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Get to know a Toronto startup: Far & Wide Collective

Posted by Anna Starasts / October 14, 2013

Far and Wide CollectiveMaking socially conscious shopping decisions is one way that we can engage with the wider world in our everyday lives. In a city with incredible access to goods from around the world, we're often given the choice to "vote with our wallets" and buy from small producers rather than big business.

One new local startup, Far & Wide Collective, connects online shoppers with some seriously beautiful crafts with a conscience. Launched in May, this e-commerce company sells housewares, clothing, bags and jewelry hand made by artisans in post-conflict countries, like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

Founder Hedvig Alexander, who spent years working in international development in war-torn regions of the world, believes that her startup has much potential to entice shoppers, while also improving the lives of craftspeople halfway around the world.

What inspired you to create Far & Wide Collective?

After almost a decade in and around Afghanistan, I felt that the biggest obstacle to artisans and small craft businesses was access to international markets and buyers. Despite the growth of demand in America and Europe, 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 local bazaars.

Mainstream retailers often worry that sourcing from emerging-market artisans is too risky. Online platforms that carry crafts 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.

The craft sector is the second largest employer, after agriculture, in most developing countries. It's an opportunity for thousands - millions even - to earn a living and own their own business. Crafts are also often made by women, who rank among the most vulnerable in many of these societies. Crafts don't 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, empowering themselves and lifting their families out of poverty.

Far & Wide Collective creates a business model that enables systematic market access for artisans and small craft businesses in emerging economies by tackling challenges like product design, logistics, warehousing, content development, marketing and sales. We think this is a unique opportunity to connect supply with demand and include a whole new segment of producers who has previously been left out of the global economy.

Your business works on fair trade principles. So, how do you make money?

We buy products directly from our partner artisans and give production and design support when needed. Sometimes we work with organizations on the ground to provide this support. Products are marked up to allow for the costs assorted with getting them to market: export, import, shipping, warehousing, packing, picking and sending the product to the customer. Any profits go directly into supporting artisans and buying new inventory. Our partner artisans always receive the full price for the product upfront and we take the financial risk, no matter what price a product is ultimately sold at.

Who are your competitors in this space?

Besides websites that sell crafts like Etsy and Not On the High Street, in principle every business that sells handmade, unique and artisanal products is a competitor. Competition is a good thing, since it helps grow the market and educates buyers. Our main distinguishing factor is our commitment to also helping the artisans formalize and grow their businesses. The only way we'll grow is if the small businesses and producers we work with also grow.

What kinds of consumers have been loving your website so far?

It seems that 95% of our buyers so far are women. We really want our buyers to understand that they're doing more than just shopping when they buy on our site. They're also investing in a small business somewhere in the world.

What's the biggest challenge working with artisans in post-conflict countries? The biggest reward?

Our biggest challenge is reaching customers, since we have a very limited marketing budget as a startup. We're only able to help our artisans if we're able to sell their products. The biggest reward is to see the incredible difference it makes when artisans are able to reach markets, grow their businesses and as a result benefit their families and communities. I just returned to Kabul over the weekend and placed new orders with all of our partners there. Compared to 11 months ago, they're even more focused and enthusiastic.

For many years you worked in international development. What surprised you the most when moving into the ecommerce business?

I'm constantly reminded how hard it is to sell and how strong the competition is. It's interesting that I've become an online retailer to solve the problem I spent a decade in development trying to solve! If anything, I've been positively surprised by how eager our partner artisans are to make this work. When we launched I already had products come from 30 artisans living in six different countries, without delay or quality issues.

What's next for Far & Wide Collective?

We're in Kabul this week and just launched our Artisan Toolkit. It is a heavily illustrated training manual that will help get artisans market-ready by mapping out how to get from skill to business. The Toolkit will have an audio version for artisans with little or no literacy. It is a one-year project and we're partnering with the Export Promotion Agency of Afghanistan and with one of the largest Afghan telecom companies on creating the audio version. We wanted to find a more innovative way of connecting artisans to markets and plan to work with more than 500 Afghan artisans.



Will a real afghani please stand up? / October 15, 2013 at 10:28 am
Okay, I know Afghanistan, I'm an afghani with family in Kabul and let me tell you guys something: a lot of these 'here-we-the-white-liberal-western-saviours' make the problem worse through their interventions than would be the case if they didn't intervene at all. Can you imagine how better off Afghanistan or Pakistan would have been if the war on terror didn't bring a war of terror to their doorsteps? Yeah, the taliban was bad, but was the solution to continue supporting taliban ideology by providing western boys lives as fodder for their ak-47s?

What is even more problematic -- again, another symptom of the west trying to cure all the world problems without letting the very capable people in these countries solve their own problems, the paternalism, oh the delusions of western failures in afghanistan, oh these white women saving the poor brown girl because, you know, these white women know better than girls of coloured - is that by capturing these markets, and diverting their production to precarious customer relationships (In Afghanistan a craftsperson is often commissioned by his or her customer and the continued patronage that isn't influenced by trends and fads in the global market keeps the craftsperson employed) they divert and render the craftsperson to establish a relationship all of those 'crafty' people of etsy dream of: community support for their work in their local markets. Just read their so-called artisan toolkit in how to comply for supply-chain requirements and exposing them to global market trends.

It is funny that these white women are crying about marketing cost, for the afghani women and men making these crafts is their marketing budget that comes from their ability to have an item in the market. A craftsperson's cost is both material, time and reputation. These craftspeople have access to markets in their community, their crafts are for their community and creating precarious consumption of their crafts and not over-compensating their production that emerges from diverting it outside of their community will cause problems, problems the white women who are using this business to solve their own financial 'poverty' will undoubtly burden onto their manufactures.

Remember people: when you have underemployed humanities grads with too much time in their hands and a desire to play saviour, you got problems.

I can literally go all day demonstrating where reality poke holes in these 'white women' business plans, but I can't cause I gotta work. I just hope this comment, if blogto doesn't delete it, is enough to create an effect and scepticism for another 'live-aid' failure.
hossim / October 16, 2013 at 08:41 am
Racist and hijacking the post, you're just missing one thing for the internet commenter triple crown.

I could literally go all day poking holes in your comment but I won't because I have to finish cleaning all the dishes that you will leave dirty because you're too distracted by this innocuous blog post to do your job well.
Hossim the troll / October 16, 2013 at 01:26 pm
Poke one hole, just one big hole and you got a point. My post stated why the very dynamics of crafts in these countries that these underemployed ex-CIDA funded lifestylers want to intervene actually wont be helping anyone except their own financial needs. Far and wide is one of those ignorant-'social enterprises' ventures that destroys the craft markets in these countries, and destroys the very social forces which nurture and sheltered these crafts from western-globalized trends.
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Cressida / April 28, 2014 at 03:35 pm
Some more information about Far & Wide Collective and its founder Hedvig Alexander: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQ3l1-0hAMk
Hassiani replying to a comment from Cressida / May 14, 2014 at 11:00 am
Cressida, 'Hossim the troll' anticipated that the foudner was a development-aid person who spent time in development and now wants to cash in with a better retirement plan. Hossim said this in October 2013.
Emmeline / September 4, 2014 at 03:44 pm
or perhaps she's a 'development-aid person' who has spent their whole career trying to better peoples lives and is trying to continue to do that. god you people are cynical
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