Far & Wide Collective, based out of Canada, is an ethical home and accessories retailer that employs artisans in post-conflict and developing countries to make sophisticated and beautiful objects ranging from earrings to serving trays. It was founded by Hedvig Alexander, a Danish woman who started working on Far & Wide three years ago, and has since secured more than half a million in funding from socially conscious investors. How did she do it?
She first started with a small pilot project to verify that the logistics of working with artisans in unstable countries would work. Then she leveraged the success of that project to get seed funding from a woman who had built and sold a retail business. Far & Wide in its current incarnation launched two years ago. When I interviewed her in June, she had just gotten a transfer of a half a million dollars that very day.
It was from a successful American businessman who moved to Toronto last year. “He felt he didn’t contribute enough to society, and didn’t think he needed all his money. He decided to that he would put aside a chunk of money for the sole purpose of investing in social enterprise,” Alexander told me. Far & Wide is one of six businesses he’s invested in.
Note that it was from an American businessman. I didn’t know this, but apparently America is very progressive when it comes to the trade-not-aid concept. “There is very little money available for social enterprise in Canada,” Alexander told me. ” I think there is still the thinking that you either invest in business or give to charity. And you give to charity once you’ve done well in business. The idea that there is a concept in between hasn’t developed enough here. Most of the world is behind U.S., really. I’m in Denmark and when it comes to social investment, we are also not in the forefront.”
Wait, hasn’t she heard of how American worship Scandinavia for its progressive social policies? “We are heavily taxed in Denmark,” she explained. “Most people pay up to 70% tax. The idea of giving to charity or making investments that are not purely for profit for most people is not as possible.” Ah, that makes sense.
The lion’s share of shoppers to Far & Wide’s website come from the U.S., too, about 70%. “I can’t explain that apart from the fact that it seems our US customers get really excited about the fact that we are trying to build small businesses in difficult places,” she says. “Building business instead of handouts seems to really resonate with a lot of Americans. And also the US market is 10 times bigger than the Canadian market.”
On an average day, Far & Wide has about 200 people working with them, though they have 500 artisans on the roster in just Kenya. “But I would say that we affect the lives of about 2,000 people when you look at the ecosystem of these businesses and artisans,” she says. “Let’s say a woman in Kenya who makes sisal baskets for us; she buys the sisal from someone, she buys the coloring from someone, she hires someone to help with certain things. They are part of the value chain of the product.”
For many of our Afghan artisans, if I take a small green cup and a bigger blue cup, many of them will say there is no difference – it’s a container for liquid.
And fitting artisans into the global trade is twice as much work. “The business is almost two businesses,” Alexander says. “There is the whole retail aspect, but we also do a lot of projects in the communities of the artisans to help them grow their businesses. For example in Afganistan in April we launched the Artisan Toolkit, a project we worked on for over two years. We’ve created two training manuals, one very instructional and one more advanced that would show the artisans, many of whom are women, what are the steps to building your craft into a business. It’s very illustrated, because of course there is a lot of illiteracy. We made videos and audio versions for each chapter for women who can’t read. We want them to have full information and understand what their options are. We’re not interested in buying something from them and locking them in as their only buyer.”
“Before we even started writing the toolkit, we did an incredible amount of work interviewing them. We gave them cameras and asked them to take pictures of certain things, because we wanted to get inside their heads and see what they are thinking.” And artisans really do think about craftsmanship differently than an American consumer, who is used to getting what they want, exactly like they want it, quickly.
“One things artisans find hard is to replicate that product. The whole idea of production and standardization and quality control is something that is completely new to artisans and something we really focused on in the artisan toolkit,” Alexander says. “For many of our Afghan artisans, if I take a small green cup and a bigger blue cup, many of them will say there is no difference – it’s a container for liquid. The idea that the color or the size makes a difference to the customer is new to them. It’s doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, it’s something Westerners learn in school.”
Alexander also has to deal with convoluted payment systems. “The payment systems they use, it’s a combination of bank transfer, monograms, mobile money, and Western Union. Now with the war and Iraq and ISIS it’s very hard because transfers are being blocked because they are wondering what you are funding?”
Finally, there is the physical logistics of getting items from war-torn countries to the U.S. and Canada. “In Yemen we had 200 beach bags on the way, and then the civil war broke out and we didn’t get them. One out of ten times, we’re not going to get the product. There is a large range of problems, but we knew this before starting the business, and we built this into the pricing and the business. We always have a plan B in place. Some of these things are so beyond our control and the artisans’ control. A lot of people say they work with artisans, but they work in very easy countries. We decided we would work in the tough places. We’re not shying away from those places, but mitigate the risks and have a plan for when things go wrong.” Alexander hopes to scale the business, so that she more effectively manage these challenges, and bring the price down on products. Still, the products still seem reasonably priced for their quality.
To scale, she’s moved into wholesaling in order to get order numbers up. “We were meant to be direct to consumer,” she says. “But unless you have an incredible amount of money or get an incredible celebrity endorsement, it’s very hard to grow as fast as we like. The cost of getting a customer on your site and getting them to buy is very large. The wholesale is something we’re getting into now. But we didn’t go and seek it out. People came to us and if it was a good fit we agreed to do it. What’s really important to us is that we are able to scale our order to the artisan, to help them build their business.”