Linking Women Microentrepreneurs to Global Markets

December 11, 2015

When women-owned businesses have the resources they need to reach their fullest potential, inclusive economies can flourish. At the Power Shift Forum in November, the co-founders of Global Goods Partners spoke with the Inclusion Hub to discuss a decade of work helping women artisans in developing countries reach international markets.

One of the most difficult challenges for women’s economic empowerment is that the work many women do as microentrepreneurs in developing countries is as small-scale artisans. They face many obstacles to growing their businesses to reach large markets.

Global Goods Partners (GGP) has spent a decade helping women artisans in developing countries scale their businesses to sell in the international marketplace. GGP provides technical assistance, product development, operational expertise, and small capacity building grants to more than forty partners in twenty countries. These partners are cooperatives, community organizations, and social enterprises. Global Goods Partners helps these groups of women artisans improve design and business processes, then purchases their goods at fair trade prices and brings them to U.S. buyers.

Inclusion Hub spoke with co-founders and co-presidents Joan Shifrin and Catherine Lieber Shimony about their work empowering women to bring traditional crafts into the global economy.

Inclusion Hub: You founded Global Goods Partners ten years ago inspired in part by what you saw in your international development work: women are able to advance their families’ well-being only after their income is stabilized. Research by the U.S. Financial Diaries, inspired by Portfolios of the Poor, suggests that poor families often value stable income even more than increased income. How is income volatility a problem for women artisans, and how does access to international markets affect this issue?

Shifrin: Some income is better than none, but a stable income is appreciably more beneficial than income earned every once in awhile.

Unstable income can disrupt family structure: it can cause families to move in with other people or cause a mother to leave the village to go into a bigger city, but if they have a sustained source of income, the family can stay intact, healthcare can be addressed, and school fees can be paid. While it’s true that a girl going to school for six months is better than not going at all, not being able to afford to send your child to school on a continuous basis can be pretty destabilizing.

Everywhere we travel, the question we get from women in every languages is, “Can you get us more customers? Can the next order be bigger?” There’s great eagerness to expand and try to create a sustainable flow of orders, which can sometimes be elusive.

That’s why we’re trying to do everything in our power to expand our network of customers in retail, wholesale, and private label and build the marketplace for our partners’ products— both international and domestic. We work with these small producers to present their products to retailers large and small by helping them with everything from design to packaging to exporting, pricing, and just general business processes.A partner in Afghanistan, after adjusting their designs with our help, is now selling their products to a higher-end clientele in Afghanistan. It’s really about pursuing all the markets that are possible.

Shimony: There are plenty of major retail stores that have decided to go overseas and buy directly, but generally when that happens they buy for a season and then they move on. That can be very destabilizing for communities: they ramp up production to fulfill a large order for a major retailer and then nothing else comes afterwards.

We take that into consideration so that when we process large orders, we discuss with our partners what will happen in the future after that order’s implemented. As an organization ten years into our work, we make a long-term commitment to our partners: if their products sell really well for a couple of years and then don’t anymore, we work together to come up with new designs or new products to continue to succeed in the marketplace.

Inclusion Hub: What are the major obstacles women artisans face in getting their products to market?

Shifrin: One of the biggest obstacles: large retailers don’t have the bandwidth to work with small producers. We help by playing the role of the aggregator or vendor since we are organized to work with small producers; we work with over forty groups in about twenty countries. Often our partners haven’t sold outside of their local markets and we’re their first entry point into international markets and really into the global economy.

Shimony: Small producers often lack access to capital and face a capital crunch when large orders come to them. Global Goods Partners pays upfront with any purchase order so that the artisans can use that money to purchase the supplies and labor needed to fulfill that order.

Our partners also very often have trouble when it comes to sourcing raw materials, such as fabric and thread; the availability changes in the marketplaces where they source them locally. That can disrupt the timeline for a customer who has chosen a certain color and pattern.

It’s also challenging finding raw materials that are appropriate for the artisans’ skills—and match what a U.S. customer with a very discerning eye is looking for. We have a designer on staff who works very closely with our partners to make sure that the product they’re producing incorporates their artisan skills and design interest, but also takes into consideration market trends so that their product ultimately will be able to sell. That’s our mission: poverty alleviation through economic opportunity and craft.

Inclusion Hub: Are there any go-to-market challenges that are unique to women?

