003 — Craft Business Design x Totomoxtle

Design research series investigating the intersection of business design, craft and indigenous communities. Supported by the British Council and Craft Council’s Crafting Futures grant.

Introduction

Earlier this year, I conducted research with Totomoxtle, a craft enterprise that produces an interiors veneer made from heirloom corn husks. Designed and led by Fernando Laposse, with the support of 10 part-time artisans and employees, Totomoxtle is located in Tonahuixtla, an indigenous Mixtec town in the heart of Puebla, Mexico.

Closeup of Totomoxtle veneer made from heirloom corn husks

The research investigated the following:

“How can business design be harnessed to support Totomoxtle to become a more commercially viable craft enterprise?”

I wanted to see what happens when we apply a tool created for private sector players to empower a craft enterprise. How would the approach need to bend? Which aspects would be beneficial? What would need to be reimagined all together?

In this blog post, I will walk you through the business design approach I applied with Totomoxtle that resulted in a live prototype and experiment. I wrap up with conclusions exploring the impact I believe business design can have on craft, along with next steps to further share my learnings.

A scene from the centre of Tonahuixtla during a weekday afternoon, in front of abandoned school

1. Onboarding

For those who are unfamiliar, business design is a method born from human-centered design. Acting as a bridge between design teams and the corporate clients, business designers make sure that the innovative ideas that people want (ie. human-centered design), can also succeed out in our messy real world (ie. commercial viability). We do this by approaching business challenges from a design lens (ie. evidence-based problem-solving). Through articulating assumptions, testing with prototypes, iteration and fast learning — we develop and arrive at final solutions that are desirable for customers, viable for business and technologically feasible.

So I started my journey to apply this method with Totomoxtle. Like I would any other client, I dove into understanding the business, while zeroing in on its current and most pressing challenges.

Along with one preliminary meeting in London to get a general understanding of the business, I used our 4 hour drive to Tonahuixtla from Mexico City at 6 AM to further understand what was going on. As the landscape transformed from urban highways to dry rolling hills of cacti, the questions flowed, and I was able to gain a deeper understanding of what Fernando’s biggest struggles were.

  • “I want to be more commercial this year and do more interiors. I need to professionalize it — to shift from looking like a design project into a company.”
  • “It’s not about scaling — it’s about using the project as an excuse for other social changes and development to happen.”
  • “It’s hard to work with interiors companies — they are working with producers in the Philippines — using machine made fibers, saying they are made by hand, and undercutting our price.”
  • “I’ve seen designers like me become popular, and then be discarded a few years later. I can’t have this happen — the community is depending on me.”
Accounting records by Delphino, co-manager of Totomoxtle

I listened and translated these frustrations. What I was hearing was that:

  • Fernando needs to create a more seamless operations while proactively creating demand in the market.
  • Unlike many businesses that prioritise profit and growth, Totomoxtle’s KPI’s focus on positive impact within the community, as well as with the rare corn varieties.
  • Totomoxtle struggles to maintain integrity in a highly competitive market that price discriminates against products “Made in Mexico.”
  • Fernando wants to create a sustainable business model that delivers value to his employees for the long-run.

2. Zooming in

Zooming-in, it started to become more clear that one of the most pressing challenges was a vulnerable business model.

Totomoxtle has been operating on a commissions-based business model, with museums, exhibits and private buyers seeking his work out — with orders coming in sporadically — albeit consistently.

How? There has been a lot of buzz around Totomoxtle, and the work of Fernando Laposse more generally — with large commissions featured in London Design Week, V&A and Art Basel — all the way to publications in Dezeen and Architectural Digest.

Nonetheless, Fernando has become increasingly skeptical of this popularity and aware of the vulnerability Totomoxtle has depending on the demand of a fast-moving, trend-driven design scene. He had witnessed designers rise in ‘fame’ with lots of buzz and hype around their work, only to be discarded a few years later.

Not wanting to fall into the same trap, he wanted to move away from the commissions model to devise a more sustainable business model that could keep Totomoxtle producing for the long-haul…and he had the opportunity.

