Far & Wide Collective is a transformative e-commerce platform for talented artisans from emerging countries. The company assists small businesses in places like Afghanistan, Kenya, and Uzbekistan reach international markets. While the craftspeople already possess the talent, Far & Wide Collective offers them a chance for lasting success through their e-commerce platform, business tools, production assistance, and more. Founder Hedvig Christine Alexander, experienced in international development, saw an opportunity to encourage businesses in the developing world. With her driving vision, she has partnered with over 30 business owners in 9 countries to share unique and beautiful products from all over the world. This is their story.
|Hedwig Christine Alexander (center)|
BB: Tell us about the spark that set off Far & Wide Collective (F&W)?
HCA: I started Far & Wide Collective because after almost a decade in Afghanistan I felt that the biggest obstacle to artisans and small craft businesses was access to international markets. This matters because the craft sector is the second largest employer, after agriculture, in most 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. Crafts do not usually require literacy or formal education, but rather concrete skills passed on from generation to generation. In even the most deeply conservative countries, craft production allows women to participate in the economy, empower themselves and lift their families out of poverty.
Despite exponentially growing demand, an abundance of artisans and a wealth of authentic, unique and handmade products, artisans in Afghanistan and other low-income countries have very limited access to markets beyond the local bazaars. Mainstream retailers worry that sourcing from emerging-market artisans is too risky. Online platforms that currently carry crafts such as etsy.com and notonthehighsreet.com tend to only work with producers who are computer literate, can read and write, can process credit card payments, and have access to reliable postal systems. This excludes most talented artisans in emerging markets.
BB: What is the business concept and how does F&W assist local craftspeople and their families?
HCA: Far & Wide Collective have addressed the market access problem by building a solid supply chain, which tackles challenges such as product design, logistics, content development, marketing and sales. We buy products from our partner artisans — taking the financial risk — and sell them online. The difference between the price we pay the artisans and charge online, is the cost of getting the product to market.
We are a new and small company, but we have a big vision. We think that the area of craft needs a more innovative approach. One of our initiatives to help artisans (most of who do not travel internationally) get a better sense of how to use their deep skills to create products that are in demand, is the Artisan Toolkit. It will be a richly illustrated business / crafts training manual accompanied by an audio version to artisans with no or low literacy rates. The first Artisan Toolkit will be launched in Afghanistan in September 2014.
|Hedvig Alexander and Jemima Montagu with silk weaver Saleh Mohammad, Kabul, Afghanistan|
HCA: My background has given me a good understanding of how crafts are produced and the challenges artisans face when they try to scale production and go to market. This allows us to plan and preempt problems with quality, logistics, design, etc.
BB: Why do you encourage support for local artisans in this way over a general charitable donation?
HCA: I believe that a business approach is much more sustainable. Charitable donations often come and go, but building a small business — what most economies are built on — makes a lasting impact and therefore changes peoples’ lives. When you buy a product at Far & Wide Collective you not only get something beautiful, you also make an investment in someone’s business — that is better than charity.
|Shagufta Yousufzai and her popular studs|
BB: How have you seen the effects of F&W up close? Can you provide a success story?
HCA: Shugufa Yousufzai (Afghanistan) makes beautiful studs. They were our best seller last holiday season. I met her nine years ago when she had just returned from living in Pakistan with her family during the Taliban period. She was 19 and shy. Today she runs her own business, has married the man of her own choice and has a child. She provides for her entire extended family. Business and economic empowerment can change and liberate women more than almost anything else.
|Left: Uzbek pottery; Right: Afghan artisan|
BB: Can you tell us where the money a consumer pays for a piece will go?
HCA: Any revenues made immediately gets reinvested in buying more inventory from existing or new partner artisans, marketing and improving our supply chain in order to grow the business.
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BB: You suggest there is a strong beauty and authenticity in products made in a traditional way. You also mentioned that products tell a compelling story. Can you describe one such story?
HCA: Most of our products are unique and authentic in the way they are made. They are compelling because someone spent a significant amount of time crafting them — a jali tray form Afghanistan takes 17 hours to make, our new Mexican embroidery can take two months to produce, our embroidered Pakistani clutches take weeks. The more products are sold the bigger these small companies grow, supporting communities and the families in them — while at the same time reviving and preserving ancient traditions and culture.
BB: What do you hope for the future of these artisans? What results have you seen already?
HCA: I hope that we can grow Far & Wide Collective to a point where we can work with a large number of artisans worldwide. So far many of our artisan partners have been able to grow their businesses, improve their life quality and send their children to school.