Friday, August 31, 2012

Swamp Work

Last week I was telling you about the Bol Bam, the bare foot pilgrimage from the banks of the Ganges in India... And other madness. You can read it here.
Right now I'm back in the UK, briefly. They are swamped with work. So much new stock and cracking offers (see below) things are really buzzing.. talking about swamps. Continuing my tale of my trip to Kolkata.
Afterwards a couple of days at the jute bag factory doing product development and some creative brainstorming, I asked my host if it would be possible to go and see an actual jute farm. Maybe meet a farmer, especially since this time of year is a harvest period. Our jute craft supplier (check out our ultraeco-friendly jute bags, baskets and stuff) was more enthusiastic than I expected. Turns out that his factory managers, had never met a jute farmer either. So we end up with hunting party, off to the jute farming area.
Skip to the deals below if I’m boring you, but the history of jute (to me at least is fascinating). Originally woven jute was used for sacks and the backing for carpets. It was made in (dark satanic) mills in and around Dundee in Scotland, the raw jute shipped from colonial India. Scottish industrialists developed the trade, then one day some guy had the bright idea of shipping British weaving machines to India.. And in the usual pattern the industrial production was shipped to a cheaper cost base. The Indian mills were (and still are) magnificent and huge, perhaps the first mega factories. I have been round one and seen equipment made in Birmingham in 1820 still in daily use.
At independence (65 years ago) the mills were taken over by Indian interests and formed the basis of the biggest dynastic Indian companies of today. They were serious big business, and the money flowed in the Ganges basin. Then in the seventies synthetic backing for carpets was found, and non-woven sacks replaced jute. The industry and the whole area went into serious decline.
The jute farmers are also rice farmers, alternating crops. It’s a hard life, but there is no doubt that jute is a more lucrative crop. Recent years have seen the condemning of the plastic bag, and the green movement. Jute bags not only replace plastic and can be used over again, but jute crops assimilate vast amounts of carbon, more per acre than rain forest. So jute is a green win-win. Add to this craft and gift uses and you have a real possibility of growth in this impoverished area.
An hours drive into the farming area and we started to spot the 100kg jute bicycles. The raw jute trader only buy 100kg lots, and the farmer generally loads his bike and takes it to the local trader, who, when he has a truck load takes it to the mill.
We found this guy pulling out on to the road and asked him if we could interview him. He told us he would get 2500 rupees, about £28 for his bike load. Which in here in India is good money, where menial work pays £2 a day. Would he show us his farm - he was on the way to the market, but another guy came over and said he would be happy to show us.
I knew that the jute stalks have to soak in ponds for twenty days or so to make the fibres swell, but I hadn't realised that the golden jute fibre is stripped from the sticks actually in the water. We asked our man if he could show us how it was done, he was delighted to show us, and without more ado stripped naked, changed to some other swamp-ware, slipped into the pond and started work. Here is my film.
This little guy was the farmers friend. Lovely chap he shook my hand and told me that he had seen one western guy like me, just once before. My goodness I thought a what connected / disconnected world we live in. Pick up that jute bag in your shop, feel the fibre and think what a different world it came from. When you sell that bag to your customer you are an essential part of the chain that brings much needed prosperity to very poor part of the world.
So when you stock and sell jute products.. Now you have a tale to tell your customers.
That’s why I love this business. Your comments please.
Take Care
First Order Bonus
For limited period you will receive First Order Bonus worth £200 of stock at retail value. You are entitled to claim it on your first order with us when you spend over £100 + vat. Just quote BONUS 200 in the shopping cart message box.
BACK TO SCHOOL!! New teachers, new friends, new shoes, new notebooks... well we think this is the perfect time to get New School BagsLaptop BagsCrazy Pens or Fashion Canvas Sling Bags.
Visit our BagsBags Department to choose from many great offers.
Valid until Monday 10th September 2012.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bol Bam & other Madness