Fernando had started to negotiate a contract with a french interiors company. This partnership would help Totomoxtle to make their business more commercial and consistent. Totomoxtle would be responsible for producing the textiles, and the company would take care of the rest.

With the company negotiating for larger and larger margins, Fernando needed to figure out a solution to ensure that his employees and partners in Tonahuixtla would not be negatively impacted.

3. Aerial View

I turned to the business model canvas to map out Totomoxtle. This is always a great tool to fill out at the onset of projects with clients to align and see the full picture of what’s going on.

As I filled the business model canvas, I realised that Totomoxtle is unique as a business. For most typical businesses today, the central strategy is to serve the end-customer. After all, by designing for the customer and their needs — they return the favor with their wallets.

However unlike traditional businesses, Fernando has been driven to create value for all the contributing actors within Totomoxtle’s supply chain (ie. artisans, farmers, corn) — serving them with equal fervor (if not more) as the customer’s themselves.(*See my previous blog post on interspecies design)

To add, the nature of the small, tight-knit indigenous community meant that any changes made (for better or worse) would send rippling effects out to the web of interdependent actors. Fernando was aware of this responsibility — and driven to use Totomoxtle as a platform to create positive impact for all the actors.

4. Empathise & Explore

In order to align with Fernando’s priorities, I needed to bend my usual business design methods with a customer-centered focus to help Totomoxtle work towards commercial viability in a way that considered the intersecting needs of various contributing actors across its localised supply chain.

So I started with the supply chain — mapping how who is involved and how, while also looking to understand their needs and desires, which are so often erased from our consideration.

Blue (Full-Time Management), Yellow (Farmers), Red (Part-Time Artisan-Employees)

Going to the start — Totomoxtle first collects heirloom corn seeds from The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a seed bank with the largest collection of corn seeds in the world. For the CIMMYT, their main aim is to reintroduce these rare seed varieties on the brink of extinction, back in nature, and to gather on-the-ground research and insights from those who are growing heirloom varieties.

Fernando and his team then distribute heirloom corn seeds to farmers they have partnered up with in Tonahuixtla. In addition to providing the seeds, Totomoxtle pays an upfront cost to farmers for taking the risk to grow these rare varieties with them. Once the corn is grown, farmers carefully remove and deliver the husks to Totomoxtle. A payment is then made once the husks are delivered to the workshop, along with an agreement that the farmers can keep the rest of the corn to feed their families, or sell in the market.

The supplies of Totomoxtle’s USP material is limited to the fluctuating output of several farmers who grow corn twice per year. Entering into the workshop, a back stock of corn husks lies in the corner, packaged in pink and green plastic nets, stacking up to the ceiling. Once this supply of material is used for the year — that’s it, no more corn husks.

Heirloom corn husks in the corner of Totomoxtle workshop

And then it is time to wait for an order — with some months having large orders back-to-back, followed by months of nothing.

During my time conducting research, Totomoxtle received confirmation for an order for an exhibit in North America. We accompanied Delphino and Nicolas, the managers of Totomoxtle, as they went around town in the evening knocking on the doors of part-time employees, inviting them to the next day’s production run. In a town with very limited connectivity, door-to-door knocking is the most effective way to reach employees.

Getting into the workshop early in the next morning, you could feel the buzz as everyone entered into the new workshop located in an old school building.

Front of Totomoxtle’s new workshop

Fernando had prepared the workspace in the previous days for smooth and efficient production. It was like a ford assembly line augmented with one-of-a-kind gadgets concocted just for the needs of Totomoxtle (like a DIY vacuum for drying glued pieces).

Now it was time to test it all out. It was immediately clear in the morning that there was an inefficiency in the process, with a noticeable lag in the beginning of the day as the “backlog” of corn husk pieces were being prepared. As the first group dipped the husks in water, cut the sides and ironed them onto pieces of thick paper, three other work streams waited patiently to begin their jobs. We noted that we needed to find a way for the heirloom corn husks to be pre-glued onto the polygons before the whole team arrived.

I continued observing the process, mapping and timing each work stream, while identifying bottlenecks as production went into full swing.

