Home Human Asia Shui Meng Ng – Paving the Way for Handicraft Artisans in Laos

Shui Meng Ng – Paving the Way for Handicraft Artisans in Laos

Shui Meng Ng is the founder of Saoban Crafts – a fair trade social business that works with traditional handicraft artisans to preserve and promote Lao village crafts, create employment opportunities for villagers – mostly women – and reduce poverty.

Human Asia eagerly spoke to Shui Meng recently.

As the founder, tell us more about the history of how Saoban Crafts started.

Shui: Saoban Crafts started life first as one of my husband’s  (Sombath Somphone) community development projects under his organization called PADETC (Participatory Development Training Center).  PADETC’s focus was to work with local communities to enhance and build their knowledge and skills to improve their lives, such as education, water and sanitation, and also income generation for the households.

Through PADETC’s community development work, we found that there are many skilled artisans, especially women, in rural communities who already produce amazingly beautiful woven products from silk, cotton, hemp, bamboo, etc.  Most of these are made for their own use, with some being sold  in the local market or to traders to earn a little cash income.

PADETC also found that most women in rural communities lack the knowledge and understanding of pricing, quality assurance, and book-keeping.  So, PADETC provided simple business training to women and helped them to organize themselves into small production groups with a leader who supports the groups to improve their craft production.  However, despite such capacity development efforts, many of the producer groups still lack management capacity and access to the markets to sell their products.

In 2005, PADETC started to market some of the artisans’ crafts under the name of Saoban, with the intention of helping the women’s producer groups trained by PADETC to sell their products mostly in the capital Vientiane.

Saoban Crafts is also conceived as a social enterprise, to continue PADETC’s vision and mission to improve the living conditions of the people living in poor rural communities. In operating as a social enterprise Saoban needs to ensure that the entire business operation is socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable.  For this reason, Saoban Crafts operated its business based on fair trade principles.

Moving forward, Saoban Handcrafts will continue to support the preservation and promotion of the rich and diverse Lao handcraft traditions by working with more ethnic groups and introducing and broadening the understanding of Lao handcraft traditions to a wider audience at home and abroad. We also want to continue to raise the quality of Lao handcrafts and to make Saoban Handcrafts a recognizable brand in Asia and beyond.

How has Saoban Crafts been able to differentiate itself from its competitors in the craft sector?

Shui: Saoban Crafts differentiates from its competitors in that it is not just a buyer and seller of crafts. Saoban Crafts business model is to work directly with its artisan groups to develop new designs, colors and motifs to meet the needs of our customer base at home and abroad.

Because we work directly with our artisan groups, we know the provenance of each of our product – which group makes them, what materials, and what colors and dyes are used. Saoban also abides strictly to fair trade principles and it is a member of the Lao Fair Trade Association and the World Fair Trade Organization.

Saoban Crafts also upholds high quality standards and provides customers with a return guarantee if any product does not meet the buyers’ satisfaction.

One of the biggest challenges faced by business in your industry is the mismatch between  the ability to manufacture high quality goods and its relative inability to effectively brand its products. What steps has Saoban Crafts taken to address this gap?

Shui: Saoban Crafts understands the challenge and limitations of the handcraft business.  To address this challenge, Saoban first of all tries its best to work on maintaining and ensuring the quality, integrity, authenticity, and beauty of the craft products.  That is the first step in branding.  Once that is assured, we also work on communicating “the story” of the products – who are the artisans that produce the products; what ethnic traditions do they represent; what kinds of source materials are used; how are the source materials produced; and so on.

So Saoban Crafts makes an effort to communicate such “stories” to our customers through print, videos, and through social media.  Saoban is also aware that the handcraft industry is a niche industry and we are happy to remain small, always remembering that “small is beautiful”.

Please tell us about the fair trade principles adopted by Saoban Crafts and how this benefits the artisans.

Shui: As a member of the Lao Fair Trade Association, and the World Fair Trade Organization, Saoban abides by the 10 Fair Trade Principles.  Top on the list of the fair trade principles is paying a fair price for the products it buys from its artisans – a price which ensures that the artisans are adequately compensated for their labor and costs of the their materials and their social and economic wellbeing.

Saoban also abides by the Lao Labor Law in the payment of salaries and benefits of our staff in Saoban Shop.  In addition, Saoban also ensures that in our supply and production chains there are no exploitative and harmful practices, for example the use of child labor or the use of toxic chemicals that are harmful to the health of the producers or the environment.

