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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dawn of a new era

I’m sure a lot of you watched the Kony video or at least read about it. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. As an American-Ivorian, I appreciated the awareness that it raised about Kony and the LRA; however, I did not fully understand what Invisible Children’s message was or what role they had in “solving” Ugandan issues.

One thing about the campaign that was brilliant is that it unintentionally united a number of Africans and non-Africans in speaking out against the way Africa and Africans are portrayed by certain players in the West, including aid groups. As a good friend of mine said, Invisible Children isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom. For the longest time countries in Africa and other developing countries have been viewed as backward places with high levels of poverty, faced with wars, HIV epidemics, and whatever else you want to add to the mix. I grew up in a number of developing countries, and am not here to deny that these countries have problems but rather to say that they do not need to be defined by it. Last time I checked they also had a wide range of natural resources, immense potential, human talent, just like other countries out there. The time has come to stop viewing Africans and other developing country nationals as helpless individuals who need to be saved from these problems that they apparently are predisposed to having.

There was an interesting article in the Atlantic in response to the Kony video entitled the “White Savior Industrial Complex” by Teju Cole in which he argued that we, the so called 'rescuers', should do our due diligence before interfering in other people's lives. Cole stated that we should first understand the role we play in negatively affecting African countries. You can start with how African countries and other developing countries have been severely impacted by protectionist agricultural subsidies in the West, including the US, which have contributed to increased poverty. Additionally, these countries have been viewed as countries with cheap labor and immense natural resources to be exploited. Take a look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with the world’s largest deposits of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s supply of diamonds, gold and copper. It continues to provide multinational corporations with cheap raw resources, while it remains one of the world’s poorest countries. The bulk of the profits continue to flow to multinational corporations as well as a small group of local elite businessmen and politicians. As consumers, we are connected to these issues as we purchase from these companies and unintentionally allow them to continue exploiting people and looting resources. 

I say we because, I too am part of this. I own a laptop and a cell phone that I’m sure contain minerals contributing to conflicts in Congo. I enjoy produce from US agro-businesses lobbying the government to maintain subsidies, while our government encourages other countries to remove trade barriers. I own clothes from a number of companies with less than stellar labor conditions for their garment workers.  Having said this, now is not the time to blame but rather to be aware of how interconnected we are and to stand up for what we believe is right.

I’m sure you are reading this now and are thinking what does this have to do with Sarafina? It has everything to do with Sarafina. I want this company to be part of a movement that presents developing countries in a positive light and empowers individuals by using ethical trade practices. We have had a very unbalanced relationship with these countries and profited at many people’s expense. It’s time to stop exploiting people and start respecting them.

-- Bita Diomande

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fabindia: An inspirational story

I recently read the story of Fabindia as told by Radhika Singh in her book “The Fabric of our Lives”. For those who are not familiar with Fabindia, it is one of the largest retail companies in India. It was started 50 years ago and is largely credited with the revival of the Indian handloom industry. The beauty of Fabindia goes far beyond their use of local products for upholstery and garments, to their commitment to empowering their suppliers. Since the start of the company, Fabindia has been paying their suppliers fair prices and giving them access to a number of markets. They have reorganized their suppliers into community owned companies where suppliers are given the option to be shareholders. Fabindia’s success is evident in its numbers. In 50 years it has gone from having 3 employees to 850, one supplier (Cottage Industries Emporium) to 40,000 suppliers, and finally Rs 40,000 to Rs 350,000,000 worth of sales. The suppliers have equally benefited from the business, with an influx of cash to invest in materials for their trade, new construction for their homes and workplaces, schools for their children, and most importantly steady jobs, all provided by selling their products.
As a young person starting a social business, the story of Fabindia is one that inspires me to continue to grow my business. People often tell me it’s na├»ve to run a business and keep a social goal at its core, but my answer is always that profits do not need to be made at the expense of the supplier.

A funny thing happened to me earlier this week. I was at the beach in Goa, reading the book on Fabindia when Sarita, a woman selling beads, stopped at my table. I immediately sat up and started thinking of all the necklaces I would design and sell through Sarafina. After I picked out my strings of beads, we started negotiating on the price. Let me just say that I’m a true West African and no one, no one can pull one over me when I’m negotiating. As we continued to negotiate I realized that I had been priding myself for working with suppliers and paying fairly for their work when it came to ready made clothes that I sold through Sarafina and here I was trying to squeeze this woman’s profits from beads I needed to design jewelry on behalf of Sarafina. I quickly retreated and accepted her price. Sarita and I have since become friends and as I was leaving today, she brought me a necklace as a gift for doing business with her. I’ve promised to return next year to buy more beads for my jewelry designs. I learned an important lesson from this, one that it is easy to get swept into profit only mode but also that it is an even better transaction when you know that your suppliers have also benefited from the business.

I have tremendous respect for companies who have succeeded using a social business model. As William Bissell, current Managing Director of Fabindia, said in a Harvard Case Study on Fabindia:  “We are promoting an alternative vision for the future. It is collaborative (with the suppliers) in the true sense of the word; it is participatory (with the customers that share our views); …I believe that the only way to alleviate rural poverty is to generate sustainable employment, and the only way to do that is if we run our business in a profitable manner. It seems contradictory that we pursue both a social goal and profit, but I believe that is the only way to do it.”

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