I have a confession. I like to window shop. Often, said window shopping (i.e., staring wistfully at clothing I want in theory) turns into browsing (i.e., sifting wistfully through clothing I want in theory), sometimes leading to impulse purchases.

Window shopping = gateway drug? But I digress.

This past weekend, I was “browsing” in a designer store called Kate Spade when I came across this display table:

Since 2005, Women for Women International, an international non-profit organization, has partnered with Kate Spade New York to promote micro-enterprises for women in countries like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, creating jobs and teaching embroidery, weaving and bead-work. The finished products are then sold in Kate Spade New York stores (the above bracelets, crafted by women in Rwanda, were part of the Hand in Hand partnership and were sold in celebration of International Women’s Day this week).

This recent discovery caused me to think not only about the social impact of partnerships between the fashion industry and development organizations but also how we can and should think about bringing goods to market. Many organizations engage women in low-income countries in skill-building opportunities  – teaching embroidery, sewing, tailoring and other skills that can lead to job creation, income generation, and ultimately, female empowerment. But if these women are taught these skills in a vacuum and not also given the resources to put these finished products on the market (fair trade, local or otherwise), are they ultimately creating sustainable livelihoods, or maximizing the potential of their businesses?

It’s an interesting question. Leticia Jauregui is the co-founder and executive director of CREA, which serves Mexican female-led micro enterprises, focusing primarily on the manufacturing sector of food, handmade products and accessories. She noted,

For any producer, the main challenge is bringing the product to market. In the case of micro and small producers [of goods], the challenge is even bigger because of the asymmetric information and other barriers they face, such as a lack of business skills and networks as well as risk aversion. If the products don’t get to market, then the business fails.

CREA therefore provides these business owners with guidance and support to bring their products to market, ensuring their businesses can grow and provide sustainable and real income and employment opportunities. Jauregui emphasized, “These micro and small businesses are critical to the development and eradication of poverty in developing countries, not only because of the resulting investments that women can make in health and education of their children, but also because these businesses have huge potential that hasn’t yet been achieved.”

The process, however, is complex. According to Jauregui, with the enterprises CREA works with, they need to focus on three things: “(1) making sure they have the production capacity to keep up with potential demand and growth derived from new market opportunities; (2) making sure they have the necessary quality standards in place; and, (3) making sure the products comply with regulations and sanitary requirements.” Once that is solved, she noted, “the main issue is finding appropriate channels and distributors who understand the difference between micro and small producers who compete on quality, not quantity, and who are willing to partner and absorb part of the inherent risk. ” Finally, building a portfolio of diverse and “in-demand” products is the final challenge to ensure success.

In Pakistan, there are a number of organizations providing skill-building opportunities for women in low-income communities, including bag-making and bead-work. Few (if any) are currently placing these finished products on the market in a sustainable manner. However, while Saba Gul, the inspirational founder of Business and Life Skills School (BLISS) [and author of this ThinkChange Pakistan post], noted her organization does not currently bring finished bags to market due to low volume, (a valid point), she added this is something they are considering down the road. Value chains in the creation of products like hand bags are often long, and production capacity must be built in the long term in order to keep up with potential market demand and opportunity.

While CREA focuses its work on female-owned microenterprises in Mexico, Jauregui noted their model can apply to other countries like Pakistan in their approach “in putting together a portfolio of products made by different microenterprises and marketing it via an umbrella brand.” Partnerships with design companies like Kate Spade are other potential ways to bring products to market, or engaging fair trade marketplaces like eBay’s WorldofGood.com.

Ultimately, if we are empowering women in low-income communities to become entrepreneurs and business owners by teaching them skills, we should also be helping them learn how their finished products can be sellable, and how they can engage market supply and demand to maximize this potential.

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