Feb 13, 2012

Published by WFTO in early January 2012

Mary & Martha Mongolia
04 January 2012
(We're welcoming 2012 with inspiring stories from our members who shared to us their experiences building Fair Trade in a challenging environment. -WFTO Team)

Mongolia has a low population but geographically is vast.  It can take up to 5 days and nights to drive across the open steppe from East to West.  While Mongolia has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, based on huge mining resources, this is giving only short term employment.  More and more goods are available but prices are getting higher and higher. Cap that with high unemployment rates and we see a country moving to a two-track system of wealth, with most families struggling to survive.
The Mary and Martha story starts in about 2006.  Having headed up an NGO in Mongolia (www.jcsintl.org) for several years we realized two things;
  1. NGOs were doing a great job of developing hand craft skills in people who most needed employment and a living wage.
  2. Most of these people, after an initial flourish of orders from foreigners linked to the projects, found themselves with the same products their trainers had taught thousands to make and no markets.
Our model was to set up a “Social Enterprise” company that would follow Fair Trade Principles, to be a bridge for artisans to sell products and to develop their businesses.  The bridge would be via a local shop run by Mary & Martha and via exports, preferably through but not limited to Fair Trade shops around the world. 
jan-mm-mongolia.gifWe wanted to develop a shop that people would seek out on their travels - staffed by locals (with a heart for those in or near to poverty) speaking English to support our customers; to have intimate knowledge about the products, the artisans and the country in general.
We went with the company route so that we would not be reliant on donor funds. We and our artisans would need to survive in the tough market place based on the quality of our products, NOT on sales through customer sympathy for those in poverty.
Mary & Martha was started in April 2007, working from our apartment with 4 artisans producing felt slippers, hand-knits, fridge magnets and a some embroidery. For the first nine months, people shopped by invitation only and we worked hard with artisans on how to produce quality products on time. We then rented a small area in a local supermarket as a ‘window’ for about nine months, and finally, we had a BREAKTHROUGH moment when we were offered a sub-basement in the centre of the capital (Ulaanbaatar). This was summer 2009.  No windows, no front door, and a fight for signage outside, we rely on our landlord opening their shop so customers can get to us.
But M+M is really about the Artisans. We offer several services to our Artisans:
  • M+M gives artisans advances up to 50% of Order Value
  • Interest-free Loans are given to help investment in raw materials and equipment
  • One-on-one Business Training is offered by the M+M owners
  • Expertise is offered in relation to Quality Assurance and Production Issues
  • Product Design and Modification to Add Value is offered
Having been in business for 3 years we started the application process to join WFTO in early 2010.  This was the next stage of the dream we had in the beginning. To be recognized as following Fair Trade principles. It was a great process for us to walk through – a walk through all the 10 Fair Trade principles to determine if we were indeed on the right track. Our Artisans are all independent, and they are not required to sell solely to Mary & Martha. We believe they need this freedom to develop their own new markets and to sell through outlets other than ours. We aim to support, not to control.
 The independent artisans of M&M Mongolia
                                                                Photo: M&M
However, acting as a bridge and gaining WFTO membership based on our independent Artisans was a challenge.  We work through relationship, trust, dialogue and close friendship knowing and being a part of the lives of our Artisans.  This takes time.  Understanding the Principles and how they play out in reality for us and the Artisans takes time.  In January 2011, we were delighted to receive our WFTO Certificate and while increases in Exports have been very low, we believe the membership has attracted a lot more discerning shoppers to our UB shop – sales are up about 45% in country. WFTO Membership was our SECOND BREAKTHROUGH. 
The key is that knowing our Artisans receive a Fair Price for their products (and we don’t ask for volume discounts), when our business goes up so does theirs.  Indeed, Artisans who have partnered with M+M since 2007 have seen their businesses grow at least 10 fold.
From day one, we have worked very closely with the local tax, and health and social welfare authorities. They are starting to understand our model and to appreciate the concept of a Fair Trade Social Enterprise Company.  We are ethical and transparent, and that is gaining recognition as we are asked advice on how the underlying tax systems and laws could be changed to increase small businesses in Mongolia. 
We are now working with about 25 cooperatives, companies or individuals, and we believe more than 140 people have part or full time employment making products for M+M alone.  The Mary & Martha Story is only just getting started!
To learn more about M+M visit website www.mmmongolia.com and blog http://maryandmarthamongolia.blogspot.com/
(Bill Manley, Mary & Martha Mongolia)