Workshop in full swing!

Sitting down with some of the employees during the production day, I took the time to speak with them 1:1, asking them what drives them to work at Totomoxtle, and life more generally.

  • “I want to make money to pay for my weekend school so I can have a career.”
  • “I want work so I can pay for my kids expenses — for school, transportation — so they have the choice to go back to study in America if they want.”
  • “If I can not get a career for myself, then something for my kids, something stable. Jobs are hard to come by around here.”
Lucaro, 19, is a part-time employee at Totomoxtle with aspirations to finish her degree

Across the board, a pattern emerged. In a place with sporadic economic activity and especially limited opportunities for women, the idea of a stable and consistent career was a common aspiration, even luxury.

By the end of the day, the workshop had produced five square meters of the Totomoxtle veneer. These veneers would then be packaged up and shipped off to the exhibit in America where they would be featured for a few weeks, disassembled and then probably thrown away.

While at first it felt like a shame that the work and effort put into creating these veneers goes to waste, giving it more thought, it reinforced the unique proposition of Totomoxtle. For Fernando, the veneers act as placeholders of value — shipped across the world, they tell the untold stories of a small village in the middle of Puebla, of a crop struggling to survive in the face of industrialised agriculture — in return monetary capital returns back to the small village. While the veneers do not always survive themselves, what survives is the value created in a local economy and ecosystem in desperate need — a reminder of what drives this business.

5. Define & Ideate

Through days of observation from the workshop to the corn fields, and a series of interviews with various stakeholders, the pain points of the different stakeholders became clearer:

Bringing the varying actors’ desires (+) and pain points (-) together to the same line

Coming back to the contract with french interiors company, I started to connect the dots with the insights I was uncovering and a major blocker began to emerge, and that was the the limited supply of heirloom corn. The limited supply of heirloom corn contributed to the limited scale in which Totomoxtle could produce, which led to higher costs, inconsistent work for the employees and overall inability for Totomoxtle to formalise their business.

Looking at the connections between problems and finding root problems (ie. limited supply of corn)
Heirloom corn husks

How could Totomoxle respond to more consistent demand if their production output is constrained by a limited supply of heirloom corn? How could Totomoxtle responsibly work with and serve the material without overstraining its natural capacity?

We arrived to the following question: How could Totomoxtle increase the supply of heirloom corn husks, sustainably?

As we ideated around this question, we examined our ideas against the needs not only of the business or customer, but also against the needs of the heirloom corn, the farmers, the employees and the community.

From ideating new techniques to create the veneers using less material to finding ways to incentivize more local farmers to opt into growing heirloom varieties — we arrived to an exciting solution that we believed met the intersecting needs of the unique contributing actors — a decentralised network of corn husk suppliers.

A decentralised supply chain of heirloom corn could act as an efficient, responsible and resilient model for growth. Rather than pressuring production of resources and materials from a centralised hub (Tonahuixtla and its ecosystems), the business could grow steadily through a partner network of smallholder farmers.

Currently, each bag of corn husks contains approximately 28 husks that provide enough raw material to produce 1 square meter of the Totomoxtle veneer. With a total of 60 bags of corn husks provided by 2 farmers — this leaves the total possible production capped at 60 square meters. Should the rate of heirloom corn production be relatively similar with other small hold farmers — then with every new farmer onboarded, Totomoxtle could increase its production output by approximately 30 square meters.

Materials would be provided in alignment with the natural output of the local ecosystems. In addition, we hypothesised that by paying farmers for the husks (part of corn that usually goes to waste), we could further incentivise different communities to continue growing heirloom varieties. Across the board, it felt like a win-win.

Assessing the ideas with each actor, it felt like a win-win

We starting to consider the requirements to bring this new system to life. It would require identification of farmers growing heirloom corn, engaging them to work with us and easy onboarding on how to handle the heirloom corn. We would also need to find a simple and low-cost way for them to return the heirloom corn material back to the remote Tonahuixtla.

