Saturday, November 12, 2011

We're on to Something

I am in Sri Lanka today.  I will be here for the next three weeks or so.  During breakfast this morning, I got into a conversation with a bright young Sri Lanka law student.  Her name is Selyna, and she is the daughter of the founder of the fair trade company I design products for here- Selyn Exports. Despite the differences in the size(SL 66.000 sq. km.\ AM 30.000), population(SL 21 million\ AM 3 million), and history of the two countries, both Armenia and Sri Lanka are emerging economies.  Both have large emigration rates of workers that send money home.  Both struggle to create jobs at home.  Both have rich handicraft traditions.

Selyna lamented the big projects being done in Sri Lanka, often by large international organizations, saying that they are not sustainable due to a lack of local mental ownership of them- somebody rich from the outside comes and plops a project down in a village and leaves.  She pointed out a particular project where large sums of money were put into building a coconut fiber processing plant, while no plan was made for the electrical line to the plant, or how the electricity being used was to be paid.  That plant stands unused today, with the villagers there waiting for someone else from the outside to come along and pick up the pieces.  She said that Selyn, in contrast, is doing it right- privately owned, building on the weaving and sewing skills of the average village woman to make the product, while Selyn itself does the designing and marketing of them- at the same time guaranteeing a reasonable wage and decent working conditions to the women who make the products.  And they employ well over 400 women.

And I thought about Homeland Handicrafts.  We don't go into a village in Armenia with big promises, we go in with a product idea or two, and see if we can find the entrepreneurs.  We build on the skills the women have.  We do the marketing, and hope that a businessman or woman in the U.S., France, Russia or Australia will pick up on the idea, and work commercially with the groups we have created.  We don't make factories, we make groups of women who want to work. 

Armenia doesn't need big bucks projects, it needs lots of small ones.  And it doesn't need brilliant new ideas, it needs bodies on the ground to implement them.

I am in the process of developing a talk where I look into the importance of small and medium enterprises(SMEs) in other developing countries like Guatemala, Kenya and India -and yes, Sri Lanka- and take a look at the importance of products like teddy bears, crocheted animals and other handicrafts as a percentage of the total economy, and then at how many jobs for women have been created through handicrafts in those countries as a percentage of the total population.  I hope to be surprised.

If they can create thousands upon thousands of jobs for women through handicrafts, well then so can Armenia.  And this at a time when the world is tired of factory-made products, and wants the authentic, the hand made.

I think we're on to something, Selyna and I.

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