Awards 1995 World Vision Award for Development Initiative

World Vision Award for Development Initiative

Mrs. Jenny Tzaig

"Don't pinch the crown like the British do, or you'll break it," said Jenny Tzaig. ''Hold it by the brim and your Panama will last for years."

She was surrounded by Panama hats of every shape, size, style and colour: not just the close-woven Panama trilby sought by a cricket umpire in a popular TV advertisement, but women's bowlers and sun hats, fancy patterned hats in open weave, even baseball caps. Plying journalists and hat makers with ideas, she has helped to make Panamas fashionable. "Now I've tackled men's' Panamas," she says "I'm trying to develop into ladies'"

For 12 years she worked at Ecuador's London embassy, seeking markets for Ecuadorian goods. Now she handles about three-fifths of the Panamas made by Ecuadorian country people and imported into Britain. Eight years ago she got Christys of Stockport to take 200 dozen. This year it will be 7,500 dozen, many sold at 18-20 by Marks and Spencer for whom Panamas have become a bestseller.

This trade is on commission, saving her the need to finance it. But she imports for 35 to 40 smaller customers through her own firm, Walker Majesa. 'Majesa' combines the names of her three daughters, Mavi (an Oxford student who has opened nurseries for street children in Ecuador), Jessica (studying for GCSE) and Sally (a Leeds student who has worked in Ecuador with disabled children).

Jenny Tzaig was born in Ecuador, one of the first countries to admit Jews seeking refuge from Hitler. Her father, an Austrian agricultural engineer, settled in Quito.

At 15 she visited Israel and stayed on, training as a nurse. She also met her husband, Boaz Tzaig, a London fashion student who became an interior designer. Panama hats take their name from the Canal, because many canal builders wore them. But they are from Ecuador, made from strands drawn from the young shoots of a coastal palm tree. A bygone government spread hat making from the coast up into the Andes around the town of Cuenca.

Both men and women weave hats when they are not busy farming: a hat takes from one or two days to three months for the finest quality. They sell the hats surrounded with unwoven strands, and small factories get the edges plaited by outworkers. Children gather discarded strand-ends and weave them into tiny hats for sale to tourists. In the Cuenca factories, the hats are washed, bleached or coloured, and hammered to produce the Panama's characteristic smooth texture. In Britain, Christys other factories give them their final shape.

Jenny Tzaig has studied whether this finishing work could be done in Ecuador but the transport costs are against it. 'Hoods' (unfinished hats) can be packed in a small space, one inside the other. Finished hats would need bulky individual packing.

After she left the embassy, a Cuenca firm called Paredes asked her to be its British agent. "Once I went to see how the weavers worked, I fell in love with the product and the people," she says.

Jenny now buys from six firms but refused to deal with two that failed to pay their hat weavers.

Weavers bring their hats into town on their backs when they come to Sunday service in Cuenca. A nun who belongs to the Paredes family arranged for her convent to buy the hats at fair prices. Unfortunately, this system has not yet extended to other areas.

Jenny Tzaig visits Ecuador regularly, linking weavers and customers, suggesting designs. She got the head of Christys to go there, too. Every hat may be different, but customers require consistent quality, so techniques to ensure quality have been developed. This has its reward in bigger orders which mean the weavers can work all the year round.

Jenny Tzaig says she is not an altruist, "I am doing a business - but with a bit of heart".