We've Hit A Milestone!

Three of our new beneficiaries! 

Three of our new beneficiaries! 

Today we made our first round of tuition payments for six of our artisans’ children! This is very meaningful because it's an indicator that together we are making impactful change. For me, this is the spirit and soul of BFF. 

We are both thrilled and relieved to finally be in a position to support our artisans through our giving model. It has not been the straightforward course I had envisioned and has taken far more time, thought and resources than I ever imagined. For that reason I'm hoping that by sharing my pitfalls and setbacks along the way I can help other organizations develop giving models that come to fruition in a more timely and less painful way. Those of you who have been following this blog may start to yawn now because I am about to repeat the most important element of determining your giving method--we must listen to the needs of those we are trying to serve. I have to admit I failed to properly listen to our artisans and their needs at the beginning of this business and had grandiose plans for our giving model. My incorrect assumptions required us to pause, reconsider and start over.

I originally came to Lydia with an idea to create Best Foot Forward, a company that would import and sell these beautiful shoes while at the same time doing good for Kenya. But I did not have a true understanding of what doing good would means. I knew about coastal Kenya, where the shoes are made, but I’d never traveled there nor spoken with anyone from the area. I only knew what the Internet could tell me, which honestly wasn’t much. I learned that there are several nonprofits in that area, but there is a lack of quality infrastructure, schooling, etc. I also knew that unemployment rates were upwards of 40%, even higher for women, youth and other marginalized groups.

These numbers are the result of lack of quality education and infrastructure, sure, but also this area used to have a lucrative tourism industry. This is not surprising considering an ocean teeming with wildlife, white sand beaches and  gorgeous weather. But unfortunately, this area which once had a booming industry has experienced a recession due to threats by al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. With various sleeper cells in the vicinity and attacks planned, tourist traffic has decreased. While there were once jobs available for people in the tourism industry, these are becoming harder to come by and less consistent. With fewer employment opportunities, quality of life decreases.

Knowing all of this, I felt inspired to do something about the unemployment rates. I first wanted to establish a vocational school in Malindi to encourage unemployed groups to learn a marketable skill. The idea was that eventually we could hire several trainees into our business as we expanded. But the more time I spent in Malindi with our artisans, the more I realized how inundated Malindi was with trainings on every topic trying to encourage people to learn new skills. But without creating new markets for the products being created there are no buyers, and therefore no need, for these newly skilled workers. Those who are able to secure a job often receive insufficient incomes due to the high supply of semi-trained labor in the area. Although the vocational school was a “sexy” idea, it wasn’t practical for the area and the very people we were hoping to help.  While we were well intentioned, we would have done more harm than good by creating unobtainable expectations and burning through the limited resources we possessed.

I discovered that a larger impact could be done on a smaller scale. We have since shifted our focus to our own artisans, ensuring their short and longer term needs are adequately met before expanding outwards. Our artisans are now paid significantly higher than the industry standard and we are dedicated to ensure working conditions are safe. We have also established an artisan development fund in which we work with our artisans to determine solutions to their needs as well as their families' and the community as a whole. Our artisans work with us to decide where the funds are allocated because we’ve learned they know their community and its needs far better than we do. It’s our job to facilitate these projects and not to lead them. 

At our last meeting, we discussed some of the root causes of poverty in the area. We all agreed that having access to quality education opens doors and improves quality of life in the long-term. So together we started an education fund which sends our artisans’ children to the school of their choice in the area. Free handouts are not a solution to poverty alleviation. For that reason we use the education fund as an employment incentive. The longer an artisan works with us, the more of their children we will send to school. We review report cards to ensure these children are attending school regularly and are working hard. For those who do not have children, they receive food support instead, freeing up income for other necessities. But we are not stopping at education. We have big plans to provide health insurance, day care and other forms of support.

Now I’m not suggesting that Best Foot Forward is perfect, but we are learning from our mistakes and making a conscious effort to be more responsible and ethical in our business practices and giving model. I’ve come to realize that my role in this whole process is really to be a conduit. I must listen, consider and then together we can take thoughtful action. And I need to sell more shoes so that we are can send more children to school!

Buy Handcrafted

How often do you buy handcrafted products?

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Article from Mental Floss

11 Benefits of Buying Handcrafted Products

Handcrafted products can offer higher quality and more attention to detail – but they can give buyers some surprising side benefits as well.

1. Handcrafted Products Are Green.

Work done by hand takes less energy than a mass production assembly line, which makes it more environmentally sustainable. This is particularly true if the commercial good is produced overseas and needs to be shipped a very long distance to reach the consumer.

2. Handcrafted Products Are Good for the Job Market.

Another reason you should feel good about spending your money on hand-crafted products? Doing so creates jobs. One study found that shifting just 10 percent of consumer spending in a particular area to locally owned businesses would create hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars in local wages.

