Sunday, June 24, 2012

a sibilant percussion

She loved the air after a hard rain, and the way a forest of dripping leaves fills itself with a sibilant percussion that empties your head of words.
Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One wild and precious life

A Summer Solstice Poem: The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Creating opportunities

In 2007, I was working for Global Youth Partnership for Africa, a non-profit that organized youth programs on conflict resolution in Northern Uganda. We were based in Gulu for a week, meeting with young people, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government officials, and Ugandan citizens - to try to understand the roots of conflict, and how the region might realize a sustainable peace. During our breaks, I would walk with students through the central market, admiring the beautiful fabrics and the quiet whir of the foot-pedal sewing machines. Stall after stall was filled with tailors - a by-product of NGO vocational trainings. Tailoring is a very popular skill set meant to economically empower women in places like Northern Uganda.

Gulu's central market, filled with NGO-trained tailors

There was a problem here. While the market was filled with tailors, few of them were able to earn a livelihood - most of them could barely cover rent on their market stalls. Their best hope was to clothe the aid workers (like us) who spent lazy weekend afternoons in Gulu shopping the market and having dresses made.

The first principle of Fair Trade is about market connection:

Creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers.

The Fair Trade Federation, the membership body in North America promoting fair trade products, defines this principle further:

Fair Trade is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Members create social and economic opportunities through trading partnerships with marginalized producers. Members place the interests of producers and their communities as the primary concern of their enterprise.

Auma Lucy in her market stall in Gulu

Auma Lucy was a good tailor. She had a bare stall with a sewing machine, and was trying to grow her business amongst the competition in the market. She was charismatic, and compared with most women in Northern Uganda, her English was fantastic. She took every opportunity to bring in young women who were suffering - single mothers, young women she feared might "get into trouble" - she saw herself in these women, sitting at home with nothing to occupy their time, never finishing their schooling for lack of school fee money, getting pregnant too young - or worse, contracting HIV.

the tool to change lives

On her own, Lucy struggled to make ends meet. She didn't have funds to pay rent on her market stall. She had thirteen children at home (eleven orphans) and her elderly parents to worry about. With a market connection to customers in the United States, she could really make an impact (and much-needed profit).

All women in Northern Uganda bear a heavy burden. During the conflict, they lost their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers, and are often victims themselves - forced to fight as soldiers, serve as soldiers' wives, raped and stigmatized by their own communities. Regardless of their past circumstances, any woman will tell you that when it comes time to put food on the table and send their kids to school, she will do whatever she must to pull it together and make ends meet.

The sheer quantity of trained tailors in Uganda was a curse for the local market, where customers were few. A connection to the United States market turned that curse into an opportunity - an opportunity for poor women in a region destroyed by more than twenty years of armed conflict to earn a living and create change in their lives.

This post is part of a series about Fair Trade Federation's Nine Fair Trade Principles. The series was inspired by Using Fair Trade Principles to Empower Women in Uganda, a talk given at the Library of Congress by One Mango Tree's founder in November 2010. You can watch the video here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Using Fair Trade principles to empower women in Uganda

Last November, I had the incredible opportunity to give a talk about One Mango Tree at the Library of Congress. Since Fair Trade Month had just concluded, I decided to focus the talk on the principles of Fair Trade, and how One Mango Tree uses those principles to create sustainable income for women in Uganda.

The video is a long one, but it's the equivalent to meeting for a cup of coffee to learn about how and why One Mango Tree got started. My presentation begins at 8:25. I hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adventures in sourcing: horn & leather

Sourcing locally is a big deal for us in Uganda. I certainly appreciate the meaning of value-add - particularly in a country where so many resources are exported raw (coffee, tobacco, tea, cotton, to name a few). Our organic apparel line at One Mango Tree boasts "seed-to-sewn," but it's at a high cost. There is only one factory transforming Uganda's organic cotton crop into knit. High school economics taught me that only one company equals a monopoly, and we're learning - the hard way - all about the impacts on pricing. Pricing issues aside, the factory doesn't have the flexibility to mix in Lycra, or to produce heathered textures. We do what we can with what we have.

factory visit with our print manufacturer, july 2010

Another reason we try to keep supply chains in Uganda is because of logistics. Uganda is land-locked, so for us, the only way to import findings (zippers, buttons, rings, etc.) is using costly air freight to bring them in. We buy zips for our bags in the local markets, but the trusty YKK brand is not available in Uganda. We often have to sacrifice quality by buying in the local market.

adding a local market zipper to a coin purse in production

As we work on design improvements on our products, naturally the conversation falls to trims - small additions we can make to the bags that add a lot of value. Horn and leather are two items in Uganda that have a lot of market potential, so Gihan and I went on a little adventure to find both.


