Get to know a Toronto startup: Far & Wide Collective
Making 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.