By Sandra Madiedo (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – Those wooden pallets you see holding products in some stores or wasting away outside, undergo a process of metamorphosis at Eco-Dco Taller: being transformed from potential waste into furniture and accessories for domestic and small business spaces.
Shallya Sanchez is the overseer of this transformation, a Cuban businesswoman who rescued the carpentry tradition passed down from her grandfather and reinvented it by recycling materials.
Before picking up her family legacy, the young woman thought about and studied different business ideas, from opening up a butcher’s to setting up a spinning class. Using her Information Sciences studies to support “the management, planning, writing up a business proposal and market study processes. She did all of this by foreseeing certain and given consequences each and every business might have.”
Until one day, she set her sights on carpentry and wondered how she could go about reinventing it. “At a fair I took part in as an assistant, I was left things that they weren’t going to use anymore, including a pallet.” With that piece alone, which was seemingly useless, I had the idea of building a laptop table. At that moment, driven by her own need, she also discovered another possibility: using this kind of material to make products and sell them for an affordable price.
A more affordable and eco-friendly alternative
A piece of furniture at the Havana Tourism Fair could cost you 1200 CUC (=USD) in 2017. Today, you can find furniture for a basic 300 CUC on classified websites, social media and even in physical stores.
Eco-Deco proposes a different alternative, which “isn’t beautiful wood, but it’s a functional piece of furniture made out of recycled materials that can help people like it helped me,” the entrepreneur said.
In her catalog, you can find a wide range of designs, according to taste and need: from a dining table or a living room set to a wardrobe.
“Of course, I’ll have mass production orders from customers or because it might be a product I want to push on the market, but that doesn’t mean I’ll have to stop doing personalized work, and the only negative thing about that is that sometimes they take a long time to complete. Some customers understand this, and others don’t,” she says.
In 2014, Mercy Correa Pinero, the director of the National Arts and Crafts Center, spoke to Juventud Rebelde about “promoting more logical, simple design projects, and that leads to a better use of resources. We need to also understand that furniture doesn’t only need to be made out of cedar wood or mahogany.”
In the article published on Juventud Rebelde, Jorge Alfonso Garcia, director of the Cuban Fund of Cultural Assets, stated that “the wood issue in Cuba is very complex, and the lack of a fully-fledged market is due to a shortage of large quantities of wood and the financial limitations the sector faces that prevent it from importing it in bulk to meet demand,” which leads to many limitations in terms of access to the raw material, which influences production costs and the customer’s wallet.
So, the idea of using other raw materials to replace pricier ones fits in with the concept that is the pillar of the Eco-Deco project, which is still a carpentry venture and revolves around a valuable, controlled resource like wood, which has a tumultuous market.
This is where the pallets that Shallya and her team use gain real value. They become aesthetically-pleasing and functional objects made out of lower quality wood, which is wasted a lot of the time, after being used as functional structures for carrying, transporting and storing goods and products.
Making the most of them means using a beautiful wood that is in limited availability and expensive, and this also reduces production costs. Plus, as the pallets have been thrown out in many of these cases, recycling them implies lengthening (and in this case, redirecting) their lifespan.
While this business is using “pallets that come to them via donations” (as has been explained in a previous interview), other Cuban business owners have found other alternative solutions to use precious or better-quality wood. The Bambu Centro Project uses bamboo and the Atres Non-Agricultural Cooperative (CNA) (the only business of its kind in Cuba), recycles plastic and produces eco-friendly wood or plastic wood.
ECO-DECO Workshop, A Family
Their first customer was another business woman, Arlen Martinez. She heard about Eco-Deco Taller for the first time in a WhatsApp group that had been created to bring together the entrepreneur network in Cuba.
“I was just launching my store La Bombilla while she was starting out with hers and we realized that we had many things in common, as we were both outside of the commercial circuit par excellence in Havana (Santos Suarez and Cerro, respectively). We were also interested in local empowerment, that locals in the area acquire a taste for this kind of product and to create jobs, sources of livelihoods in these areas.”
For example, Shallya has a very diverse team of employees under her charge. She has surrounded herself with young people who have expertise in many different specialties, such as Laura Alvarez de Leon, who graduated from the Havana Workshop School specializing in Commercial/Industrial Painting; or Felix B. Junco Riveron, who also graduated from the same academic center, who was drawn to the project because of its use of recycled materials.
“You leave with a worker’s certificate to work in a carpenter’s workshop. Our working relationship is perfect, we are united and became family in a short space of time. I’m not machista, I don’t care about having female bosses,” Felix says.
Her cousin, Daniel David Sanchez Medina, also works alongside her, as the business operation’s manager and is a key clog in making sure everything runs smoothing.
“I started off with a couple of friends at a workshop I was invited to work at. I worked tortoiseshell crafts with my uncles. My dear grandfather had always been a carpenter. It seems you carry it in your blood. I liked the idea she had in mind, about the work and working concepts when it comes to the environment and using recycled wood,” Daniel tells us.
Shallya assures us for her part, that working with him: “I have been finetuning the things I didn’t know with my cousin because I like it, but I don’t have time to create furniture. This isn’t a business that has grown overnight and it requires a great deal of work. I can be found in the carpentry in the morning for a bit and then I do all the administrative stuff.
I have a strong personality, but I’m empathetic towards my team; although, I have to be blunt sometimes to make sure that every detail is taken care of. I believe working alongside them like any other member of the team helps them to trust me and to talk, for them not to see me as the ogre who controls the business. Team work not in the cliche sense, but it is essential and much-needed,” she says.
An eco-friendly business on the rise
As well as her determination to reycle materials, the entrepreneur decided to extend the business’ social responsibility, which defines the business, to social media, in order to contribute towards her customers’ awareness. This is the reason she has declared Wednesday “Eco-friendly day”.
“I’m the one in charge of social media. This has an eco-friendly aspect: recycling isn’t only [people] buying this kind of furniture, but also being able to make it themselves at home. Raising awareness by recycling wood breaks the traditional idea and them recyclling other kinds of materials such as iron, glass, paper, has been crucial in our social media strategy.”
As she’s mentioned before, getting a hold of raw materials to keep the business up and running isn’t a simple feat. She even dreams of nails sometimes. Unable to import the resources they need on an everyday basis or without access to a wholesale market on the island, has meant that they have had to adopt a recycling philosophy throughout the working process and to be a living example of what they preach on social media: constantly reusing nails, tacks and other materials such as rope which is regularly “missing” at stores.
But she dares to dream bigger: “I want to have projects with children in the community, like a daycare center, where they can learn and see what an ordinary working day is like. I dream about individuals and legal entities bringing raw materials to the workshop and they could also donate materials for this work with children.”
As well as encouraging environmental awareness and putting this into practise every day, she hopes that Eco-Deco Taller grows, while it also strengthens its ties and commitment to the local community.
“When I have extra raw materials, I want to go into schools, hospitals and not fix tables, but to fix up spaces that hospital waiting rooms don’t have, for example.”
She leaves us with these final words: “the business is successful because I have worked really hard to create this one and not any other one, because I was meticulous about choosing something that I absolutely love, something I wanted to work in.”