In January, a team of product designers and marketers from Catholic Relief Services' partner SERRV, a nonprofit fair trade organization, traveled to Mali to train a group of women artisans in design and product development for their jewelry business. Funded in part by a grant from Catholic Relief Services' Fair Trade Fund, the weeklong training was designed to help the women at the Delta Survie Center expand their product line and identify new export opportunities.
The sign above the women's street-side jewelry boutique, adjacent to the center, welcomes customers to "Boutique des Femmes Malade de Fistule" (Boutique of Women With Fistula Illness). Delta Survie is located in the heart of Mopti, a bustling market town often called the "Venice of Mali" because of its unique network of dikes. Every year, the center serves approximately 200 rural women artisans who are recovering from obstetric fistula, and educates hundreds of women and their families through a radio and TV campaign about prevention and treatment.
In addition to providing medical and social services, the center also serves as a workshop and storefront for the women's jewelry and textile business.
In Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, where women in rural areas often don't have access to basic health care, obstetric fistula can be caused by prolonged labor, poor prenatal care and a scarcity of midwives. The resulting infertility, incontinence and odor often cause husbands to leave their wives, and many women face discrimination in their own communities.
But when you ask the artisans at Delta Survie about the sign above their shop, they insist on keeping it. "[The exposure] is good for us. It makes people attentive to our problem," Banyine Bora, the boutique manager, explains.
A Fresh Start
At Delta Survie, the women find acceptance and economic opportunity. After undergoing medical treatment, they learn a fresh set of skills so they can rebuild their lives—often away from their families and villages.
"You might well expect to find a somber, heavy mood at Delta Survie," says Keith Recker, a SERRV volunteer and expert in crafts and home furnishings who worked with the women to identify new product designs. "But it was clear from the start that they see themselves as a community—that they bond together to help each other recover."
Seated around several tables in the main workshop, the women create beaded jewelry, scarves and other intricate textiles as their children play nearby. "The light, stationary work is a perfect occupation for these women, who are at different stages of recovery and many of whom need frequent periods of rest," Recker explains. "And as you quickly learn from the pretty necklaces and earrings and bracelets worn by many of the women, such jewelry is part of the vibrant style zeitgeist of Mali."
The artisans divide the profits of the handcrafts between themselves and the Delta Survie staff. But with SERRV as their only export customer and limited sales generated from the boutique, they needed to increase their customer base and diversify their product line in order to stay afloat.
A Marketing Boost
Three representatives from SERRV visited the group to provide training in organizational management, product development, costing and pricing, as well as production and shipping. They showed the artisans how to improve their design and marketing skills. In turn, the artisans will pass on their knowledge to future groups of women who come to Delta Survie.
Recker, whose previous clients include big-name retailers like Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue, says the trainers and artisans tried designs based mostly on techniques already used in the local tourism market.
"We worked to produce over 15 different necklace prototypes, with a handful of earrings thrown in. And we tried some fun, new ideas that were very achievable with available materials and skills."
With new and improved product designs and a few lessons in basic marketing, the women now hope to attract more buyers, and add a few more items to the SERRV catalog.
"[The women] are eager to become more professional and are specific in what they think they need in order to grow and become better," says Julie Danis, a marketing consultant and SERRV board member. "We believe we can help them with a basic marketing plan right away, and some sales help too."
Together, the group also took a good look at improving the curb appeal of their roadside jewelry store. "I told the women that I want to make their boutique so beautiful that when the motorcycles drive by, they are stopped in their tracks by its beauty and must come back to make a purchase," Danis laughs.
About the CRS Fair Trade Fund
Every time someone makes a purchase from one of CRS' fair trade coffee, chocolate or handcrafts partners and references CRS, a percentage goes to the CRS Fair Trade Fund, which is used to help producers increase their efficiency and expand their markets. Overseas, the fund is used to make Development Grants that help disadvantaged artisans and farmers gain better access to the fair trade market. Market-Building Grants are meant to help grow demand for fair trade products here in the United States.
Kim Pozniak works as a communications officer for CRS and is based in Baltimore, MD.