- I wanted to find out what inspired you guys to start the Base Project and why did you choose Namibia out of all the developing countries in the world?
It all started over dinner one night between Doug (my twin brother) and I in New York City. At the time we were both feeling a bit disenfranchised with aspects of our jobs in marketing and media. So, we decided to team up on an entrepreneurial venture that had social good built into the DNA of the company and focused in the fashion industry. The model we piloted with the bracelets is to produce a fashion item in the developing world, sell on the contemporary US fashion market, and then reinvest in development projects in the same producer communities. The inspiration was to find more meaning in our next career while maintaining the things we loved about our past work and volunteerism; like any social enterprise this is a convergence of the best attributes of for profit, non-profit, and government sectors.
Fittingly enough, our first line of bracelets were not part of our initial product test marketing. While we were test marketing a few designs, people kept resonating with one bracelet that I wore; given to me years earlier by a friend. At the time all I knew is that it came from Namibia and it was made from up-cycled plastic. So we decided to connect the dots…which led us to some of the oldest tribes in Africa.
- Can you tell me a bit more about the people behind the project, what they did for a living before the Base Project and how you came up with the name?
Base refers to a foundation, a starting point, like the base of a pyramid. We work with artisans who have a solid foundation for their craft and are ready to grow their production capacity and refine their craft. These same artisans and communities are also using the additional income earned to first care of their base needs in life (food, water shelter) and now rise up their pyramid of needs towards paying for a child’s education and beyond. The artisans we work with are living at the international poverty line and before working with The Base Project were practicing their traditional craft at a local level.
- Can you tell me a little bit about the Namibians that are involved with the project and how they benefit directly? Is it a 50/50 partnership or do they work for you or perhaps they benefit in other ways?
We work with members of the Himba and Herero tribe. They directly benefit from job creation and income generation through our work together. We work with them off a Fair Trade model, so they are paid a fair trade wage and The Base Project finances all the work up front to ensure that nobody is getting into bad debt cycles.
Additionally. The artisan-entrepreneurs we partner with learn invaluable communication, operations, finance and marketing skills that provide a means to improve their lives and their community.
More specifically we routinely work on quality control, meeting deadlines, scaling a business and hiring more artisans, saving money, and more. The artisans face a wide variety of social issues from HIV/Aids, to education, water access, income generation, health-care, schooling for children, housing. These needs on the ground fit into another aspect of our business model. In addition to paying each artisans a Fair Trade income, we also invest in community development projects in the artisan region. These projects are open to anyone and initiated by the community. To date we have launched a 40-acre community farm in Namibia and a rural scholarship fund for secondary school children.
- How did you overcome the language barrier? If there was one and what are some of the difficulties in working in two countries on two separate continents?
In Namibia, many people speak English. In our business we are typically working with a group of artisans or a co-operative and look to indentify, at least, one English speaker. In the cases that this is not possible, we use translators or partner with NGO’s on the ground who help facilitate communication.
- A lot of people in the fashion industry are coming under a lot of flack for “green washing”. In the sense that, they appear to be making all the right “green” noises only for it to be discovered that their methods are just as damaging to the environment. How do you guys overcome that?
First we abide by the accepted principles of Fair Trade (http://wfto.com/fair-trade/10-principles-fair-trade) and are members of the Fair Trade Federation. We also consult with a lot of development experts on the ground and in the USA to make sure that we are following best practices, this includes the Fair Trade Federation’s annual review of our business practices…and the feedback is that we are doing a great job.
- How long has the business been running and would you say that you are now making a profit? Was it perhaps difficult in the beginning?
We have been selling and marketing our products for two and a half years now. We do make a profit. It was certainly difficult in the beginning. In addition to all of the regular hurdles one faces as a start-up business we have the additional hurdles of working half way across the world and abiding by a business model that holds high social morals.
One specific difficulty is creating a supply chain. In my experience with handcraft, I find that each supply chain is different, unique to the group. This applies to both co-ops in Namibia, and the group that we work with in Ghana to produce the packaging (draw string bags). In each case you are customizing your communication method, ordering process, quality control, transportation, shipping, method of payment, different structures to finance the artisans before and during the work process, etc., etc.
- What are some of the lessons learnt that you would like to pass on to other entrepreneurs, perhaps in Africa, who might be keen to follow in your footsteps?
My advice pertains to shifting ones perspective on entrepreneurs and what it takes to launch a business.
Every person is innately an entrepreneur. Each one of us has a skill or craft that we can decide to pursue and turn into an entrepreneurial venture; be it business related, a humanitarian venture, artistic, etc. Basic entrepreneurialism is exemplified in each of the artisan-entrepreneurs that we work with in Africa; they take risks; gain from the rewards of their venture; shifts resources from areas of lower productivity to higher productivity.
Entrepreneurialism is not solely for a band renegade risk takers with genius IQ’s and the ability to raise millions of dollars in capital. Our society tends to raise the entrepreneur to a pedestal and attribute the ‘entrepreneur’ with a set of attributes that a small fraction of people have.
For those aspiring entrepreneurs whom are waiting to dip a toe into the water, shift your perspective when defining who is an entrepreneur and what it takes to launch an entrepreneurial venture. The realization that all people are innately entrepreneurial and that entrepreneurial ventures come in the form of roadside basket weaving, public art, and Silicon Valley start-ups.