Ending Poverty – One Purchase at a Time

Hedvig Alexander with a second year jewelry and gem-cutting student in Kabul, Afghanistan
One of the biggest obstacles for low-income countries on the path to prosperity is lack of access to international markets and buyers.

Consider Afghanistan. The country has countless talented craftspeople that create outstanding products like handcrafted jewelry made of lapis and gold and intricate wooden trays. The problem? Beyond the local bazaar, access to buyers is limited.

Demand for these goods by Western consumers has grown, with increasing interest in buying the kind of authentic, handmade accessories, home decor and fashion items these artisans produce. However, there are few reliable ways for these consumers to access these goods.

North American consumers have the chance to truly help countries such as Afghanistan with their purchasing power. The craft sector is the second largest employer, after agriculture, in many 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.

If women are able to earn a decent living, there is a proven trickle-down effect. Their families and communities thrive. Crafts production usually does not require literacy, but rather concrete skills that are passed on, creating an important legacy for generations to come. In even the most deeply conservative countries, craft production allows women to empower themselves and lift their families out of poverty.

As it turns out, the past decade has seen significant gains for female Afghan entrepreneurs, businesswomen and employees. An upcoming report based on a survey by Building Markets, an international NGO, sheds some rare light on the participation of Afghan women in the formal, private-sector economy.

Consider these key findings: Most of the 800 women surveyed said marriage does not stand in the way of their work. An overwhelming 96 per cent have the support of their families to pursue their chosen careers. Perhaps most surprisingly, these predominantly young women are cautiously optimistic, and believe that with proper support their businesses will thrive beyond the withdrawal of foreign forces next year.

Shugufa Yousofzai is one of these women. When I first met her, she was 18 years old, a shy young woman who had just returned after a decade as a refugee in Pakistan. Today she is 27, and married to a man she chose herself. She is a mother and runs her own jewelry business to support her family. “Growing my own business and selling internationally gives me confidence and makes me feel connected,” she says.

Why isn’t this happening more?

Part of the setback has to do with the aid system itself. Donor agencies are eager to invest in training and skills development, but less comfortable investing in less ‘flashy’ factors that could have an enormous impact on market access, such as logistics, marketing and sales.

At the same time, mainstream retailers worry that sourcing from emerging-market artisans is too risky. Online platforms that currently carry crafts tend to only work with producers who have access to a computer, are able to process credit card payments, and have access to reliable postal systems. Unfortunately, this excludes many talented artisans in the developing world.

Now more than ever there is an opportunity to level the playing field by connecting isolated and disadvantaged communities to the global economy through innovative business models and cheaper technology. The way we choose to spend our money gives us more power than almost anything else we can do. The recent tragedy in Bangladesh has only made it more urgent for us all to identify responsible, sustainable ways to include producers from emerging economies in the global economy.

Hedvig Alexander has worked in development for a decade, mostly in Afghanistan. She is the founder of Far & Wide Collective (www.farandwidecollective.com), an online marketplace for crafts from emerging economies.

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