3. Handcrafted Products Are Worth More.

A number of experiments have shown that people value an object more highly when they are led to believe it contains an “air of authenticity,” for example, if they were told it was a work of art. This means that artisan products, be they jewelry or jam, are perceived to have more value in society.

4. Handcrafted Products Are Also Just Better.

It’s not just an amorphous air of authenticity that causes people to shell out more for handcrafted products. Handcrafted goods are often just better. A study of coffee found that 47 percent of respondents said it tastes better when prepared by hand compared to just 11 percent who are happy to settle for machine-produced drinks.

5. Handcrafted Products Make You Feel Good About Your Purchases.

And if you’re like most Americans, that’s something you prioritize. A 2012 survey found that 87 percent of American consumers felt that businesses should place at least as much weight on society's interests as they do on business interests. Supporting local artisans and their eco-conscious business practices certainly fits the bill.

6. Handcrafted Products Help Communities.

Studies have shown that locally owned independent businesses —many of which sell wares produced by hand— return a higher percentage of their revenue to their communities than chains. That means the people who make money off sales at independent businesses, owners and employees, are more likely to spend their salary at places in the same area where they work.

7. Handcrafted Products Can Meet Your Needs Better.

Often with handmade goods, you have the option of customizing your purchase. Because you’re often dealing directly with the artisans when you purchase handcrafted products, they might be open to tweaking certain aspects of the product specifically to fit your needs.

8. Handcrafted Products Offer a Fuller Experience.

A study researching cheeses in Vermont found that consumers prefer buying “artisan” cheese because they feel it provides a fuller “sensory experience.” This is a factor of both intrinsic properties, like better taste, and extrinsic properties, like the joy of finding something you really love. Even just the knowledge that a product was handcrafted contributed to the feeling of a better experience because there is a relatable, knowable back-story.

9. Handcrafted Products Are Easier to Buy and More Popular Than Ever.

The Internet is packed with a burgeoning industry of handmade marketplaces – more and more people are embracing handcrafted goods. Some handcrafted sites saw a 71 percent increase in sales in just one year from 2010 to 2011. Buying handmade goods online allows you access to the skills of artisans around the world.

10. Handcrafted Products Are Unique.

One of the most prevalent, although least quantifiable, reasons people report for choosing to purchase handcrafted goods is that they just like having something that didn’t come from a big company. The nature of handmade goods means that there are fewer of them, so whatever you’re wearing or eating or adding to your home is as unique as you are.

11. Handcrafted Products Support a Tradition of Skilled Work.

We’ve seen that supporting your local artisan is good for the community, but it’s also good for the art. As technology makes it possible to replace skilled workers with machines it’s important to keep hand-making goods a financially feasible career choice.

August 8th Elections

Lines to vote across Kenya can be miles long and the wait several hours

Lines to vote across Kenya can be miles long and the wait several hours

We often take for granted the institutions that exist that give people trust in our voting systems in the United States. Whether or not we like the results, we believe the results to be an accurate representation of those who voted. This is not the case in Kenya.

I have closely been watching the build up to the hotly contested August 8th elections. During our most recent trip to Kenya, the BFF team spoke with friends, taxi drivers, shop owners and our artisans about the elections and what they thought would happen. On the coast, people felt optimistic that tensions would not boil over. In Nairobi, reports were less confident, both in the voting process and in the likelihood of peace. While the results of the election are important, the process of getting those results and people's faith in those results are just as significant and called into question.

Further increasing tensions for yesterday's election was the abduction, torture and murder of Chris Msando within 2 weeks of Election Day. Mr. Msando was acting Director for the Kenyan Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and was in charge of the computerized voting systems, further delegitimizing an already precarious event. The investigation into his death is still ongoing.

Although it will take some time for the results to be finalized, it looks like the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta has readily beaten opposition leader, Raila Odinga. We're all waiting with bated breath as Kenyatta's maintaining of power will unfold. Odinga is claiming he has evidence the election results are fraudulent. Smaller scale riots have broken out, but nothing like that of 2007 thus far.

The 2007 election led to a humanitarian, political and economic crisis of epic proportions. As the opposition refused to accept the results of the tense election, riots, gangs and violence left upwards of 1,100 people dead and 650,000 displaced from their homes. Few perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions, leaving many Kenyans with a sense of injustice. After being accused of orchestrating the violence, both current President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto faced charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, but the court dropped the charges and cited unprecedented witness interference and bribery. 

Fortunately the 2013 election, although tense, did not mirror the instability and violence that we saw in 2007. The international community was happily surprised by the aftermath, although the opposition again questioned the authenticity of the results and 400 people were killed during instances of unrest.

Many millions in Kenya (as in many places around the world) continue to feel marginalized, like the government does not support their interests. Tribal ties have been politicized as the Kikuyu ethnic group has maintained general power since independence in 1963. The opposition feels as though the political system is unfair and favors the Kikuyu at the expense of the 30+ other ethnic groups in Kenya.

