Introducing of Artisan & Fox: Artisan & Fox is social enterprise on a mission to build the “Etsy for the developing world”. Founded on the belief that everyone should be able to shop responsibly without compromising style or quality, the startup brings consumers ethical fashion, paired with extraordinary craftsmanship. Their first partnership collection is mindfully handmade by artisans in five developing countries and is now available on Indiegogo: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/artisan-fox-extraordinary-ethical-craftsmanship–5/x/9618106.
1) What inspired you guys to start Artisan & Fox?
Artisan & Fox was born during a trip to Nepal in the summer of 2015. I had just completed my first year at the London School of Economics, and decided to spend a month across the Himalayas with a non-profit founded by a friend of mine.
Back then, an earthquake has just struck Nepal, so all I heard about the country before my arrival was about the devastation. However, when I did arrive in Nepal, what I saw and what I experienced was entirely different. Yes, many landmarks were damaged. Yes, many people were rendered homeless. Yet, the country remains warm and beautiful, with awe-inspiring scenery and welcoming locals.
During my trip, I had a chance meeting with a Nepali silversmith named Prem, and I was surprised to learn that he was struggling despite his excellent craftsmanship and beautiful products. He makes these amazing sterling silver rings, at very affordable prices. There were virtually no tourists visiting his little stall. Local demand for his crafts was also non-existent due to the high unemployment in his area.
I bought some sterling silver rings from Prem, and started selling them through a pilot online store that I built for £100. Soon afterward, I realized that Prem’s story is not unique. Many artisans globally are struggling with similar issues, with a lack of access to global markets. Some face even more dire conditions: extortionate middlemen or exploitative factories. I knew, and I wanted to do something, and so Artisan & Fox was born.
Now, we work with over 25 artisans across the Himalayas, and have expanded to partnering with artisan communities in Afghanistan, Kenya, Guatemala and Mexico.
2) Why go through the trouble of starting a business of your own, instead of joining an NGO who focused on preserving craftsmanship and helping artisans?
We’re very different from traditional nonprofits.
Nonprofits face a lot of restrictions in scaling up their impact, because they are constrained by the amount of donations or grants they can get. Massive amount of time can be spent applying for grants, and large overheads spent on fundraising. Nonprofits are also unable to do equity fundraising. Raising equity from external investors can be very valuable in getting access to new networks and expertise. Instead of joining an NGO as an employee, what I’d like to do is build a platform that can support traditional nonprofits in the same space. Currently, we’re collaborating with a nonprofit in Afghanistan to help Afghan artisans sell their crafts globally, and preserve craftsmanship in a country facing the threat of war.
We’re also different from typical social enterprises that work with artisans. A typical social enterprise employs locals as makers. It is often a norm that a social business employs 1-2 artisans in a developing country, such as Kenya, and then promise to provide a fair wage to these artisans. However, profits that these businesses make will flow back to where the company is incorporated and where the founders are from, such as the United States. Yes, the local artisans receive a fair wage, but they are not encouraged to be entrepreneurs themselves. The local economy also does not benefit from profits gained from these artisans’ crafts and it results in a net capital outflow.
In a similar scenario, we would instead help these local Kenyan artisans expand their own micro-businesses as entrepreneurs, with the hopes of creating more jobs for their fellow Kenyans. Profits reaped by Kenyan businesses, staying within the country, and reinvigorating the local economy.
Our aim is to help these micro-businesses expand. Eventually, when they are no longer reliant on us for support, that is when we’ve succeeded. Artisan production is the second largest employer in developing countries, and the majority of them are small producers. So we know there is huge potential in this sector for raising the economic productivity and reducing unemployment across developing nations.
3) While creating Artisan & Fox, what were the most challenging hurdles you needed to overcome?
Navigating the local dynamics. We work in five different countries, and intend to reach out to 10,000 artisans across the two years, so there are many cultural nuances we have to recognise, understand and respect.
One issue has to do with the fact that many artisans are women, often from communities where they often are not treated equally. Factor in corrupt local officials, and you face a toxic cocktail of politics which you cannot afford to get involved in because there is so little you know. In countries where we have formal partnerships with established nonprofits or co-operatives, this is less of an issue – but where we rely on forging independent partnerships, this is where it gets more tricky.
For example, in a part of Asia, we had to withdraw a partnership as the corrupt chieftain of the village and some men were continuously harassing the women artisans, who were making accessories from organic vines. Eventually, we had to terminate the partnership so they’d stop harassing the women.
As outsiders, we have to be respectful of the dynamics of the community, and try to work in a way that is mutually beneficial. Consequently, this in turns limits our ability to scale up quickly.
4) What would be the best advice you could give to other potential social entrepreneurs so that they can be successful?
Find a problem you are passionate for, and then apprentice with said problem.
You have to build up your understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. In countries like the UK, we often have an idealised notion of the Majority World, with grandiose ideas of what we can do to impact others. I sometimes hear people wanting to work ‘somewhere in Africa’ because it sounds adventurous or exotic, which sounds silly even to me, given how little I know about the continent.
But the fact is, you cannot build something sustainable for people you don’t know, or build solutions to a problem you have not lived.
For Artisan & Fox, we’ve tried our best to approach each community by starting with a needs assessment done locally when possible, or an informal outreach with a point-of-contact. In Nepal, by living with the artisans we’re working with, and having direct conversations, we have developed a better understanding of the problems they are facing. So it is okay if you’d like to be a social entrepreneur, and aspire to build an impactful venture. But that shouldn’t be your end goal. The world doesn’t need more solutions looking for problems. First find your problem, and build a contextualised solution.
Artisan & Fox is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo, featuring extraordinary craftsmanship by artisans in Nepal, Kenya, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Mexico. Learn more here: https://www.igg.me/at/knowyourartisan/.