How did I get started with Ethnic Supplies

It is day 14 of Nikki P’s 30 day blog challenge, yesterday we sang to the theme tune from Grease YOU ARE THE ONE I WANT and to day’s challenge is all about how I got started with Ethnic Supplies .

 

I have done this several times so here goes

Starting out

When asked how I got started with Ethnic Supplies, I often struggle to provide a full answer, not because I have something to hide but because most of the reasons are personal and I become emotional just thinking about them. I was born in Uganda and lived there for 25 years. What is unique about those years or the first 25 years as I often refer to them is that for 20 of them there was a civil war of sorts as well as Idi Amin. I got lucky and got away via a scholarship from the Austrian government and left all the nightmares behind me.

Incredibly for years I did not realise how lucky I was until 31December 2006. This day was the beginning of Ethnic Supplies. I was in Uganda on a family holiday and was invited to a New Years Eve party in South Western Uganda. I was blown away by the beauty of this area of Uganda, rolling hills, the magnificent lake etc. But amongst this beauty was poverty that even I as an African woman had never seen before. I noticed that people here especially the women, although very poor were getting on with their lives, and trying to make a living by which ever means that was open to them, in addition the children looked very dirty, hungry and cold.
landscape with river in Uganda
Lake Bunyonyi

 

This visit took something away from me . I had what I call a light bulb moment, by a bizarre twist of luck I had survived twenty years of civil wars and now lived in the safest countries on earth where I never have to worry about catching malaria, or where my next meal is coming from. I resolved to do something however small to help the women in particular.

I went back to work, as a Housing Manager in Paddington, with feelings of “Oh well, that is not my life now, it was just a holiday, forget about it” But for some reason, I could not settle back into my role, I was in charge of a team of 7 staff, they too noticed this in me, and I wondered if it was because I had been away for a whole month. My boss irritated me amongst other things, but the last straw was a long running dispute between a Leaseholder and a tenant, the local politicians got involved too.

Women from Uganda sitting on the verandaSomething on my mind

My thoughts turned to the folk I had left behind in East Africa. I thought to myself this has to be some of the most expensive council housing in the UK and the occupants are arguing over where a bench should be located etc!

When I got home that day, I wrote my resignation letter and handed it in the following day. At this stage I had no real idea what I was going to do but I knew that there had to be something better out there. I felt a strong sense of relief, until I started telling my family and friends what I had just done; some thought I had lost the plot for walking away from a well paid job. I must admit so did I, but once that letter of resignation was in there was no turning back.

On my first day as an out of work person, I revisited that weekend’s copy of the Telegraph, and in it there was a copy of those free booklets, on International development, I read about what individuals were doing to help the poor, and at the end there was this sentence,

IF YOU THINK YOU ARE TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE TRY SLEEPING WITH A MOSQUITO!

There was my answer of what I was going to do. I would go and use my skills of working with the poor in London on the poor of Africa. But it would not be about charity, it would be something that would enable the women to earn money from their work and this money would go directly to them.

What’s in a name?

After new years Eve in SW Uganda I had taken time out  catch up with an old friend in Nairobi Kenya  and she took me round the crafts

Raffia Magazine Rack-from Gahaya Links

markets. I was speechless when I saw the quality of the work . I bought a lovely bag from a  Malagasy woman in a market in Nairobi, as well as baskets and other bits and pieces from my holiday, When I made the decision to get started with Ethnic Supplies,  I took these to a shop in Weybridge Surrey to get their view as to whether there was a market for such things. The shop owner said there would be as they were very well made, and gave me some price indication but told me there were all too ethnic for her shop. With that in mind Ethnic Supplies was born!

I was very keen to set up an ethical project and therefore resolved to visit each and every group of producers that I work with to ensure that the money I was investing went directly to them to help them become economically independent and not to an intermediary and to date I have achieved this.

As a civil servant I had no idea of running any sort of enterprise or where to start and a quick search on the internet lead me to my local Business Link in Woking. I was put through a programme lasting 10 weeks where I learned about marketing, sales, accounting, PR, website etc
What am I trying to achieve at Ethnic Supplies?

Ethnic Supplies is not a charity nor is it a voluntary organisation but simply a channel through which East African women involved in textile and handicraft production can bring their products to the market. I do not believe that charity donations can sustain a nation nor an individual out of poverty neither that African women are a hopeless case waiting for handouts. As you will see from the company’s online shop the women use whatever they can to produce the exquisite hand products, all they need is fair access to world market

The Challenges-

The competition from India and China is huge – they are able to produce similar products at lower prices because of the high fixed costs in Africa.  Even though input materials for these products are often free and labour costs are not high, the lack of infrastructure means that transport costs are very high  – sometimes as much as half of landed costs are transport costs.  So it becomes very difficult to price products competitively while covering input costs and ensuring a minimum return for our suppliers.  Finding the right price point is critical – in my experience, even though

more consumers care about ethical sourcing these days and claim to value the hand-made, authentic element of products, they are not necessarily prepared to pay a premium for such products.  In the current economic climate things are even tougher than usual.

The economic downturn has and remains a great challenge, managing the supply chain to ensure that they deliver good quality products that the markets wants on time is one of those things sometimes make me question my mental health.

Overcoming challenges- I don’t think there is an easy way to overcome some of these challenges especially the structural type challenges. Building strong relationships with the producers and a large network of like minded people here in the UK and international has helped.

Having set up Ethnic Supplies, a few friends and I came together and set up the  charity  LET THEM HELP THEMSELVES OUT OF POVERTY. the charity works in SW Uganda and our current challenge their is to get clean water to the folk of Ruhanga.

What next for Ethnic Supplies

The initiative has and continues to evolve  in some interesting ways.

Last year I started sourcing products for others  who are interested in ethically produced products and this is one of the businesses we helped . This is generally the direction the initiative is going and will incorporate a wholesale service

I  also started working with St Martins College in London and the University of creative arts in Farnham on  exploring the use of sustainable textiles such as barkcloth

Collaboration and partnering with others will continue to play an important role in teh journey of ethnic Supplies, this is because the issues I am  trying to address are huge.

 

So they you are folk- have you got a view on anything you have read here, if so be sure to leave me a message

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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