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A new business model: USAID’s Pakistan Handmade

Think Fair Trade. Think green.  Think labour intensive. Think small to medium enterprise.

Conceptualized by Halle Butvin, the owner of One Mango Tree and consultant for Pakistan Handmade, the USAID funded project intends to capture a segment of the garment and accessories export market that has hitherto been the monopoly of India and the Far East. The fashion show, which featured trendy apparel aimed at a young clientele, was the complete opposite of what fashion savvy Pakistanis are accustomed to:  heavily worked outfits using rich fabrics modelled by the top names in the fashion industry. In other words, work featuring high manufacturing, production and exhibition costs, frequently targeting the wedding industry both at home and among the diaspora. Pakistan Handmade intends to swing the pendulum the other way, utilising the enormous variety of traditional embroideries and crafts to make casual and semi formal contemporary Western apparel and accessories.

Although many aid projects in the past were based on giving people vocational training, or on small loans to start cottage industries, these enterprises often failed because of a lack of dedicated planning. Halle Butvin’s model endeavours to make the project as water tight as possible, to eliminate the possibility of failure. This was based on her own experience while working in Uganda. Having trained in Conflict Resolution in the United States, she went to work in the development sector in Gulu. Exploring the town, she discovered a street full of trained tailors with shops and sewing machines, all out of work. In conversation with the locals, she found out that the machines were a gift of aid, as was the vocational training which went with them. The people were just as badly off as before…except for the assets of equipment and training. She also discovered that in this country recovering from the ravages of internal strife, men and women wanted a chance to work, so that they could build a home and educate their children. In other words, they wanted a better future.

On her next trip back home, Halle arrived with boxes of goods which she sold through a home exhibition. This first attempt was a sell-out.  Subsequent trips and exhibitions became more and more profitable and her circle of contacts increased, so that eventually she began putting more and more time into what initially began as a side business designed to help the poor. Today One Mango Tree concentrates on selling goods produced using local materials: clothing and accessories such as bags made from fine home grown African cotton, sandals, traditional bead jewellery, yoga and home accessories. It runs skill training workshops for workers, helps them to market their work internationally, and supports educational scholarships for their children. As phrased by One Mango Tree, ‘profit for social impact.’

These experiences equipped Halle to put together the business model now being used for Pakistan Handmade: a step by step approach in which the project co-ordinators walk entrepreneurs through every detail in producing a collection of garments or accessories, including pattern making and draping according to Western cuts and standard sizes, exhibiting the collection, dealing with buyers, tailoring the product to meet each buyer’s specifications, and ensuring quality control. It is essentially a business model aimed at empowering women entrepreneurs, although many of them employ male artisans.

The ground work, performed by USAID, involved identifying existing businesses which would be able to raise capital, to invest in putting together a collection for the export market. The twenty five entrepreneurs chosen, all from different cities around the country, were discovered largely through the Women’s Chamber of Commerce. They include well established upper middle class businesswomen, some of whom had existing outlets or stocked their products with stores, such as the Muna Siddiqui of the Craft Company, Aysha Saifuddin of Kaarvan and Amna Shariff, while others had a flair for design and colour but lacked the outreach of the former. Among these are people like Umaira, who produced stunning embroidered wrap around mini-skirts and trousers, Taji who exhibits embroideries from the tribal areas at hotels and exhibitions, and Rubina Zulfiqar who runs a shop at the Craft Bazaar in Shakar Parian.

One of the main drawbacks suffered by small businesses is the lack of pattern making skills and standard sizes. To redress this, designer Yousuf Bashir Qureshi, who runs The Commune in Karachi and has designed for large fashion stores such as Nordstrom in the United States, conducted workshops in draping, cutting, pattern making and sizing. These were attended by the entrepreneurs along with their master tailors. Workshops on the creation of mood boards and fashion sketches to envision the final product followed, as well as advice on color schemes, which vary with the season and trends in the fashion industry.

The Pakistan Handmade Fashion Show represented the midway point of an ongoing process, the culmination of basic training and the production of a small collection. This was shown on the catwalk and later exhibited in individual booths at the one-day exhibition held at the Serena at the end of June 2010. Fourteen buyers from the United States were present at both events. Most of them were representatives of organisations that supply nationwide stores, but there were also several owners of individual gallery stores retailing boutique items, as well as entrepreneurs selling online or through mail order catalogues. The former looked for a medium price range, while the latter two had an existing clientele with disposable cash in a higher price bracket. They represent a very different approach from the big fashion stores, having worked primarily with small production units, very often in Latin America or the Far East. Most of the stores follow Fair Trade practice, and the enterprises they work with are involved in some form of social welfare.

Although the focus was predominantly on apparel and accessories such as jewellery, hand bags and footwear, the exhibition stalls also featured displays of home decor items such as decorative boxes, mosaic mirror and photo frames, candles, bedspreads, embroidered and woven cushions, and exquisitely worked Sindhi patchwork quilts. To add colour, the centre of the hall was taken up by artisans working on various embroideries and leather work. Among the very mixed group of entrepreneurs were seasoned businesswomen like Masooma Sibtain of Huner, who produces stunning screen prints on pure silk; Tabassum Maroof of Zebai Collection who designed a striking collection of beautifully cut black and white shirts and blouses; two sisters still studying at university, Rubina and Anila Iqbal, the owners of Pink Studios hand-made footwear; Salma Mohsin of Roshni, who creates candles adorned with screen printed designs drawn from Mughal paintings; and journalist turned designer and entrepreneur Amna Shariff, whose beautiful silver jewellery marries contemporary with traditional is retailed at Khaadi stores nationwide.

This practice of Fair Trade, although not new, is very different from the approach of the big designers, who have monopolised the labour market in developing or under developed countries. They do not have the time or inclination to work on a one to one basis with artisans. In the case of the buyers working with Pakistan Handmade, however, they were here specifically to work hand in hand with the entrepreneurs. Following the Round Table Session at which the buyers guided them as to what they were looking for, they spent the following week in their workshops. Each enterprise will now work on specific collections for their buyers. This segment of the program will be followed up by the entrepreneurs exhibiting at a trade show, again under the umbrella of the USAID. Although that trade shows are known to be the best way to exhibit products to an export market, Halle maintains that this requires knowledge of how to choose the right trade show, how to set up an exhibition stall and deal with clients, and other details which are often overlooked, and are frequently a cause for failure. The idea of walking the entrepreneurs through the entire process ensures that they will eventually gain the skills and confidence to stand on their own feet and manage business in a competitive export market independently, once the project comes to an end.

High Street fashion is a new venture for Pakistan, but it has come at a time when the world wide recession has forced people to rethink their values and goals. Designers who once held the export market, that is the big names, are currently unable to command the same volume of sales at high prices that they could previously. Perhaps this is the right time for the small buyer to interact with and foster the small to medium enterprise which is ready to ‘give back’ to the community. Kudos are due to the USAID for nurturing such a venture at an opportune moment.

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