The horn guy wasn't too difficult to find - after all there's only one of him. All of the horn bowls, napkin rings, bracelets and rings in the local markets are made by one company. On a gray, rainy afternoon we drove out to visit Charles at his workshop. We pulled in to a water-logged field, the mud sucking our shoes as we stepped out of the Pajero. Charles invited us into his office, which was in a wooden building that had been lifted up onto cinder block stilts. I expected to see the striped stockings of the Wicked Witch of the West peeking out from the foundation. We walked down a creaking, tilted hallway and into the main office, where Charles explained the set up.

"You see, the government came in and improved the roundabout here," he gestured towards the road outside.

"Most people are happy about that. But I own this land, and when they build the new road, they elevated it. Now all the runoff comes right into my lands. Every time it rains, even a little, our workshops flood and people cannot work."

We weren't able to see the workshop that day, and learned that flooding is seriously hurting the business. Weather isn't his only problem. When we asked about high prices, Charles explained that the Chinese are coming in and buying up all the horn.

"I have a relationship with the butchers here. I've been working with them for many, many years," he explained.

"I used to go to trade shows in China to sell our horn products. Now the Chinese come and buy the horn straight from the butchers - by the CONTAINER! - and take it back to China to process it themselves. And," he paused, widening his eyes, "do you know that they are undercutting my prices?! They have increased the cost of horn for me here in Uganda, and they can still make the products cheaper than I can."

Gihan and I exchanged glances. This was becoming a familiar problem. Uganda's companies all seemed to be capital poor. While natural resources were abundant, they often found that they couldn't match the prices paid by foreign buyers. As a result, raw goods flew right out of the country before Ugandan companies could add value. We faced this all the time with Phenix, our organic cotton knit producer. With a worldwide cotton shortage, the Chinese, South Koreans and others had come in to Uganda and bought up all the raw organic cotton. Instead of buying knit from Phenix, they were taking it back and processing it themselves - and then selling the final knit version cheaper than the Ugandans could. We were left with the little Phenix could produce, which came with a very high price tag to make up for these losses.

We left Charles with some sample pieces for some horn jewelry we wanted to try, and picked our way through the marshy property back to the car.


Cows are a big deal in Uganda, so you might think leather goods would be a home run. Or that we could at least find some leather goods in Uganda. Or maybe just Ugandan leather. Our leads led us to a residential area off Ggaba Road, where we found what turned out to be a mid-size shoe factory. The scale of production was impressive - someone had clearly invested a lot of money into this project, judging by the heavy machinery that was being used to make work boots, sandals and all sorts of shoes for the local market. A friend suggested that they might sell us some leather to use for bag trims.

In the marketing office, the staff pulled out rolls and rolls of soft leather dyed in pastel colors. We marveled at the flexibility - it would work very well as piping and trim on bags. Gihan asked about the origins of the leather.

"Oh, this one? It is goat. From the UK. Very good quality. How much you want to buy?"

In a country FULL of cows and butcher shops, they were trying to sell us pastel British goat leather. The only Ugandan leather they had was extremely thick black leather used for uppers on work boots. Finally Joseph, our contact and the Director, came in from an outside meeting. After a brief conversation about our needs, he sent us off to a company called Fishnet, and we assured him that we'd be back if we ever got into the business of shoe-making.

Continuing on our journey, we headed back across the city into industrial area, to a compound not five minutes from our own apparel workshop. I'd heard that Fishnet sold leather, but Gihan was insistent that they only sold nets for catching fish. I enjoyed giving him a hard time about the huge detour we made with the shoe factory visit, when the leather place was our neighbor.

We walked into the main building, the facade tiled with undersea scenes. The reception area was empty. Gihan peered over the counter and waved me over excitedly. It was 330 in the afternoon, and the receptionist was sleeping. Not at her desk, but on an actual mattress next to her desk. She had a pillow and blanket, and was clearly sound asleep. We had to suppress our giggles as we walked down the hallway to find someone conscious to help us out.

I found a woman in the first doorway, labeled "Marketing Department," and walked into her office. I asked if we could find the person in charge of selling leather samples. She rolled her eyes dramatically and gestured to a chair outside her office. There was a one foot by one foot hole cut into the wall adjacent to her desk, with a chair sitting next to it. Apparently the protocol was that information could only be shared through the "window." Once I was in the chair, she perked up -

"Yes, hello. Welcome to Fishnet. How can I help you?" as if I hadn't met her just a second before.

I played along "Yes, thank you so much. We are looking for the person here who sells leather." Gihan stood in the hallway suppressing his laughter at me talking through this literal hole-in-the-wall.

