More than a decade of working on the front lines of development has convinced me of one thing: One of the biggest obstacles for low-income countries on the path to prosperity is lack of access to international markets and buyers.
Consider Afghanistan, where I spent years working for the United Nations and other charities. The war-torn country has countless talented craftspeople who create outstanding products like handcrafted jewelry and intricate wooden trays. The problem? Beyond the local bazaar, access to buyers is limited.
But now, there is a golden opportunity. Western consumers are increasingly interested in buying the kind of authentic, handmade accessories, home decor and fashion items these artisans produce. The challenge is to create a reliable supply chain linking artisans to this growing market.
Part of the setback has to do with the aid system itself. Donor agencies are eager to invest in training and skills development, but less comfortable investing in less ‘flashy’ factors that could have an enormous impact on market access, such as logistics, marketing and sales.
At the same time, mainstream retailers worry that sourcing from emerging-market artisans is too risky. Online platforms that currently carry crafts tend to only work with producers who have access to a computer, are able to process credit card payments, and have access to reliable postal systems. Unfortunately, this excludes many talented artisans in the developing world.
North American consumers should have the chance to truly help countries such as Afghanistan with their purchasing power. The craft sector is the second largest employer, after agriculture, in many developing countries. It represents an opportunity for thousands—millions even—to earn a living and own their own business. Moreover, crafts are often made by women, who rank among the most vulnerable in many of these societies.
If women are able to earn a decent living, there is a proven trickle-down effect. Their families and communities thrive. Their work usually does not require literacy, but rather concrete skills that are passed on, creating an important legacy for generations to come. In even the most deeply conservative countries, craft production allows women to empower themselves and lift their families out of poverty.
I started the Far & Wide Collective to help overcome the obstacles artisans in developing countries face in accessing international markets. It’s an online marketplace that gives talented producers an opportunity to connect with North American buyers.
We work with artisans in Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan and plan to expand. We invested in a solid supply chain to bring products to market, allowing artisans to focus what they do best—making high-quality, beautiful products.
Our startup challenges related to finding reliable designers and web developers here who understood what we wanted to do and could deliver on time. Each of our 29 artisans and small crafts producers—most of whom live in very isolated places—delivered exquisite and flawless work on time!
We generally pay our artisans in advance, but a few of our Afghan producers suggested that we only pay them 50 percent up front, investing the rest in marketing as they thought that this would lead to more sales.
When I first came to Afghanistan, I met Shugufa Yousofzai, she was 18 years old, a shy young woman who had just some back from a decade as a refugee in Pakistan. Today she is 27, and has married a man she chose herself. She is a mother and runs her own jewelry businesses to support her family. “Growing my own business and selling internationally gives me confidence and makes me feel connected,” she says.
Now more than ever there is an opportunity to level the playing field by connecting isolated and disadvantaged communities to the global economy through innovative business models and cheaper technology. The way we choose to spend our money gives us more power than almost anything else we can do. The recent tragedy in Bangladesh has only made it more urgent for us all to identify responsible, sustainable ways to include producers from emerging economies in the global economy.
Hedvig Alexander has worked in development for a decade, mostly in Afghanistan. She is the founder of Far & Wide Collective, an online marketplace for crafts from emerging economies.