The aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the large room in the botanical garden in Amsterdam, where the group of “experts” debated about the future of design in a relaxed atmosphere, all the participants focusing in a stimulating conversation.
“Is this off the record?” the moderator politely asked.
Even though some might question his choice of footwear, Steve P. is widely respected for his “savoir faire” and elegance.
“I mean, do you want me to use that wording?”
The group expectantly looked at Po! Paris’ representative, all still trying to understand if it had been en expression of British humour and now expecting the punch line: “What did I say again?” he fumbled, trying to gain time.
“you said precisely:” answered Steve, patiently reading his notes “wrong place, wrong people, wrong material, that’s the right strategy. -Is the wording convenient?”
Wrong place, wrong people, wrong material.
Some could indeed not consider it the ideal starting point for a business. Tolerant as we are at Po! Paris, we fully understand any doubts our audience might have had at the time. Explaining the details of our philosophy to experts in development can be a challenge one might want to spare for a more informal setting, but it was too late now. The experts were waiting for an explanation, if not outright denial so we delivered what we could.
In few words we will try to do it again here.
“Why Albania?” I have been often asked, followed by “Where is Albania? I never heard anybody working with Albania…Have you considered India?”
“Vous avez dit d’où?” is the standard question arising when you tell French people about our new projects in Uganda. “Ce n’est pas francophone n’est-ce pas?”
Uganda, Albania, indeed, not the first places one thinks of when sourcing handicraft.
Albania has proved to be an arduous territory for any organisation trying to start development projects with government backing or private donors. The end of authoritarian collectivist regime left the society deeply traumatized with generations struggling to understand the mechanism of free economy. The proximity with Italy and the EU market ended up in more imports than exports and very high emigration rates. A red light for any tiny privately funded company.
Uganda is of course a beautiful land, with extraordinary wildlife -the gorilla amogst others- and is also home to the legendary source of the river Nile; but has sadly risen to international fame for the terrible dictatorship led by Idi Amin Dada Oumee and a civil war in the north of the country, devastated by cruel doings of the Lords Liberation Army, a violent group lead by unscrupulous warlords. Uganda also held Africa’s record of higher HIV infection rates.
There again, a “no way” sign bars the entry for the newborn independent entrepreneur.
So why Uganda? Why Albania?
Why not China or India, two countries offering a wide range of qualified and affordable labour costs, high quality raw materials and, furthermore, are well connected to the global market. Why not France or, as a matter of fact, anywhere else but these two countries?
Those other destinations, argues the well informed business adviser, would be a more reasonable sourcing territory for a small company with great ideas for new designs.
Yet here we are, starting small businesses in Albania acting independently or with the help of local Ngo’s in Uganda.
The answer to that question could be that at Po! Paris we simply don’t know to do it any other way.
And we could even approve of the wording.
The offer for hand made products for interior design is overwhelming in today’s globalized markets, but how much of that offer is really original? How much of that offer do we really need, and is a relatively low price worth the social costs behind some sectors of the manufacturing industry in developing countries?
Last but not least, how inspiring can it be to be sourcing for products and ideas in areas where other people have already been exploring for decades and craft is well trained to respond to you precise demand? Or, even better put, what can happen in such a place if you have no idea of what you want, let alone a precise demand? In the best of cases you would be asked to take a seat while the personnel fetches for a doctor or security.
There is in fact a particular way of doing design at Po! Paris that is upside down.
Unquestionably, if you have a precise idea of what you want, then, once you have it on paper, you go and look for the “best place, the best people and the best price”. Steve P. would have not challenged that strategy. But Po! Paris would not be Po! Paris.
The question we try to answer is not “where and with who do we make this object” but rather “what object can we make in this place and with these people?” – knowing that if you do come up with an answer in the end, the solution has many chances to be a successful design.
On one occasion a producer from India came up to us and said “Sir, we like your chairs, let me do those same chairs for you! We guarantee quality and price!”
“Do you work with car bonnets?”
“Sir, we have very good quality steel in India! Why use car bonnets? If you wish, Sir, we can make them look like car bonnets”
This is the very answer to our question. It makes no sense to make chairs out of car bonnets in India, but it does in Albania, simply because Albania has no real offer in steel, apart from low quality material generally imported from Turkey.
The encounter with two brothers back tho their hometown in Albania after five years of work as smiths in Italy, sparked our desire to make something with them. Their devotion to design and perseverance told us we could come up with new ideas, even though we lacked the main ingredient: the right metal. At the time scrap yards were all along the country’s main roads. When our driver stopped by, looking for a replacement part for his legendary BMW, we could not resist visiting the premises and found it was the perfect place for inspiring discoveries such as car bonnets and motor parts. The scrap yard handed over the missing ingredient and the idea for tributes to design from the Balkans, now sold worldwide.
Women in Albania weave and have been weaving for ages. Very good quality weaving, and till the 1990ies also with lovely cotton yarn. Now, since the end of planned economy cotton yarn is no longer made in Albania and weavers now rely on imports of synthetic yarn generally from China and Turkey.
With competition from Asia, making new textiles in Albania seemed aimless. Till we met an old lady that fell into the habit of using yarn from old clothes to make her colourful cloths. A unique result produced mainly thanks to ingenious research for solutions fueled by lack of local resources.
When we we asked to come up with something in Uganda with group of women victims of the war in the late 90ies, part of a HIV prevention and cure health program, the matter was indeed complicated. They were -and still are- producing necklaces in paper beads. No machines, no visible experience in trade and production for design, but an outstanding quantity and quality of energy, possibly the most important key factor for a start-up development project. Finding the right material and help are just a matter of time. Less than a couple of hours, in fact, when a lady from the far end of the hall raised her hand during a meeting about local materials, and said: “barkcloth!”.
Finding the local solutions to transform a traditional manufactured article in something new, setting up a workshop and training the new entrepreneurs is just a matter of time and energy. But finding a new material was possible because of the lack of obvious solutions, and that is one of the essential ingredients for a new product: the originality of the material and the way it is used.
Of course a small company cannot open new ventures in all parts of the world off the beaten track, especially when there are obvious reasons for those countries to be uncharted territory for trade.
Our adventure in Albania was made possible through our own financial investment and the relative proximity and size of the country. It is a small welcoming land where people are willing to help find solutions, where producers are eager to find new markets. It would certainly not be the same in a larger and more distant country.
Of course in Uganda nothing would have happened without financial and logistical help provided by other organisations. This is particularly true when it come to creating a new company only with victims of warfare and AIDS.
This is where we believe that, on top of making design the wrong way round, in the wrong place, wrong material, we can also choose and alternative business model by asking the actors of the international solidarity organisations to work for Po! Paris, instead of being asked to work for them for their programs.
We believe in fact that the private enterprise can truly help by leading projects and by having the non profit sector help with expertise, networking and, when needed, funding for the producers. The private actor will contribute with his ideas and his market. Together, they can manage a self sustaining program.
In Albania we have financed a local Non Profit Organisation till we managed to assist the foundation of a new Social Business that produces for Po! Paris, amongst others, and now employs up to 19 people.
We are following a similar path in Uganda where we have set up a small business and workshop, employing today 7 people for the first year.
“Yes, definitely, we will keep the wording” said Po! Paris’ representative, and poured himself some more coffee.