Last week I was telling you about my trip over the Hump and arrival in Kolkata, India. You can read it here.
After arriving and recovering from the overnight flight at a good hotel near the airport, our supplier picked me up and we drove out of Kolkata over the Hooghly bridge and onto the old GT highway along the banks of the Ganges river. This year the monsoon has failed to come and everything is sticky and hot, the river is like chocolate, flowing languidly odd lumps here and there breaking the surface. I'm here to buy jute, a new range from a new supplier and his office and factory is in a town really at the back of beyond.
Today it turns out is Independence day. Shrines of Indian flags have sprung up, cars are sporting pendants, TV's are all switched to the big-wigs big speeches. 65 years on, and India has changed, boy has it changed. Except that is.. in this sleepy backwater I have found myself in. As far as I can see nothing has changed.
Yards from the river, tiny lanes, shops in holes in the wall, draped wires, stand pumps where people wash, wandering cows and runaway chickens. Nothing is new, a stone carving over an arch tells me it was built in 1952. The place has a feeling of madness about it. On the way here we'd passed several naked holy men and a old lady made up like a tart and topless. "Mad", confirmed my contact sagely each time.
I'm taken to a first floor office, where I'm left alone while my man goes to find his business partner. Outside I can hear Hare-krishna type chanting and tambourines. I open a low balcony door to see what is happening, and find myself looking down on a dead body held aloft on a stretcher by four bearers, a small retinue of musicians follow. The blackened head of a young girl lolls back and forth almost at my feet. I close the door recoiling in horror. Later we walk down the lane to the crematorium. Relatives sit in circle chatting while the body is burned on a pyre. After the ashes will be scattered in the Ganges beyond. Death is the main industry, thanks to the sacred river in town.
I have spent three days here, developing some new products and got to know some of the people. They are dignified and intelligent, thoughtful and kind. And to a man, eccentric as they come. The place is poor but without the squalor you often see in India. No beggars, no-one asked me for money and folks only showed me kindness. I took heaps of pictures to try and capture a feel for the place..
Here are some.
Apart from Independence it was some special festival called Bol Bam, I was taken to see. At this special place on the banks of the river people come to do the Bol Bam. This involves swimming in the river, filling two plastic pots with sacred water, and then walking 35 kilometres bare foot, with the pots hanging on a pole across your shoulders in the stinking heat to a particular shrine where you pour the water over Shiva. Hundreds of people do it every year. Madness I pointed out to my man. Surely the gods would rather you did some good for a fellow human than this. He told me when he was young he'd done it, and it took him three weeks to recover his health. But I pondered maybe superstitions run high, when life offers little else.
The communist party ran the place in to the ground for many years - that's my assessment anyway. Recently voted out of power, maybe things will change. I hope it does, maybe our business will help in some small way. But you have a feeling that when it does an old way of life will have been lost.
More news next week.
Take care and enjoy this Bank Holiday weekend
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Friday, August 17, 2012

The Hump

Hi ,
Last week I was telling you about the Albesia wood village in Indonesia.
This week I'm in India. I needed to get to Kolkatta from Yiwu in China, that's tricky there are no direct flights, so I ended flying to the northern city of Kunming and changing planes to fly to Kolkata. Kunming is in the middle of nowhere, but has a beautiful modern airport and did a pretty good sales pitch on me as a place to visit properly one day. Misty lakes high in rocky mountains, something called ice wine, and a culture of intricate dress and dance almost Thai like. A Shangri-La of a city.
On the plane, half Chinese business people and half boisterous excited (to go home) Bengali guys. In mid air, bouncing over some clouds - it hit me. Of course... I was flying the HUMP. I'd read about it lots. The most dangerous scheduled air route in the world. Calcutta to Kunming and back. In 1942 as the Japanese had an almost complete China blockade in place it was the only way to bring essential supplies to China. The British and Americans built an air bridge over the Himalayas and across Burma, which was a hairy jump made worse violent winds, blinding snow and Japanese fighter planes coming at you. Hundreds of people died, why we did it, and what good it did, is all but forgotten, but it was a mammoth operation for it's day. The Hump.
Today we land at Kolkata international terminal in the middle of the night. It's hot and sticky and a battered hump-era bus, smelling of curry is waiting in the gloom to take us to the terminal. The culture shock for the Chinese is complete, they are taking pictures of the broken windows and threadbare plush red seats. The terminal is a delight, practically colonial, faded and smelling of corruption complete with a magnificent painting of Bengali tigers prowling for the kill. Beneath it old school Bengali immigration staff, khaki uniforms, fat bellies and eyes prowling for the backhander. Almost all the Indian airports have smartened up, even the Kolkatta domestic airport is first class but this is the business. Real India!
We line up for passport control, there are no signs in Chinese and even the English signs are confusing. NRI here, SAAC here. Of course the Chinese all get in the wrong lines, which hugely amusing for the young Indian guys. There are immigration forms to fill. In China it's a tiny slip of paper, here it is long form. It must be filled in English, and to satisfy these rheumy eyed old timers on the desks - it must be tip-top and correctly filled in. The Chinese who are pretty slap-dash at form filling have filled things in on a random basis. They keep getting sent back to the end of the queue with new forms. It becomes clear to me that non of the officials speak Chinese, not a word. And most of the Chinese left in the hall have very little English.
So there I am my awful Chinese being stretched to the limit as I try to help all these Chinese fill the forms to a satisfactory level. Even I get ticked off for not filling the full address of my hotel, what chance have they got. The weary official stamping my forms, sighs and rolls his eyes, "they come here with no English" and then, "help this guy here, would you". After half an hour - I too am filling the guys forms for them... randomly. Chatting in Chinese the best I can and putting any old date in. Translating for the official.. "He says he's here for two weeks" - (when he told me he didn't know how long). I'm damned if the old boys are getting any bribes tonight.
Finally I'm though and at 3am spill out into the warm night air. The good thing about India is little luxuries come cheap. As everyone else is scrambling for dilapidated ambassador taxies, I'm met by a smart guy in a grey suit and peaked cap, a sign with my name and a waiting limo to whisk me to the hotel. "Pleasant flight sir?" asks the chauffeur. Interesting I tell him.
More news next week.
Take care
PS: If you have never ordered before this is the perfect time for you. We have a Special Gold Reward Amnesty Week read below.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dancing in the Dark and other Happy Cats