After much back and forth, we found ourselves in a small room lined with shelves - shelves stacked high with high-quality, Ugandan leather. We bought a hide and drove the few minutes back to our workshop, content to add two more materials to our list of Ugandan-sourced supplies:

Organic cotton knit
Woven cotton prints
Banana leaf
Horn (could be made into buttons, toggles, loops/rings, etc.)
Leather (could be made into straps, trims, or whole bags)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

More than good intentions

Suppose you are walking down a street by a lake on your way to a meeting, and if you miss the meeting you will lose two hundred dollars. You see a child drowning in the lake. Do you have an ethical obligation to stop and jump in and save the child, even though it will cost you two hundred dollars? Most people say yes.

Don't you then also have an ethical obligation to send two hundred dollars right now to one of many organizations delivering aid to the poor, where it can save a child's life? Most people say no, or at least, they don't cut that check.

Linkchildren in an IDP camp in Northern Uganda, 2007

This example comes from Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher at Princeton. Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel use the hypothetical scenario to introduce the central dilemma of their new book, More than Good Intentions. The idea makes most of us uncomfortable - sending a check off to an organization requires a great deal of trust - how do we know that the organization is actually going to save the child? There's a big leap between the personal rescue and the checkbook.

When I first traveled to Uganda in 2006, I had the vague notion that I wanted to work in international development. I arrived in Gulu for the first time and my jaw dropped at the roundabouts lined with signs for NGOs - psychosocial support, HIV/AIDS work, conflict resolution, infrastructure, agricultural programs, demobilization, reintegration of child soldiers - the list goes on. I was moved by what I saw. I was appalled by the poverty, the conditions at IDP camps, the blank gaze of an 11-year-old boy who had just escaped captivity. I was deeply saddened, and felt a strong sense of responsibility (like the "walking-by-the-child-drowning-in-the-lake" example).

walking by the lake, sanyu babies home, kampala 2006

The super-saturation of NGOs and donors seemed positive. Everyone was passionate about helping Northern Uganda, and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were pouring from the US, Europeans, and other donors. It was like a giant do-gooder party.

When I actually started working in Northern Uganda, I quickly became one of the cynics. Once a champion of Jeffrey Sachs, I started to think along the lines of Dambisa Moyo - who in Dead Aid posits that aid is actually making things worse. There are very clear reasons why I started One Mango Tree as a business. It created jobs and income for people in Northern Uganda. There's nothing muddy about that, and the impacts are obvious. I wasn't as interested in the trial-and-error (and keep funding even if it fails) approach that development seemed to take.

Randomized Control Trials: Asking the Right Question

In More than Good Intentions, Karlan and Appel take a step back from the aid debate and suggest that measurement is the only clear way forward. Serious testing and analysis can tell us what works and what doesn't, and if we put efforts only into what works (and abandon what doesn't), then aid really should make a difference, right? They dive right into this possibility, using randomized control trials (RCTs) to answer some big questions:

Why would a perfect loan candidate choose not to take a loan?
When you loan someone money for something specific (and urgent!), why do they buy a TV?
Why don't people use bed nets? Will they use them if they're free?
Why won't people pay for chlorine tablets for clean drinking water?
Why do people go to herbalists and avoid hospitals?

The answers are behavioral, and Karlan and Appel argue that most development programs operate on classical economic assumptions - leaving very important behavioral factors out of the equation. RCTs provide answers to the questions of why people do what they do. By surveying both individuals receiving the program and a control group who does not, researchers can get to the bottom of what works. Simple before-after analysis is not enough.

The Takeaways

The implications of Karlan and Appel's work are clear - support research to back up effectiveness of aid programs. If you're going to spend aid money, then spend money on a system to monitor its effectiveness - and do it right (I supposed this is where the ever-present M&E comes in). And if it ain't workin, then STOP funding it.

One Mango Tree's Village Savings & Loan Association

For a business venture, One Mango Tree does a lot of research. We collected baseline surveys for all of our staff, and re-visit the data each year. We collect cost information to re-assess our wages annually - can our staff still support their households on their One Mango Tree earnings? More than Good Intentions made me wonder if we could do more.
  • We could survey tailors in the local marketplace as a control group to see how our staff are faring compared to tailors in the market
  • We've come across problems where women stop coming to work once they earn about $100 in any period - RCT could help us get to the bottom of this
  • We could apply the research on savings - working within the One Mango Tree VSLA structure to help women set goals and restrict them from withdrawals until they reach the goal amount
Cutting a $200 check to save a child isn't enough. If we're to take poverty and development seriously, then we need rigorous testing to find out what works pump funding to those areas. A few listed by Karlan and Appel:
  • Microsavings (over microcredit)
  • Reminders to save - to combat messaging to buy
  • Prepaid fertilizer sales
  • Deworming
  • Chlorine dispensers for clean water
  • Remedial education in small groups
  • Commitment devices

