13 Mar How I Invented* Fair Trade
This article was updated on March 17th, 2018 and first published on March 13th, 2018
Sumatra, Indonesia. 2004. A village in the middle of nowhere.
I walked around the coffee plantation taking photos with my father’s old Olympus SLR.
Growing coffee looked like hard work, especially on this model organic farm I was visiting.
Wesly was the manager.
“We need to move to an organic model to break free from the need to purchase fertilizer” said Wesly. “But it’s harder work, and the coffee takes longer to grow.”
“In this remote region, we rely on middlemen to purchase the beans. They also lend us the money to buy the fertilizer. We take what price they give us for our crops, and most of the money goes to paying off the fertilizer. God help us if we have a poor crop…”
I wondered to myself, and asked Wesly.
“Did the farmers know what the market price for coffee was?”
“And if they did, what could they say to the middle men anyway if they were the only buyers?”
“Coffee plants take years to grow, how do you plan for prices years into the future?”
“It’s difficult”, he said.
We needed a better system than this, I thought.
One where prices were stable and the farmers knew what their crop would be worth.
One without predatory middlemen.
That was the moment I invented fair trade.
Before that, I was interested in international development. I had written a dissertation on the South Korean automobile industry. I was thinking industrialisation and conglomerates as THE way to move people out of poverty.
Not organic farms in Indonesia.
But I did believe in markets and business.
One year later, I arrived in Quito, Ecuador, determined to learn Spanish and then find a Fair Trade organization to which I could volunteer my services.
GOODBYE AND HELLO
By the way, this post marks a new beginning.
In 2017, Kartimarket.com (i.e. this website) was an online store selling fair trade homewares we imported from Indonesia and Ecuador.
In 2018, it’s no longer an online store but a blog on handmade and fair trade products made in developing countries.
It’s also a blog about artisans and sellers of handmade and fair-trade products, and everything in between.
I should clarify that the online store IS still there.
Except that now it’s called Rinjanipottery.com and it sells fair trade pottery from Lombok, Indonesia.
DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT
In Ecuador, after knocking on a few doors, I joined an organisation called Camari.
Camari was (and still is) the commercial arm of an Ecuadorian rural development organisation, FEPP.
Their job was to sell the products that the farmers that worked with FEPP produced.
I helped liaise with overseas customers, and also did some pricing models for Camari’s exports.
Yes, I like Excel.
Ecuador has a strong tradition in handicrafts, particularly textile and straw weaving (think sombreros/panama hats).
And Camari was committed to promoting Ecuadorian craft products.
They employed a talented in-house designer, my friend Diego, who worked with the artisans on their products.
I loved the striking colors and modern-but-traditional designs of the handmade goods.
Though I had come to Ecuador with fair-trade coffee in mind, I left with an idea to start a business importing and selling artisanal products in the United Kingdom, to where I was moving after finishing up in Ecuador.
My idea was to focus on improving the design of the products. The artisans had the skills but due to the distance, often lacked the knowledge of consumer preferences in overseas markets, for example what the current tastes were in design and colour, and the level of quality required.
I wanted to bridge that gap.
Plus, I had always loved product design. Functional stuff you could use. (I still do like coffee though).
My intent was to showcase items that would fit into the modern Western home, but were not mass-produced in factories.
Something that told the story of the artisans that made them, giving them a value even beyond the design of the product.
It helped that my brother, Chris, was a product designer by trade.
Camari became our first supplier after we set up kartimarket.com in 2007, with Chris, when he joined me in London.
I managed to return to Ecuador and Camari again a few years later. You can read about that trip here.
TIME’S MAKING CHANGES
Back to 2017.
Now Chris was in Australia. I was moving to Japan. We both had families and children.
Although we can develop new products using email and photos, it works better when we can sit with the artisans and really collaborate closely to make a great product.
Visiting both Indonesia and Ecuador was getting difficult.
At the same time, as Ecuador’s economy started to take off thanks to its petroleum industry, costs and prices in Ecuador increased substantially (something I noticed when I visited in 2013).
Although we really wanted to make it work, given our history with Camari, there was only a certain limit to what we could price the products to make it feasible.
Unfortunately, we didn’t sell or order as much as we would have liked.
We had also been working with potters in Lombok Island, Indonesia since around 2010. These products had sold pretty well in the UK.
We found that apart from some remaining stock from Ecuador, most of what we sold were the items made in Lombok.
Chris suggested we rebrand to reflect this. Though I was hesitant at first, it was a good idea. So we changed.
And here we are.
Rinjanipottery.com it is.
I started my first blog while I was in Ecuador.
As it happens, it’s still there at Blogspot. (For some reason I decided to host the images on a separate server account, which I no longer have. So there are no pictures.)
It was a pretty crude effort but fun to re-read after all these years. I’m not sure my sarcasm translates well on screen (or in real life perhaps).
Unfortunately, I’ve lost access to it. I’d love to give it some paragraphs.
We did have a blog at this site for the first iteration of Kartimarket.com, but updates were quite sporadic.
I’ve left some of the more relevant posts up and removed others.
You probably don’t need to see posts on Christmas delivery dates from 2014.
So what exactly are we doing with Kartimarket.com now?
On Kartimarket.com we will write about topics around handmade and/or Fair Trade products in developing countries.
We’re interested in the artisans, the importers, the retailers, the business in general, and the broader context of international development.
In particular, we’re going to highlight and promote products that have great designs and compelling stories, that we hope you will enjoy too.
And we’ll talk about fair trade of course.
After all, that’s where it all started.
Back in 2004, in deepest, darkest Sumatra.
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