We arrived to the design solution of a box. Once we identified farmers growing heirloom corn and agreed to work with us, we would send this box that included all of the required supplies (ie. iron, iron board, glue paper) and directions needed to transform the heirloom corn husks into partially finished polygon pieces used in the tiles. These polygon pieces would then be sent back to the workshop in the same box, where the employees would refine the pieces — and as a result, save time in the production day by jumping straight into making the tiles.

Handing over the transfer of corn husks to polygons to the farmers’ scope of responsibility

While arriving at ideas can be exhilarating, we also needed to challenge them.

6. Uncovering Blindspots

At this point of the project, I had planned to go to TEC Toluca to run a class with design students — we were going to build prototypes of the box with experiment plans, and together return back to Tonahuixtla to test the prototypes, gathering input through a collaborative workshop with local stakeholders.

Then Covid-19 hit. Before I knew it I was back in the States grappling with how I could continue the research remotely. This was further magnified by the fact Tonahuixtla is off-grid, meaning that getting local input would be incredibly challenging.

I ended up running a two part masterclass series with TEC design students. Having developed the box concept with Fernando, I wanted to gather their feedback from a local design perspective.

What were the blindspots of our concept? What was overlooked, unrealistic or missing completely? What else needed to be considered when building the first prototype and testing the concept?

After onboarding the students onto the project and insights, I invited the group to challenge the concept and ask questions.

How are you going to locate partners? Once, partners are located, how are you going to build relationships of trust? How are you going to show credibility? What will the onboarding process look like if there is no face-to-face interaction? Are there any partners who already have established relationships with communities? Every village is different and has its own politics, how are you going to design for their unique demands? How are you going to we pay farmers when many rural areas are still cash-bashed? How will you compete with government money that often encourages indigenous farmers not to farm at all?

Clustering challenge areas together, high-level themes of unknowns started to emerge.

Clusters: Locating partners, Starting relationships, Credibility, Partnerships, Rituals, Engagement, Capital and Payment Transactions

Once we uncovered the various challenge areas, we then divided into groups to ideate more solutions. Before going in, we walked through several case studies from around the world to spark everyone’s imagination — from trust models with coffee cooperatives in Guatemala to onboarding processes by gig economy giants.

The ideas?

One team created a concept exploring how corn husks could be exchanged beyond monetary capital, with alternative forms of capital. They proposed an exchange where farmers tell us their priorities (ie. paying children’s school fees), and Totomoxtle pays straight to these priorities — eliminating the cash middleman.

Another team devised a whole training model inspired by the Alebrije craft model in Oaxaca. In this case, Totomoxtle would train communities to make its biomaterial, its craft, and then those communities would be empowered to uniquely express themselves through the method. Totomoxtle would then purchase the unique designs back and sell them into the wider market.

The two sessions proved to be productive, helping us to identify previously overlooked areas that would be vital to consider moving forward. Engaging this diverse group of up-and-coming designers was especially helpful in bridging my knowledge gap to better align with the local reality.

7. Prototype & Test

In order to locate partners, kickstart relationships and have credibility, Fernando decided to leverage his existing relationship with CIMMYT. With a vast network of knowledge on where farmers are growing heirloom corn, they agreed to help us identify farmers and liase new relationships.

Soon enough, the CIMMYT identified two families who grow heirloom corn varieties, one in Morelos and one in Tlaxcala, who agreed to take part in the experiment.

With the upcoming corn yield right around the corner, Fernando has started to construct a box including all of the necessary supplies to onboard the farmers to dehusk corn, iron husks onto polygon pieces and then send the finished pieces back. The box will include directions with an iron, ironing board and polygon pieces. In the process of developing a more seamless de-husking process for the farmers, Fernando has also created a spin-off design solution of a seat for farmers de-husk corn faster and more efficiently.

Delphino testing out the new seat for de-husking corn — amazing example of design innovation hacks within the supply chain!

Excited by the buzz around the Totomoxtle project, 10 local farmers have asked to work with Totomoxtle for the upcoming season. So Fernando has decided to first test the process with with them, and then expand to test the idea with the two families.