An outbreak of violence following the finalized election results would be disappointing but not surprising. Unfortunately, a lack of stability in the country affects the well being of people like our artisans, who have fled to more rural villages fearing election violence. We're anxiously awaiting their return when the situation is safe.

The results of this election as well as the response will have huge impact on future Kenyan elections as well as the legitimacy of its democratic ideals within the international community. For up to date information on the 2017 election, I'd recommend taking a look at the Human Rights Watch page.

 

 

Voluntourism

Interested in volunteering abroad? This term has been coined, voluntourism: essentially volunteer travel or a volunteer vacation where people volunteer while also participating in tourist activities. While many come back with rave reviews of their travels, voluntourism has received extensive critique in the way it can be harmful for the local communities participants are hoping to help.

Having had something of a similar experience doing a study abroad in college, I was left conflicted, although deeply positively impacted, by the experience. While not all voluntourist experiences are created equal, in their impact and/or harm, I encourage you all to critically explore the ways in which we give, volunteer, and work to make this world a better place.

I found this article on the practice extremely helpful in that it does not outright reject the practice, but focuses on critically investigating programs you may want to consider. Its insight and advice are far more articulate than I could ever be!

Poverty

The term poverty denotes malnutrition, scarcity and the developing world, particularly Africa. But these images that are evoked don’t do the term justice. Mirriam Webster defines poverty as the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. So when we are working to bring people out of poverty, what is the end goal and what are the priorities for development?

In the past, some have focused on top-down approaches, on investing in governments and then letting that trickle down into the citizenry. Some approaches focus on establishing democracy first and then focusing on economically empowering its citizens. Others focus on increasing incomes of citizens, establishing a solid middle class first and then democratizing and empowering. There are now new approaches that focus increasingly on the individual and bottom-up approaches to poverty.

The UN prioritized its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the turn of the century. It outlined eight poverty reduction goals that were to be reached by 2015 as agreed upon by all member states. These goals had very specific targets and indicators but it aimed to:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

The MDGs were the first worldwide embrace of development issues, but they were very much “don’t rock the boat”, concrete policies that ignore several issues including social health, people with disabilities, etc.

These differing policies and priorities beg the question: what is development and who is it for? There are several answers to this question, but here are a few:

  • Increasing income/consumption
  • Building human capabilities and skills
  • Rectifying social exclusion
  • Increasing participation/citizenship

The definition for poverty might indicate that the goal of development should be to focus exclusively on increasing income/consumption, but that’s not Best Foot Forward’s approach. We believe that poverty is not exclusively the absence of material possessions, but rather an absence of opportunity that limits a person in their relative position. We have adopted a bottom-to-top participatory approach that empowers people to participate in their own development. National economic growth is not enough; it is about lifting the poorest of the poor out of poverty through opportunity. By investing in our artisans we are helping people to help themselves.

Guest Blogger: Reflections From The Kenya Trip

Guest Blog this week from Lindsay McTavish, BFF's Director of Operations:

 

Coastal Kenya

Coastal Kenya

A funny sign in our journey...

A funny sign in our journey...

It is easy to imagine that it might be difficult to describe coherently my first impressions (let alone remember them) after traveling in the same set of clothes in an upright position for 12,471 miles. According to Google that is the mileage from Nairobi to Santa Barbara via LAX. Google does not have the ability to take into account the exhaustion of getting up at 2:15am to catch a 5:00am flight nor the energy drain of being processed through 11 security checks in between. Nor does it include the frustration of watching the luggage carousel circling around and around and around with the same seemingly unloved and unclaimed bags. But even the trials and tribulations of current day air travel and my lack of sleep could not dampen my enthusiasm for the people, culture, wildlife and landscape of Kenya.

There are the visual ones – bright colors, aqua marine water, potholes, white knuckle rides in tuk-tuks (3 wheeled taxis very similar to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland), wandering vines, bougainvillea in purple, red and orange, lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, glorious fresh fruit, red dirt, “butcheries” with sides of beef hanging in the open window, warthogs, shining tall skyscrapers with dirt sidewalks in front and the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen.

A baby elephant at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

A baby elephant at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

There are the auditory ones – the rhythmic pulse and whine of the tuk-tuk engines, birds singing, cooing and squawking, hooting (aka honking) cars, listening to our wonderful driver Jeff’s Kenyan CD over and over and over again until I am fairly sure while I can not speak many words in Swahili I certainly can sing them, the singsong of the Swahili language especially in saying "Jambo” (hello) and “lala salama” (sleep well).