Shifrin: Since women are responsible for the home, and preparing food, and gathering food, there isn’t a lot of time leftover in the day. The desire to provide for their family can feel so important, yet it sometimes takes a back seat to all the other chores and responsibilities they have in their families.

Women’s and girls’ lack of access to education is another limiting factor. Some of the small grants we provide to our partners enable them to deliver basic literacy and numeracy training to the artisans. It’s hard to do some of the work that’s required if you don’t have those basic skills. This also trains the women in financial literacy as well so that once she is paid for the work that she does, she can manage the money that she has.

Challenges vary by community. In Afghanistan, we work with a partner whose women artisans need to be granted permission by the males in their families to leave their homes to work, compounded by the fact that it can be very dangerous to be out at all. One of the artisans there recently told us that when they say goodbye in the morning, they say something like, “Goodbye, and I hope we see each other at the end of the day.” They’re very aware of the risk every time they walk out the door. That’s both a cultural challenge of a woman not having the freedom to travel, as well as the risk she faces traveling both from men and from war and terrorism in that country.

Shimony: Recently when I was in Guatemala to meet with some of our partners, I spoke with a 21 year-old woman artisan. She said that when she first had the opportunity to be part of this cooperative, her husband was very reluctant. He wasn’t in favor of her working outside the home since they had a young son. She said she convinced him by saying, “Look, this is a great opportunity, not just for me, but for our family. We could use the income, and if I’m successful I’d like to bring you in to help with my responsibilities as a cooperative member.”

Fast forward to the present, and now she’s become the leader of her cooperative. Her husband was there the day I met her and he was very proud of his wife. She’s brought him into some of the work she’s responsible for, including driving the merchandise from their community to Guatemala City.

There are a lot of challenges, especially in Latin culture, for women to be able to work outside of the home and have any sort of economic opportunity. Here was a good example of a young woman who recognized the opportunity with our partner cooperative and was able to engage her husband in that work and have him appreciate her. Her role not only within the family but the community has changed because of it. This is the kind of thing we hear time and time again from artisans all over the world in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Inclusion Hub: Women interact with the economy in a variety of roles, as Enclude CEO Laurie Spengler discussed with Inclusion Hub during Power Shift: as business owners, workers, investors, and consumers. How are consumers playing a role in promoting women’s economic empowerment?

Shimony: Consumers are critically important: without them, we wouldn’t have the market. All the actors are intricately involved in making it successful. Our clientele from custom to wholesale to direct retail learn about the communities where we work and the artisan skills and the challenges that the women artisans face in their communities.

Some of our products have direct purchase correlation to those livelihood improvements or home infrastructure improvements. For example, we sell a set of four bracelets made by the artisans in Guatemala. When you buy them, a contribution goes right back to the woman and her family for a solar kit, water filter, organic garden, and smokeless stove. We’re finding that that resonates with also with our customers: they like the concept that also goes beyond fair trade and buying our product supports women and their families, but then having something very tangible like a water filter or solar kit.

That’s why we work with community organizations, social enterprises, and cooperatives, rather than individual artisans: they’re structured, well-governed entities. They can provide community development support to the artisans, and many can also track the results and share the data with us demonstrating that women artisans are now able to send their kids to school or provide their families with more nutritious meals. This social support is always in service of the ultimate goal to grow and sustain the artisans’ businesses: you can do all the vocational training you want, but ultimately where is the income that the women need to survive and support herself and her family.

Inclusion Hub: How can small-scale artisan businesses, led by women in developing countries facing unique challenges due to gender and poverty, become sustainable income sources?

Shifrin: What’s critical is that we be equally competitive with large mainstream retailers that offer similar products. There are some people who will buy from Global Goods Partners because they know that the work is supporting women’s inclusion in the economy. To create a profitable, sustainable customer base, the product style, how people respond to it, and if it’s appealing are really the most important things.

We are often our partners’ first foray into a larger market. In working with us, they’re learning what is necessary to sell their products beyond their local environment. One of the areas where we’ve added a great deal of value to our partners—and this is part of bringing them into the international market— is training them to improve consistency of product and the quality of the product itself. We operate as a business and we insist that our partners do as well. We expose our partners to the demands of the global marketplace with the hope that in addition to us, they’ll be able to produce consistent, quality products to win other international customers and increase the sustainability of their businesses.

This interview was originally published on the Inclusion Hub and produced in collaboration with News Deeply


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