And as part of its commitment to improve the lives of the artisans’ families and communities, Saoban also uses a portion of our income to improve the education and health in the producers’ communities.

Fair trade practices benefit the artisans in ensuring they are paid fair remuneration and are supported in improving their craft skills and quality through regular training and capacity development.

Apart from the economic benefits, artisans also gain confidence when they learn that their crafts are valued and appreciated by buyers. More importantly, as most of Saoban’s artisans are women (more than 98%), their improved earnings through the sale of their handcrafts also gain them improved status in the family and community, not to mention better living conditions for the entire household.

How is Saoban Crafts positioned towards cooperation with international partners?

Shui: Saoban Handcrafts is a small business and given its small scale, we have not been approached by any international partners.  However we have seen increased interests from buyers from overseas who source products from us for their own fair trade or crafts businesses.  We now export to some buyers in US, Europe, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

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Shui, can you tell us more about yourself? What did you do before founding Saoban Crafts?

Shui: I worked for UNICEF (United Nation’s Children Fund) until my retirement in 2008.  In my work with UNICEF, I travelled all over Laos and learned a lot about the rich and diverse Lao handcrafts traditions. After I retired, my husband’s organization, PADETC, approached me to help scale up the business of Saoban Crafts and help the women’s artisan groups that they have trained to sell products and develop their small village crafts business in a sustained fashion.

I decided that for the artisans’ to be able to market their products in a large enough scale, Saoban Handcrafts need to be managed and operated differently.  It cannot be managed as part of a “development” activity under PADETC.  It must become a proper business with a clear business and finance plan. So in 2011, I revamped Saoban Crafts and made it into an independent business enterprise and operated it as a separate entity from PADETC, while maintaining the vision and mission as a social enterprise.

Can you tell us more about PADETC and what exactly they are doing?

Shui: PADETC was started by my husband, Sombath Somphone, whose work mainly revolved around community development and community empowerment through training and capacity building of rural Lao people.  As I have my own work and career I was never officially involved with PADETC.

However Sombath and I share the same vision on the development in Laos, believing that for development to be sustainable and meaningful, it must tap into the strengths and potential of the Lao people and their own culture and traditions. Hence, in developing Saoban Crafts, Sombath and I share the same aspirations to support an aspect of development which is rooted in Laos’ rich cultural heritage and artisanal traditions.

What are your day-to-day activities like?

Shui: Saoban Crafts still work closely with our artisan groups across many provinces and districts.  We need to maintain close working relations with the artisans, especially when we develop new products and designs with them.  Most of such work is done by Saoban Crafts’ design and production manager, who must maintain close communication with the artisan groups to ensure that the orders we place are produced according to specifications.

Nowadays, as Director of Saoban Crafts, I am mostly responsible in strategizing and charting Saoban Crafts business directions, exploring new market opportunities, and also developing communication materials related to Saoban Crafts in English.

What are your desires and expectations that have not been achieved to date?

Shui: I believe that Lao handcrafts is at a crossroad.  Without strong government policy and economic support in promoting and encouraging the development and growth of this sector, Lao handcraft traditions would decline and may even eventually disappear, like the handcraft traditions in some other countries.

This is because young Lao  people do not see much value in learning the crafts from their mothers and grandmothers.  They see the work as tedious, and life living and working in the village much less attractive than moving and working in the cities, even though the financial rewards from urban employment may not even match what they can earn from crafts production.

So my greatest wish is that the Lao Government can provide clear and strong support to the crafts sector, and address some of the barriers to expansion of village crafts production. Some of the barriers that the handcraft sector needs to overcome is high transportation costs for exports of Lao handcrafts, and the lack of technical and financial support for investment and expansion of production of the raw materials needed for crafts production, examples silk, cotton, hemp, bamboo, dye materials, etc.

Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?

Shui: For young people who want to become entrepreneurs, they must first find an area of entrepreneurship that they truly have a passion for, and be prepared to work hard for it.  Even if they fail in the beginning, they must take each failure as a lesson and not to give up so easily.  Another tip is to avoid jumping into a business just because it is the latest trend.  Also, they must always know the business environment, do the market research, and stay true to their values and principles.

You can visit Saoban Crafts at http://www.saobancrafts.com/home

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