Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Starting the Women's Sewing Cooperative

Small businesses have the potential to lift people out of poverty. They teach entrepreneurial skills, financial literacy and encourage people to network and innovate, in the process making empowered and impactful choices.

Employ a woman, development literature tells us, and she'll spend the money on her family's health, nutrition and education. Employ 20 community members, like Nana's Lodge next door to the Community Campsite, and their salaries go to family members and friends in a pattern more like widening ripples in a pool than a little trickle-down.

As Robertsport Community Works starts up, income-generating projects for community members are high on our priority list. We're interested in how to supplement the income of the greatest number of people in Robertsport with a wide array of environmentally-minded and culturally enriching microenterprise projects, everything from sustainable agriculture to community-based tourism and recycling.

First, we're making bags. To be more specific, Bintu, Vivian and Tina (from left to right) are making bags with my direction, sewing West African batik cloth called "lapa" by hand into market bags that retail for $10. More about how to order these bags and other products in a future post.

In the meantime, the four of us are figuring out how to create a viable business model that compensates work on each of the phases of the product: the person who selects and buys the lapa in Monrovia and brings it to Robertsport, the sewer, the person who distributes the lapa to places it can be sold in and outside of Liberia, and the person who markets the products in a way that promotes the cooperative and the community.

At the moment, we're working on product samples of small and large market bags, figuring out costings, determining rates of production and starting to enforce quality control. Our expanded product line will include yoga mat bags, aprons and short kimonos. Each of the cooperative's product tags will have a photo of the woman who made it and a bit about the project and Robertsport Community Works.

Our microfinance advisor is constantly reminding us that people work well with incentives, so rather than divide the profits in a cooperative fashion as I originally suggested, we're moving towards a more capitalistic model that gives all the sewer's profit directly to the woman who made the bag. Each market bag will have, by the strap, small embroidered initials identifying the sewer. In addition, we're silkscreening the cotton tree logo and on the outside and inside of the strap, respectively. I hope that this move towards branding will start to develop a Robertsport Community Works brand that is the equivalent of seeing a "Rainforest Alliance" or "Fair Trade" sticker on a product.

We're also expanding the project, with new women being trained by other members the cooperative. Each woman will receive a starter kit that includes scissors, needles, thread and a measuring tape -- a cost of approximately $1.50 that she'll pay back in installments upon selling her bags. There is some risk here: give a woman a lapa and a starter kit and she may not come back with a sellable bag, but that's a risk I'm willing to take as we start working to build relationships with the community. At the end of the day, it's about giving people opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty, not about ensuring immediate return on investment. In the long term, I believe we can have things both ways.


  1. Having accompanied a women's embroidery group in my El Salvador Peace Corps village go through different stages, I'm interested in the group's finances, because that was usually the sticky part. The group even broke up for a few months of problems with the treasurer lending out the cooperative's money without telling the others. I do still thing it beneficial for the women to give back part of their profit to the group because then they can learn how to work and make decisions together. Could a little of this be included into the business model?

  2. Did your group pool the percentage of profit and use it collectively for sewing purchases or donate it individually according to need?

    RCW will collect a percentage of profits to go to the Community Fund -- the pool that funds microenterprise projects. We'll use the money to give small loans as we provide parallel business training and support, and expect it to be repaid over time. Having product profits collect there gives us additional collateral and a reliable source of income.

    The bags look great. I can't wait to start selling them online.

  3. congrats on work....interested to see whether these products can be placed in our global market place at

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    love what you are about