Mapping out assumptions and metrics, we will be testing and measuring the ease of onboarding, level of production and quality of polygons produced in this first phase. Once the experiment is complete, we will iterate the concept based on the new insights, and follow up with our next experiment, building up the concept in a lean and agile way until we arrive at a final, effective solution.

Based on the insights and feedback from this initial onboarding of farmers in in Tonahuixtla, the box will be further iterated before it enters into this next testing phase — in which it will be sent to the two families identified by the CIMMYT.

While continuing to operate with cash payments in Tonahuixtla (ie. one payment at beginning + one payment at end for # of polygons produced), we will be exploring payment options once we begin working with the new farmers in other states — considering how the transaction in itself can be designed in a way that creates trust for both parties.

Conclusion

When I first met Fernando, he told me, “the easiest part of Totomoxtle was developing the biomaterial, the real challenge came from designing the whole system around it.” As Fernando devised and hacked all the moving parts required to make Totomoxtle into working business — little did he know that he was practicing business design all along.

This research collaboration further extended Fernando’s already intuitive business design approach. Together, we succeeded in mapping out the business from a holistic point of view, adopting new language to better describe Totomoxtle’s commercial workings and challenges, captured a baseline of numbers to measure impact on (ie. timings of production and costs breakdowns) and began to practically capture and respond to the needs of interdependent stakeholders — from the artisans, to farming partners and even the heirloom corn itself.

While this case study shows how we dove into one key area to apply business design, through the process of uncovering Totomoxtle’s current challenges in conjunction with those of the stakeholders, we drafted a backlog of business design challenges to further explore in the future. These include:

  • How to demonstrate the value of ‘Made in Mexico’ in a market privileging ‘Made in Europe’ craft, when negotiating pricing?
  • How to formalise payments when working with cash-based communities?
  • How to reimagine the gig economy model for a highly flexible rural workforce?
  • How to expand the B2C customer base offering without devaluing the brand?
  • How to engage and upskill local employees to take part in business operations and management?
  • How to communicate global market trends to local employees, while inviting employees to uniquely interpret them?

Looking at this backlog of problems, what I realise is that so many of Totomoxtle’s obstacles are shared across craft enterprises and communities around the world. For many craft communities, the gap between the local reality with the requirements of a fast moving, increasingly homogenous and exploitative marketplace creates a deep sense of alienation.

Just take the beautiful ancestral craft heritage of handwoven hats in Tonahuixtla. Intricately made from long pieces of straw, each hat takes 1 day to produce with the women receiving on average 5 pesos per hat — that’s 0.18 GBP for a day’s work. In this precarious local reality, it is easy to see how Totomoxtle marks a glimmer of hope in Tonahuixla.

Lucy using ancestral technique to hand weave hat from straw

Totomoxtle shows us how having a viable business intentionally designed around a craft product is essential. Business design can help to ensure that unique products will arrive to the appropriate channels in which they will be appreciated and fairly paid. When enthusiastic customers offer legitimate value in exchange for products, craft enterprises can then serve as powerful catalysts to revitalize local communities and economies that are struggling. They can act as funnels of much needed value creation that enter and spread across communities — from artisans and their families, to farmers and surrounding ecosystems.

Driven to find the sweet spot between intersecting needs and requirements, business design can help bridge the gap between the local and global, supporting craft enterprises to capture a seat in the market while maintaining integrity to place, community and culture.

Despite the undeniable challenges and effort required when we take an intersectional and inclusive business design approach, I believe that it is possible — because at the heart of this method is a fierce determination that sees obstacles as portals of opportunity, and endless ambition to make the seemingly impossible possible.

Craft Business Design Toolkit

While ‘traditional’ business design tools laid the foundations for the process that I adopted, iterations throughout the journey helped me to discover problem solving tools designed for the unique context and needs of craft.

I have gathered these tools in a first-go for a craft business design toolbox — with the aim of increasing the access that craft communities and enterprises can have to business design support.

You can access the first version of the toolkit here. Let me know if you have any feedback, ideas or would like to collaborate.

My work area in the Totomoxtle workshop

Exploring alternative routes forward through strategic design, speculative design, business design and more.