Friday, August 5, 2011

Week with Marcella: Day 5

This was our last day all together, so we came full circle and had a final wrap-up meeting Friday morning at Ashley’s, all 5 of us. On the agenda was to ask her some lingering questions about the collection, the process of the past week, future plans, as well as go over all of the pricing she was supposed to have started before.   Marcella first started by asking her to give a name to the entire collection, which she could do by thinking about some elements that all of the products had in common and what she saw as their unifying thread. Chantal said that the blue pagne we had chosen was considered a joyful fabric in Togo, worn on special occasions such as births or to celebrate the timely passing of life. We decided to name her collection “Celebration de la Bleu.” Chantal said she had never really considered using this pagne in her designs, as she thought the one-color aspect was simple and bland and it was reserved for its traditional symbolic use. This was a general phenomenon we noticed, women are used to viewing materials and techniques in strict terms of their original function, and are now realizing that there are different ways to transform commonplace items into interesting design elements. As an added bonus because not many people have done this before means that their products will be entirely unique. Through these methods she can elevate many cultural aspects to find new value, worth and interest. Kpalimé, and the surrounding plateau region, is abundant in natural resources, spectacular scenery and artistic tradition, meaning there are infinite inspirations to be drawn and revamped in new and interesting ways. It’s so important for women in the developing world to leverage their geography, culture and natural resources to support economic growth.  Take, for example, the vegetable dyes, even though Chantal already knew how these existed, she thought she had to be the one going into the forest and collecting all of the raw materials and then making the dyes from them. She simply didn’t have the time for it.  Now she’s realizing that there are others who can do this work for her, and in this way she can give employment to others in need, freeing herself up to focus on product construction and positively impacting her community.  This concept of outsourcing and task delegation is imperative for future growth and expansion.
            In terms of future growth and expansion, we had been struggling with Chantal throughout both the summer and the week over the concept of constructing an atelier. Its looming presence undermined many immediate potential improvements in organization and production processes because Chantal put off all suggestions or plans, discrediting them until the construction of the atelier was complete. We wanted to restructure her apprenticeship program, but she said it’s not worth doing it until the atelier is complete, claiming she had no space for new apprentices and she needed to take on a high number so that she could train them all at once and have a greater impact in the community.  In this way there was a mission statement crisis; she’s been caught in the middle of needing to nurture her business and also provide for those that seek her support in the community, but so far hasn’t been all that successful in either. Further complicating matters is the fact that in this community money is both a blessing and a curse, people immediately associate her connections with western volunteers as her having surplus money that she is unjustly guarding for herself and not redistributing amongst her network of family and friends.  Aklala has struggled because it’s been woven into this web of social and community obligations, whereby not all profits can be funneled into product and personnel development, which are imperative improvements for her continuing success, but instead are providing for many dependents.    
Previously, before Ashley and I got here, Chantal told us that the women who worked for her didn’t understand that the money she was earning was being put towards the business as a whole, which would help them all in the long run. They wanted immediate pay-off and didn’t think it was fair that Chantal was keeping most of it and not equitably distributing it.  This is understandable given the circumstances where basic daily needs are commonly not being met, making the future seem irrelevant.  Unfortunately, however, this meant that many of the women previously working for Chantal became insolent, lazy, and unreliable because they thought they weren’t being adequately compensated. She has since had to start from scratch and hire all new employees and apprentices for free, most of them without existing skill sets. 
Chantal has an incredible vision to aid disadvantaged young girls in the community by providing them with skills and economic opportunity, but she doesn’t have the means to be able to do so.  What’s important for her right now is to focus on the growth and expansion of her business so that she can be more effective in her community impact.  Aklala is a product-based business, but as of now Chantal is the only one out of 5 permanent workers who can produce a bag from start to finish, and even her own skill set and production knowledge is limited.   She needs to invest in skill training, management, product development, organic materials, organization, and communication before she can even think about being able to effectively provide employment for others.  Aklala is not an orphanage, it’s a business, granted it is imbedded with a social mission, but in order for Aklala to succeed both in Kpalimé and in western markets she first needs to develop her own vocational and managerial capacities. This has been the missing link, and after speaking with her about and providing our own input, Chantal is finally realizing that she doesn’t need to focus on constructing a workshop without first having marketable products that would command orders and enable high-scale production.  She doesn’t need to devote all of her resources to building: building up a workshop, building up an unskilled workforce, just for it all to languish without successful product to sustain demand and orders. She understands and so we will now work with her to develop a system for re-organizing her existing workshop to maximize space and efficiency, and a plan to develop the personnel capacities of Aklala, so that Chantal is not so overextended by being the main director, organizer, accountant, producer, provider, creative director, and mother.  Currently she is trying to assume all of those roles and doesn’t delegate because she doesn’t trust the capacity of others to sufficiently perform.
