catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 11 :: 2013.05.24 — 2013.06.06


Beyond survival

Editor’s Note: As one of the volunteers who helps run World Fare, a fair trade store in Three Rivers, Michigan, I’ve been working with Christopher Keefe for several years to stock our shelves with handmade goods from South America through his company Minga Imports.  This particular issue topic offers the welcome opportunity to highlight the unique principles of Minga’s work as a visionary point of connection between South American artisans and North American retailers.

Describe the role you play in fair trade.  What first drew you to the work you do? How has your company and your understanding of your role between producers and retailers evolved in the course of its existence? 

I own a small fair trade wholesale distribution business importing artisan goods. That is one way to put it. To those not familiar with fair trade, I’m simply an importer. The role I play in fair trade however is quite hard for me to put so succinctly. I feel my role is always changing. I owe it to the artisans, retailers and employees as well as consumers of fair trade to adapt to the growing needs to the extent my abilities allow.

I was living in Ecuador when I decided to sell artisan goods to stores in the U.S.  I was in need of work and so were a number of people I knew in Ecuador. There were many experiences and voices that fueled my decision to start selling artisan goods, but the need to make money for both me and my friends was the spark that was needed for me to get the flame going. 

I originally went to Ecuador as an unpaid volunteer missionary to teach the Bible. When I ran out of money, I began to teach English, but that wasn’t enough at first to pay for airfare home every time a friend would get married. In my mid-twenties at the time, wedding invitations were frequent. Since many of my Ecuadorian friends and I needed income, selling artisan crafts to stores in southeastern Wisconsin seemed like a perfect way to satisfy everybody’s needs at the time. As time went on, I discovered more needs. Producers wanted more orders and more ideas on what to make. Small retailers wanted a greater variety of unique items that were good quality and reasonably priced, not to mention assurances of social and environmental responsibility. Retailers and consumers alike wanted to know how this commerce was benefiting the producers and what their working conditions were. Although my original role in fair trade did not come with so many demands, I felt compelled to do what I could to satisfy as many as possible.

My only criteria for helping someone was that they possess the three “H’s” — that they be honest, humble and hard-working. Something interesting started to happen. I started seeing similarities between the retailers who bought the items and the artisans who made them. They both felt at a disadvantage with large business competitors. They both wanted freedom to dictate their own future. They both were always seeking advice on how to improve their business and both appreciated the other without ever having met. Being bilingual and bi-cultural, I feel my role and responsibility is to promote respect, education and understanding between cultures.

As a business, your company needs to exchange a certain number of dollars to remain viable.  Alongside dollars, what have been some of the important non-monetary measures for you in terms of your success with producers, employees and customers?  Are there choices you’ve made that weren’t financially expedient (at least immediately) in favor of building other kinds of capital?

Life and relationships are what most people truly cherish, far above any monetary unit. I learned early on that although money can slow things down or speed them up, it cannot make you right or give you happiness. My business needs to make a profit so that the “3-H” people can get paid a “sharing” wage, but the amount of profit or number of people procuring an income does not determine success in my mind. Success to me is being able to spend time helping others and going to bed with a clean conscience. Observing hard-working clients, honest employees and humble artisans use their talents and resources in a self-sacrificing way warms my heart and motivates me to work even harder to be counted among them.

Bankers and accountants may question the business sense of giving 0% loans, paying for samples and mistakes and buying merchandise just because an artisan needs work. The financial reward is not always visible in putting the environment ahead of saving money. But if we can honor people and planet while still making a profit, then we stand the chance of being in business for as long as those two last. Some of our policies appear to restrict our growth such as not selling to large companies or not selling to the public and possibly taking customers away from our clients. I realize how easy it can be to become a bully in the business world so I would rather respond to growth instead of pushing for it and to prevent larger clients from inadvertently becoming a bully, I am careful not to let any one retailer occupy more than 15% of our sales. We are also careful not to create unfair competition by selling similar products to stores too close to existing clients. We won’t support artisans undercutting one another and don’t share their designs with other artisans without their permission. We don’t ask producers to sign exclusivity agreements and don’t take on exclusive designs of other exporters. A relationship built on trust is much better than one built on profits. 

Fair trade, like any economic system, has the potential to create situations of dependency, in which the producer has no power.  What are your goals with respect to the artisans you work with?

We prefer to work with small, family-owned businesses rather than coops when it comes to finding a source for products to sell. I want to know to the extent possible that the orders we place will provide what I call a “sharing wage” as opposed to a “living wage.” My years in Ecuador living in the lower income areas of the country convinced me that making just enough to live on does not turn a thief into and honest man, nor an honest man into a generous one.

The phrase “sharing wage” came to me in an airport somewhere between North and South America. I heard a prominent politician say that free trade would provide a living wage to people of a certain region. “Yeah, okay,” I thought. “Let’s see you walk in the shoes of those affected by your ‘free’ trade agreements and receive the so-called ‘living’ wage.” I admit I do not know all there is about the consequences of those treaties, but nonetheless, this irritated me.  I decided I would not be a part of supporting a living wage, but would strive to provide as many as possible with a sharing wage. It is not my goal to create economic wealth for anyone, including myself, through fair trade. There are so many better ways to measure prosperity than by the size of one’s bank account or list of material possessions. Still, I observe that when someone has enough to share — that is to say, more than they need to live on and support the basic needs of their own — they will be more ready to give when the opportunity arises and since there is more happiness in giving than in receiving, they will sooner or later start looking for ways to contribute to their community. I have seen artisans start off in the poor house and, after taking care of their own family’s needs of food, shelter, education, they start caring for the needs of those less fortunate by giving them work, too.

There are many examples of this. Marcelo and Rosita started making some animal hats for us with increased orders due to their quality hard work have been able to pay off high interest loans to banks and chulqueros, or loan sharks. As a result of responsible borrowing and their own hard work, they have been able to buy additional knitting and sewing machines and provide employment for family and friends. With regular orders and a little financial assistance along with constant financial advice from Minga, they are now saving to build their own home — and all of this while raising three children, two of whom are school age. I also can’t help thinking of Albert and Magdalena who have shared their success with the women in their neighborhood providing training and employment with benefits even when orders are thin. They have not only sent their children to college, but have gone back to high school to get diplomas for themselves. Seeing them humbly struggle to achieve and patiently work with needy ones in their barrio makes us feel honored to be a part of their success. There are many more artisans and experiences to share. Come and travel with us!            

One of your practices that’s made you a unique wholesaler from my experience on the retail side of fair trade is your desire to connect retailers with each other within a region.  What is your hope for these gatherings in terms of what you call “intellectual profit sharing?”

Small retail businesses need all the help they can get and especially those who are committed to promoting fair trade. Our business has grown and the artisans we work with have benefitted greatly primarily due to the purchases made by fair trade and fair trade-friendly stores, most of which do not belong to the Fair Trade Federation, mostly due to the time and expense they estimate it would incur. We stand to benefit if these stores stay in business and continue educating their customers about the importance of choosing fair trade over traditional trade. I want to facilitate these stores getting together to share experiences. By coming together I believe they will be able to share stories of successes and failures, compare tactics and techniques to helping their businesses thrive and overcome common obstacles. Sharing ideas and experiences can be very encouraging and reminds fair trade stores that they are not alone and that they can succeed in business while sticking to principles. Sharing our financial profits is generous, but sharing our intellectual profits is godly and truly giving.

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