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Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Delicate Partnership

Last week we were busy finishing up samples for Yala that ended up successfully shipped ON TIME (woot!) to Oregon. Rachna and I learned about the entire process that the women go through when an order for samples comes in- looking through the pictures of the products and comments about changes that the retailer would like to see before making an actual order, going through the stock to see which beads and thread they have already, making a list of the exact beads and thread/wire that they need to buy, sending Kanama off to get the materials (from Chennai and even as far as Delhi!), waiting for Kanama to come back so that sample making can begin, making the beaded jewelry products, making sure that the samples are of the right length and are identical to each other, putting each necklace or bracelet into its own separate ziplock baggy, and finally going into Trichy to the DHL office to ship the samples off to the retailer (in this case Yala)! 

It turns out that the samples were successful because Yala has decided to make an order of 500 necklaces from Chidiya, which they said was “starting out small!” This is exactly what the women need, and hopefully Yala can consistently make larger and more frequent orders from these women so that they can live less nomadically, traveling to sell their beads in order to survive. The work provided by Yala orders will also offset the losses that the women incur during the off-season; their necklaces are in high demand only during the religious festival season, which is from December-March. During the rest of the year, they struggle to make a profit off of their beads due to their undercutting of each other’s profits because of the drastic reduction in demand. When they can’t sell locally, they travel great lengths to find customers and bring back the money that they earn and did not have to spend on travel costs to their families, some with young children.

Last Friday, a couple days after we had finished making the samples, we encouraged the women of Chidiya to have a group meeting to discuss some internal issues. The driving force behind the meeting was due to the disappointing showing of members to do the sample making. Only 4 out of the 11 members showed up and if more members had, the samples would have been done much faster. It was also very important for more members to come so that they can get familiar with the designs. This way, when the order does get made, every member can be on board to know exactly what to do. I personally wanted to hear about why the women were not coming, and I found that some of the reasons were due to past misunderstandings that never got cleared up. However, in the end, everything came down to the fact that Chidiya has not been getting as many orders as it had when it first got started three years ago with the help of a Skillshare International (a UK NGO) worker named Sarah. Sarah worked with Chidiya in its first year and since she has left, a lot of the hope that the women once had for Chidiya to become a successful business diminished over time. Once orders started reducing, the women felt like they had less of an incentive to come to meetings. This makes sense for these women in the short term, but in the long term it does not. 

This is what I got out of the discussion and what I explained to the women: Orders might be small and infrequent, but if you do not come out to meetings things will stay this way or worse, Chidiya might stop altogether. Nest is working hard to build partnerships with for-profit companies that are able to make larger and more frequent orders, like Yala, but these relationships take time and many rounds of samples. Due to Nest's inability to support communities like this on its own (Nest can only order so many necklaces during the year to sell on its website), Nest is moving towards this model of ethical sourcing. In this way, Chidiya can get connected to a larger company in the U.S. who will want to place a larger order. These orders can be very profitable and can be the beginning of a long-term imprt-export partnership. Since these partnerships are hard to manage for Chidiya alone due to the cultural and language barriers, Nest helps to make sure that the right products are getting sent in at the right time as well as fair wages for the artisans' labor. 

It seems like the Chidiya members need to trust in the future of Chidiya and the help of Nest, but Nest also needs to be able to trust that Chidiya meets basic business standards. This means that members are coming to meetings and showing up when important orders are made! Nest has to be confident that Chidiya will be able to complete orders on time every time. This trust between both sides of the partnership- Nest and Chidiya- must grow if Chidiya as a business wants to grow. 

This order from Yala is a great start!

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