Doing business in Vanuatu is a struggle at the best of times. But a group of illiterate women basket-weavers on one of its remote islands, with no market, no business skills and no money, have been showing that fair trade can offer previously unheard-of opportunities.
Since 2006 the group has been selling string baskets to fair trade exponent Sandrine Wallez – promoting rural women’s economic development in a country where women represent roughly a third of the 14.7 per cent who are formally employed.
Sandrine worked with Peace Corps volunteer Blake Stogner to set up a fair trade shop for the baskets in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. ‘When you order in centimetres or talk about prices, the women look at you blankly. They can’t read or understand the numbers,’ explains Stogner. ‘If Sandrine ordered ten 50-centimetre bags, the women would still send different sized bags.’ To overcome this problem, Wallez and Stogner now cut strips of bamboo into 10 and 20 centimetre lengths so the women can measure the bags and make them according to set sizes.
‘We also tried to encourage the women to make new products that we knew overseas and tourist markets would like,’ Stogner continues. ‘I suggested some woven bookmarks. They sent back woven mats the size of a book cover itself. We realized they’d never seen a book before, so how would they know what a bookmark should look like?’
When the baskets are finally made, each woman has to carry them on an hour-and-a-half-long walk across steep and difficult volcanic terrain. And if the women have more baskets than they can carry in one go they must do the trip again.
To access banking and postal services, the women approach local schoolteachers who travel to the main province regularly and can organize postage of the goods. Later they are paid by Wallez through a cash transfer. The women use their earnings to pay for school fees, healthcare and household essentials. Whatever is left gets hidden under the bed or buried to prevent theft. ‘Burying money is common among rural people,’ says Bob Hughes, Managing Director of the National Bank of Vanuatu. ‘Some have dug up their money after a long time and come to us to put it in the bank for the first time in their adult lives, but the money’s been in the ground so long it’s rotted and worthless.’
The women’s earnings are impressive by rural standards. In 2006 the group of 24 made $3,027 – enough to pay for school fees, kerosene and staples such as sugar, oil and flour. In 2007 their income shot up to $5,080. From that each woman received about $210, well above the $173 rural minimum wage.
Wallez is thinking big. She has extended the project to 200 producers in 8 groups across Vanuatu, but says that this is just the beginning: ‘With fair trade we have an opportunity to change lives for the better. It’s what business should be about.’