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!