Bangladesh Artisans

DSC_7453Most of us have heard the familiar saying that goes something like this: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

This proverb has been that used so often that it has perhaps lost some of its meaning. And yet I still feel compelled to quote it here, because it’s what was running through my mind throughout my discussion with Samuel Masih from Noah’s Ark International.

Ryan:  Tell me about the history of Noah’s Ark.

Samuel:  We started the business from my house in 1986 and, at first, we worked with just a few artisan groups and a couple staff members.

We weren’t part of the Fair Trade movement in the early days, but I knew things could be done better. I had seen too many instances of talented craftspeople who either had no work, or they were being treated very poorly. For example, they would often have to fund production from limited personal resources and then travel long distances to deliver them to export companies. And then to top it off, they would have to wait many months before they were paid. I wanted to create a business where artisans could feel secure – where they could afford to educate their children, access good healthcare, and contribute to their communities.

refreshment-pitcherWe had a slow start, so I spent several months in the U.S. trying to find business. Our products were good quality and, in many cases, comparable to mass-produced items that many companies were already buying. I eventually managed to secure a $70,000 order from a florist.

Shortly after I returned to India, Oxfam Australia became our first committed customer – and that was really the start of what has evolved today into a strong Fair Trade organization that’s providing consistent, meaningful work for about 400 artisans in 40 workshops. We’ve outgrown the 10,000 square-foot workshop we built in 2003, and we’re hoping to complete our new 35,000 square-foot facility by the end of this year.

Ryan:  In the face of challenges, what motivates you to keep pressing on and striving for excellence and growth as an organization?

Samuel:  We’ve instituted a profit-sharing program that brings added personal and community benefits to the artisans. It’s so rewarding to know that the results of our efforts directly improve the lives of each individual and family that is working with Noah’s Ark.

Ryan:  Is there a particular success story that really stands out for you?

Samuel:  A man once came to me and asked for money so he could take his son to see a doctor. Through our conversation, I discovered that he had creative talents and was willing to work. He turned out to be an extremely capable and reliable artisan. We invested in his workshop, and he now produces many of our sample products.
Before he began working with Noah’s Ark, he lacked opportunities to succeed – but now, he runs a model workshop and has 10 people working for him. It’s very gratifying.

Ryan:  If you had the opportunity to say something to Ten Thousand Villages’ customers in Canada, what would it be?

Samuel:  When Fair Trade products are shipped across the ocean, they carry stories with them. They carry stories of:

  • artisans who have been treated well and given opportunities to succeed;
  • fair wages for skilled work; and
  • Fair Trade standards that guarantee dignity and respect for everyone in the supply chain.

Fair Trade products from Noah’s Ark and other producers carry these important messages. But most importantly, they carry the artisan’s personal touch.

 

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