Fitting 4 people in a tuk-tuk

Fitting 4 people in a tuk-tuk

But most importantly there are the memories held in my heart.  I tear up when I think about the shyness and humility of the artisans as they told me their dreams for their children, the deep sense of family, the respect shown to me as Caleigh’s “mama", the incredulity of the artisans receiving prints of the pictures we had taken of them the day before, the laughter and conviviality during each work day, the pride in their trade, touching the orphaned baby elephants, the generosity of spirit despite the lack of resources, the realization that I am more grateful for the relationships I have with my children than the items I may own.

I was profoundly moved by my time in Kenya.  I went with a sense of fear and by the end of our visit I was not ready to leave. I have returned to Santa Barbara with a renewed and focused devotion to the mission of Best Foot Forward. As a mother I cannot rest until all the children of the workshop have an opportunity to become all that their parents dream for them.

I hope you will join me in this journey as we continue to put our best foot forward.

 

 

The Complexity of Poverty: The Well Example

When it comes to poverty reduction, listening is far more important than speaking. Take the classic well example. An organization established a well for women in a rural community. These women had been walking hours each day to collect drinkable water for themselves and their families. An organization realized how silly this was and dug a well in the town center for everyone to use.

The humanitarians thought they had solved the problem, saving women several strenuous hours a day lugging water. These women could now spend time on other, more lucrative activities. But these aid workers returned 6 months later to the village to find the well was broken. The first issue was that no one in the village was trained in how to fix a well if it broke. The second problem was why the well was unusable after such a short amount of time. The humanitarians learned that several women in the community had purposely broken the well. They were dumbfounded. Who would want to destroy the well that saved these women hours a day?

The humanitarians had not done a proper assessment of the area where they were working, and were therefore not solving the root causes of poverty in the area. They assumed the lack of water exacerbated poverty, which was not incorrect, but they disregarded high domestic violence rates in the area. With the well fixed, women were spending more time at home and their husbands had more opportunities to become violent towards their wives. Domestic violence rates increased significantly.

These women loved spending hours a day walking to collect water because it was a reprieve from the constant abuse they faced in their homes. They had no real way of getting out of the situation and domestic violence is commonplace in many rural villages in the area so there were no legal repercussions for these men. Until the domestic violence could be addressed, these women would continue to find joy an arduous task like lugging water.

We must continue to understand the context in which were working, otherwise our good intentions can do more harm than good.

Health as Wealth

I leave for Kenya in a few days to meet with Lydia and the artisans. We are also trying to expand our product line by adopting new community groups who are making beautiful products. At times like these, I’m left thinking about my first travels to East Africa, especially because my mom is coming with me on this trip.

She just went through the process of getting her inoculations from a Yellow Fever shot to Typhoid capsules to malaria pills. The process is a bit overwhelming, especially as a travel doctor walks you through the various ways you could potentially get sick. It seems like there are so many ways to become ill in Kenya from unclean water to malaria and other serious diseases. We’re so fortunate that we’re in a position to be able to minimize risk as much as possible through vaccines, pills and purchasing clean food and water.

So many illnesses can be prevented with access to medicines, bed nets, clean water, etc. and yet so many people die due to lack of access to proper medical treatment. Take malaria for example, which exists in nearly 100 countries. According to the 2013 World Malaria Report, in 2012 alone there were 200 million cases of malaria. Of the 627,000 people who died from malaria worldwide that year, 90% occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria kills an estimated 2,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa every day. The Gates Foundation has committed over a quarter of a billion dollars to malaria research and development. And yet despite that investment, the need far outweighs the access to funding for programs to eradicate this disease.

Malaria is often perceived as a consequence of poverty – being unable to afford preventative tools and medicines. But malaria is also a cause of poverty. There are huge economic ramifications to a person being ill and unable to work for an extended period of time – he or she loses out on important income, which is needed to support a family. This can lead to a child being unable to attend school in order to support the family by completing household chores and an increased reliance on child labor for income for families that live hand to mouth.

A person’s health is everything, especially without access to insurance, savings or disposable income. And malaria is just one illness that contributes to poverty. In Kenya alone, there are dozens of other illnesses that threaten family stability. And lack of access to finances and information to prevent and/or cure these diseases for many. Illness is just one contributor to the cycle of poverty.

So while we are excited and busy preparing for this trip, we also are taking time to acknowledge how different our experiences in Kenya will be compared to the average Kenyan.

Source: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Cente...

Mother's Day

Did you know that Mom in Swahili is "Mama" I like to think that's because no matter which country we call home, no matter which language we speak and no matter our age each one of us has a very special place in our hearts for our mothers.

Mothers are more likely to invest in their children and are huge assets to the global economy. Evidence from a range of countries has shown us that increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending habits to benefit children. Further, women, including mothers, can increase their income globally by up to 76% if the wage gap and employment participation gap are closed between men and women. This is a global value of $17 trillion!

I hope that you will join with me and salute the strength and love of mothers around the world. 

 

For more statistics on women's economic empowerment, see UN Women