tenacity and drive that brought her to England with the hope of a better life. Had I been born in Colombia, I would not have been blessed with the privileges that I have today; this is in part my way of giving something back and being a bridge between the two worlds.
In terms of Planet, we only source products made from natural, sustainable materials. All products are handmade, with generations of ancestral knowledge in every piece. The materials, usually a type of palm leaf, are washed and dried in the sun, all by hand. I believe in buying less and better quality, higher value items that feel good. The business is not perfect in any way, and I am looking into ways to offset the carbon footprint of transportation (the main source of GHG emissions) and will keep analysing the supply chain to identify ways to reduce emissions.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Nature, always! I love the colours and shapes of the natural world and how they make me feel. I try to capture this feeling in the products we sell. I also love venturing to remote areas of Colombia and connecting with talented artisans, hearing their stories and sharing them.
How do you incorporate spirituality into your work-life?
In terms of how I use spirituality in my business, I would say I feel like I am following my higher purpose by following my heart, something I have been deconditioned to do and so can feel daunting. I face my fears by regularly using visualisation. I picture the smiling faces of the artisans and their families, the tropical feel of Colombia, the warmth of its people and what that feels like in my body, this drives me forward when I doubt and question myself.
Tell us about an average working day for you?
I work half the week as an accountant to provide a steady income while I’m establishing the business. The rest of the week is spent doing a wide range of things on the business – a few weeks ago I was trialling a stall at Greenwich market, while this week I have been focused on promoting my brand new website. I also love going to creative networking events as I always seem to meet wonderful people that support and help me on my journey.
Where are you based now?
I have recently moved back to Bow, in East London after living for five years overseas and three years in the English countryside.
Do you plan to continue travelling?
Absolutely – I am going back to Colombia in December to visit more artisans, explore other products and visit some of the organisations that I would like to re-invest wuchii’s future profits into. It will also be the first Christmas in 11 years that I will be sharing with my mum and close relatives in Colombia, so I am super excited!
What are your hopes and dreams for the business?
I would love to see wuchii inspire other entrepreneurs to set up social enterprises, target social impact and help to change the way we do business.
On a personal level, I hope to be successful enough to make a tangible impact on the lives of the artisans and give women in Latin America the opportunities to flourish and shine. Ideally the business will also grow to a size where it becomes my primary source of income, allowing me to move away from accounting and spend my time solely on projects I’m most passionate about.