Hedvig Christine Alexander is the founder of what is now called Far and Wide Collective. An online boutique selling artisan jewelry, clothes and home wares sourced mostly from Afghanistan and Western Asian countries such as Pakistan. When her husband’s work took the family back to Canada, Hedvig looked for a way to continue working with Afghan artisans. Turquoise Mountain was set up by the British MP and former diplomat Rory Stewart and Prince of Wales. Hedvig explains that: “Turquoise Mountain was set up to revive Afghan arts and architecture and runs a three year programs in jewelry and gem cutting, architectural wood work, calligraphy and miniature painting and ceramics and tile making.
With the Afghan economy growing but still very weak and high unemployment I thought the only way to secure work for our graduates was to re-create Afghanistan’s trade relationships and connect to international markets through export. My role as business development manager was exactly that – to find buyers abroad. We had a reasonable amount of success, but it was hard. I now see – having started my own business here – how much work (and many people is involved) in for example creating a brand, sales platform and not least connection to buyers. This is very hard to do from a place such as Afghanistan.”
For Hedvig, running Far and Wide Collective isn’t just about running a business but continues the commitment she developed whilst working for Turquoise Mountain in Afghanistan: “I think that business is hugely important for emerging economies crafts sector. Business it is the only real driver and if we are successful and manage to scale we can connect a lot of artisans to markets. Donors most often focus on the production site – through developing programs that support capacity building, livelihoods, skills training etc. They rarely support the actually getting to market aspect. Today Afghanistan – compared to just a decade ago – have a small but very high quality group of producers, however they are still struggling with market access. This is what I want Far & Wide Collective is focusing – we help make the market connecting by designing a scalable supply chain including logistics, warehousing, pick and pack, online sales, marketing and administration, leaving the artisan to focus on creating the most authentic and high quality product.
Getting an artisan and their products market ready is part of the challenge and takes time, Hedwig says that: “it can take anything from thee months to two year to get an artisan market ready. We are still small we hope as we grow to be able to invest more in market readiness in the future. This is the objective of our Artisan toolkit. Some artisans need production design support (which tales longer) where others need quality control, help with costing, pricing etc.”
In her work with Turquoise Mountain, Hedvig came to understand that real economic value of crafts for local communities, she tells SPINNA that: “Crafts is the second largest employer after agriculture in many developing countries, the crafts industry provides the opportunity for the millions of underprivileged – many of whom are women – to potentially own their own successful business. Many artisans were never given the opportunity to go to school and are illiterate. But, craft production requires only the skills that, in many families, are passed on from generation to generation. With the ever-growing demand for handmade crafts, there is hope yet, that these artisans will be able to provide their children with privilege of education.
The internet has opened so many more opportunities for crafts workers and artisans, Hedvig explains: “The success of online marketplaces such as the American etsy.com ($525.6 million in total sales for 2011) and UK based notonthehighstreet.com (GBP 100 million in sales for 2012) confirms the growing appetite for handmade and unique items. However, because an artisan has to have access to a computer, have a credit card, speak English and have access to cost efficient shipping these portals leave out most of emerging market artisans. The ambition of Far & Wide Collective I to create a platform for all the talented artisans that currently are left out.”
In her work with different communities in the Western Asian region, Hedwig has collected some inspiring stories from the women artisans she has worked with: Below are some of the inspiring stories.
Far and Wide Collective are a partner with SPINNA, Hedvig says that: “SPINNA has already been very helpful. I think that we can build a very strong relationship where we can help get some of the artisans you work with to markets and [through SPINNA gain] access to new artisans in the textile industry,” and in return Far and Wide Collective can offer SPINNA Market access and a sales options for members.