Summer 2011 Lookbook

I've been wanting to make a One Mango Tree Lookbook for ages. Every time I see a new Anthropologie catalog (my mom always sends me the ones that show up at home), or some cool indie designer who put together a video with a neat little song, my creative itch starts up. I get all sorts of ideas in my brain, but then sit in front of the computer wondering where to start - or rather, how to get the ideas from my head onto the computer screen.

anthropologie lures us to exotic lands with their gorgeous lookbooks

In January I bought myself an SLR camera. I don't really know how to use it. I have an HD video camera, but no editing software. Last weekend I put Adobe Photoshop on my netbook, and then, after it crashed about 15 times, I finally accepted that netbooks are for the INTERNET, not for ginormous design programs.

What I do have, however, is Lauranne Boyd, PowerPoint, and Lauranne's already a brilliant photographer, so I took the photos from the shoot she did for Summer 2011 and put them together on PowerPoint. Amy directed me to dafont (awesome), so I added some fun font descriptions and PDF'd the whole thing (using Primo PDF, free download).

Voila! A bootstrapped Lookbook.

I mean, hey. OMT started with $500 and a suitcase of products. The website is still Yahoo! Sitebuilder (free) and the blog is still blogger (free). The shopping cart is still PayPal (though I finally figured out how to get rid of those fugly yellow buttons). I use Excel to do accounting in Uganda (at least our US office is upgraded to Quickbooks), and I "edit" my own photos using Picasa (free).

I will learn Photoshop, and Illustrator, and InDesign. I will learn how to use my SLR on manual. I will learn about lighting and photographing models, and how to take video footage and make it into gorgeous little riffs that make you want to live in OMT products.

But in the meantime, I've got a business to run.

FYI - I wrote this entire post with the repeat of the song in this little DACE video streaming in the background. A girl can dream.

Spring 2011 from Dace on Vimeo.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Carry me home

I started out this life with Catholic influences. St. John Neumann church, with its brick interior shaped like an inverted boat. I remember the puzzling blue toilet water in Father LaRocca's residence. At some point in time, I wore a frilly little dress and had some holy water splashed on me. Nevertheless, Sunday School didn't stick. I never quite became a Catholic, but I developed an affinity for the religious kitsch - especially prayer cards and paintings of saints.

in my journal: a little baptized me.

In high school, I made a little beaded necklace with a Saint Christopher pendant, a gift from my high school boyfriend's mom when I started {recklessly} driving my purple Chevy Camaro with T-tops. I hung St. Chris on my rearview mirror to ward off speeding tickets. In college, when I was studying Spanish at Fundacion Ortega y Gasset in Toledo, Spain, I marveled at the colossal painting of him crossing a river with little Jesucristo on his shoulders, faded and peeling on the cathedral's wall.

I was in Mexico last December during Puerto Vallarta's Virgen de Guadalupe celebrations, with parade floats of little girls donning virgin blue capes. I marveled at the feathered Aztec dancers approaching the cathedral with drums, hoots and yells, and stuffed my face with sugary donuts from street vendors. Across the street in the obligatory Cathedral Shop, I stocked up on prayer cards - of course St. Chris was in the mix - a nod to my secret protector.

I've spent the last 2.5 years as if I had a terminal illness, racing around the planet collecting memories and stories as quickly as I could, always anxious that I'd be missing an opportunity if I just stayed home. I've been terrified to waste time on the mundane details of everyday life. This most recent trip - a combination of a consultancy (setting up a USAID/OTI project on democracy and governance in Kenya) and product development (checking in on One Mango Tree and working on designs and supply chain issues) - lasted 2.5 months. Over the course of those months, the messages in my journal changed, from "Let go of knowing" to

Carry me home.

All I can think about is growing herbs and vegetables, cooking wonderful meals, and lavishing in routine. Building a nest and tucking in.

a list of ways to stay put.

creating a space to work from home.

books. bed. sit quietly, do nothing.

From The Alchemist:

"...before they left, he came back to the boy and said 'You're not going to die. You'll live, and you'll learn that a man shouldn't be so stupid. Two years ago, right here on this spot, I had a recurrent dream too. I dreamed that I should travel to the fields of Spain and looked for a ruined church where shepherds and their sheep slept. In my dream, there was a sycamore growing out of the ruins of the sacristy, I would find a hidden treasure. But I'm not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.'

And they disappeared.

The boy stood up shakily, and looked once more at the Pyramids. They seemed to laugh at him, and he laughed back, his heart bursting with joy.

Because now he knew where his treasure was."