An additional comment of note, is that she feels that none of her current employees are as committed to the development of Aklala as an organization, most still see their own personal advancement as the end goal, Liza being the only notable exception.  This makes perfect sense when interpreted as a motivational issue. Liza is currently Aklala’s only foreseeable long-term employee, thus she has a vested interest in its development and expansion, whereas apprentices have institutionalized uncertainty in their futures dependent on passing the apprenticeship exam and being hired by their matrice, and all other laborers currently only work for piece-work.  In the latter circumstances, their goal is to successfully produce in the present because they don’t envision themselves with Aklala in the long-term.  Ashley presented Chantal with the idea to give employees more of a stake in Aklala’s success by creating a slanted payment system, whereby pay is a formula-derived fraction of Aklala’s overall monthly income.  When Aklala is more successful, people will be paid more, thus motivating them to be more efficient and effective producers.  But before that system can be put into place, all of the Nest curriculum must be universally taught so they can understand the factors and conditions for producer success in an increasingly competitive market for developing world artisan exports.
Chantal looked like such a huge relief had been lifted off of her shoulders, she said she had been spending nights worrying over how to reconcile her current employee inefficiency with her greater goals of having an impact on the community by empowering young girls and women.  It doesn’t have to be one or the other, but she does need to be smart about it, and focus on building up Aklala as a business first and foremost, that can later be capable of having a greater community impact due to its generated demand from the quality and nature of its products. In these circumstances, she would require more women to help in all of the various processes of production, and can have a labor specialization system.  This would be ideal, as she wouldn’t be just giving handouts, but giving opportunities.  To create these opportunities she understands that she needs to develop a cohesive, environmentally conscious, beautiful and practical collection as a first step.  Now that Marcella is gone, and with the foundation for the collection in place, Ashley, Chantal and I can start tackling some of these steps to restructure and reorganize Aklala to become as efficient and successful as possible.   
What’s more is that some of these improvements have already been made, for example Chantal found out today that she got her business accreditation recognized after 4 years in the making, Chantal was considered lucky to have gotten it approved so quickly.  If you don’t have money or connections in government to register, this process can take up to 10 years.  Having an officially recognized enterprise is beneficial because it will facilitate and simplify exporting, give her legitimacy in creating contracts for her apprentices whereby it is understood that she has the mechanisms to make sure these contracts are honored, and it gives her more credibility both domestically and internationally. It’s a long process with a long checklist, but Chantal is already making some headway.
            After Ashley and Marcella left for the airport I went over to Chantal’s to work on finishing all of the pricing for the bags and all other product development expenditures. We sat underneath the mango tree snacking on grilled corn and laid out all of the products on a long wooden table. At first Chantal didn’t want to use a budget price quote sheet for every individual product, but once I explained to her how useful it would be going forward to have it all organized for reference purposes she agreed. Working together we were able to develop a reasonable price quote for each product that included price of all raw materials, labor, profit and then all additional miscellaneous expenses such as transportation, raw material purchase for vegetable dyes, labor she had to source to teach her new techniques, and other time spent in meetings with us when she could have been working, her time is extremely valuable.  It was so important that at least for the first time doing product development, Chantal was not constricted by a budget and continuous price quotes and references.  While we kept pricing in mind, it did not dictate any aspect of the creative process, and that allowed the collection to be more inventive and distinct. This contrasts with normal economic transactions and the basic form of commodity exchange that rarely serves the interests of the remote producer.  In this form of economic exchange that we are trying to combat, the relationships between producers and consumers is regulated and founded by price mechanisms.  Producers are often disadvantaged in these exchanges because their labor is not justly valued and they often do not receive enough compensation for the work that would help them to lead dignified lives.  It is the retailing firm, whom in marking up the price of the product makes the greater profit margin on the exchange because they are more directly linked to the paying western consumer.  The western consumer is more removed from the third world producer and thus product revenue is not equitably distributed.  This type of exchange leads to a hierarchy of power and entrenches producer positions of marginalization and dependency.  Often western retailers are looking for the cheapest way to produce and do not concern themselves with the ethical issues of working conditions, equitable distribution, environmental affects, and other issues of human welfare.  It is so important that Chantal is adequately compensated for all of her work, and is paid for all expenses incurred that go beyond the price tag of raw materials. In running a business in the developing world there are so many miscellaneous and unanticipated expenses that she must pay for due to a lack of sound community infrastructure and many inefficient processes of production.  Chantal must be guaranteed fair working conditions, profit, fair wages, and make sure that all costs are covered so that she is benefitting from the transaction and is treated as a corresponding western artist.  That is where Nest comes in, and over time Nest and Chantal have both been working together to establish a more equitable system.
After we went through all of the expenses of the week, we discussed her next task, which is to independently create and produce three more products to complement and complete the collection. While she will have to continue thinking about cohesiveness, this process will unleash unparalleled opportunities for her own inspiration, creation, and development, central to any artisan and product-based work.

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