GENEVA – Colorful felt mobiles depicting owls, dinosaurs and llamas hang in The Little Traveler’s fair trade shop, 404 S. Third St., Geneva, all handcrafted by Nepalese artisans.
Madhav Pandey started his felt goods business with two people in 2011 and now employs over 400 full-time and part-time felters and designers in Kathmandu.
Mobiles and finger puppets come to the store through The Winding Road, a company started by Geneva-based Marla Showfer the same year. She went to Nepal with the intention of bringing handicrafts from developing countries.
“He had just opened a little shop,” Showfer said. “Fate brought us together, somehow.”
She liked what she saw and told her she could sell the items in the United States
Today, it imports over 98% of its handcrafted products from 1,000 stores in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.
Over the past holiday, they sold 68,000 felt finger puppets, she said.
For the uninitiated, fair trade is a label that supports farmers and artisans in developing countries with fair prices, non-discrimination and no use of child labor or forced labor.
Almost all of Pandey’s felt artisans are women and many work from home as they care for young children, he said.
Pandey’s felt company also supports international businesses, as the felt is made from sheep’s wool imported from Australia and New Zealand, and the non-toxic dyes to color them come from Switzerland.
The process of creating a finger puppet takes three days, Pandey said.
It involves mixing water into the wool, rolling it by hand, then drying it for a day in the scorching sun, Showfer said.
“There’s no electricity used, there’s no waste, there’s no chemical waste, it’s all natural without any chemicals,” Showfer said.
Good wages lead to children’s education
Nepal, a landlocked country between China and India, is best known for Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. It is 60% mountainous and most of its economy is supported by mountain hikers attempting to climb Everest, Showfer said.
But creating these little felt products — toys, finger puppets, mobiles — is transforming the lives of workers and their children, she said.
“For a lot of people, a living wage wouldn’t allow them to put money in a bank or save money,” Showfer said. “Now that these women are working, they now have dual income households, they can now send their children to school.”
Pandey said public schools in Nepal lack the basics, so most send their children to private schools and pay for school fees, books and uniforms. The cost would be equivalent to $350 to $400 in US dollars for one year.
Showfer said that the illiteracy rate for women over 50 in Nepal is 80%.
For women under 50 who work for Pandey, he said 60% to 65% cannot read or write.
“Picture walking down the street and not being able to read a traffic sign…or receiving a letter from the government and not being able to read it,” Showfer said.
All of this next generation — the children of women working for Pandey — are 100% in school, Showfer said. Overall, the next generation of children under 18 in Nepal, over 90%, are learning to read and write.
Working and getting paid well also protects vulnerable Nepalese women from human trafficking, Showfer said.
“We are not certified in Nepal as fair trade,” Pandey said. “But in the meantime, we (do) much more than fair trade.”
Pandey said if a woman can only work in the late afternoon with a baby at home, he adapts.
“We call it fair trade. Fair Wages,” Pandey. “We pay them for the transport – there and back – the bus ride. And lunch… in the afternoon. And health things if they are sick.
For Pandey, getting paid on time is key.
“‘I work for you ma’am, please give me the money,'” Pandey said. “In advance, she (Showfer) pays me, immediately, I pay them. ‘It’s your money, not my money.’… Asking for money is no fun.
Pandey also pays bonuses to all its employees during the Deepawali festival, or Diwali, so that they can visit their villages for a month.
lives have changed
As much as their work has transformed lives in Nepal, the lives of Pandey and Showfer have also been changed by their association.
Pandey was from a small village of just 68 families in Nuwakot. A college graduate, he was 21 when he started his own business in Kathmandu and met Showfer.
Showfer had just started his business, The Winding Road, at age 50. She holds a master’s degree in advertising and integrated marketing communications.
No matter what new idea she threw at him, Pandey would take it up. For example, she wanted soft images of different breeds of dogs – but they don’t exist in Nepal. She showed him photos of popular breeds so his designers could create them.
“He’s very adaptable and super smart,” Showfer said.
It took Pandey a year to obtain a visa to travel to the United States, requiring an interview at the United States Embassy and for Showfer to sponsor him. He’s staying with her through January, as she takes him to gift shows to see the merchandise trends in person.
The next step for him is to complete a new earthquake-proof building in Kathmandu for his workers – a far cry from where he started with a dirt floor.
“There are so many poor people in Kathmandu,” Pandey said. “Job creation is the most important thing. That’s what we’re trying to do.
For more information about the Showfer Company or how to help Pandey workers, visit www.shopthewindingroad.com.