Greetings from China.. where the temperature is really racking up into the mid forties. In the day it is getting too hot to work and it's not unusual to see people asleep in any shade they can find.
The late the other night I took a short cut across a local park and was amazed to find it packed, about five hundred elderly ladies were doing formation disco dancing almost in the dark, families were playing badminton by torch light. In the gloom I could make out all sorts of activities, painting clubs for kids, tia chi by moonlight. Most bizarre to my eyes, but when you consider the asian fear of sunlight and the shear heat of the day, only at night can you go out to play.

Meanwhile back in England the temperature in AW offices and warehouse is also rising, but is less to do with the weather as the volume of stock starting to roll in ahead of the forth coming (dare I mention) Christmas season. On a recent container from China we shipped some of those Money Cats. You will have seen them in Chinese restaurants, they wave at you.. and according to Chinese feng shui they attract money. Since so many businesses employee the waving cats maybe there is something in it.. It's a big business in this town several large factories do nothing but make these cats. I was there selecting which models to buy and I noticed that one of the cats had a big smile on it's face. Why is that one with his eyes closed smiling? I asked the boss. "Ha.." he said, "That one is not a money cat, no good to make you rich.. this one make you happy".  You see you need to keep your eyes open to spot the money, but you can always close your eyes and be happy.
Can you see the smiling one?

I'm thinking of having the happy cat in our reception.. maybe it will bring more happy customers.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

About Albesia and a dodgy deal...

I just want to thank everyone who is supporting the Kiva microbank initiative I mentioned in last weeks newsletter. Absolutely brilliant. You know only half the world has access to finance, the very poor in the developing world are just too small fry for regular bankers to bother with. Via Kiva you can be a small scale bank, you won't make any money but you will help real people.
People like the tipsy family I mentioned last week (also thanks for ordering their mosaic bowls).
More Indonesia stock is arriving on-line by the day, (and there is another container due).

We just uploaded these really cool gold painted Albesia wood Buddahs, which reminded me of the trip to the candlestick village, where these are made.
Ringo (our man in Indonesia) had heard that a village head man had secured an order for one design of candlestick to a very big French company. He then shared the work thought the village, bringing a mini wave of prosperity with it. We went to see him.
In a low long workshop, below the water-level of the village damn we found him turning albesia wood on a lathe. Next to him a pile of freshly turned candlesticks. Sunlight streamed in though a back window, and looking out I could see dragonflies skimming the palm fringed water at eye level mist shrouded mountains behind. Damn! they so often have spectacular views to work with.
He turned out to be a jolly chap, somewhat of a local hero.
Ringo knows everything, a regular insiders guide to handicrafts in Indonesia.
In the hills all the farmers and craft workers grow a few albesia trees where they can, but they cannot be cut by law until the trunk reaches 50cm, this ensures a sustainable supply. So a lot of wood is brought from Java where they have large commercial farms. They grow quickly, to maturity in about four years. If a handicraft producer can use his home grown wood, obviously it's a big bonus. It's a relatively new handicraft wood, only really useful with modern curing and drying technique. Thus I'm happy to say it is a very eco-friendly wood.
Taking us outside in the sunlight he proudly showed us a crumpled piece of blue paper, stamped and signed in various places and bearing the name of a big French supermarket. I could see the price agreed, and he showed us a nice classic whitewashed candle stick they had made. Eighty thousand pieces. Wow.
I asked him what it was like dealing with such a big company. He told us that an agent from Jakarta had turned up and dealt with everything, he'd never met anyone from the company.
It had been like a blessing from above and changed everything, why anyone would want so many lumps of trees was beyond him.
I said we might - not as many but a few. Ringo gave him his usual speech about how AW is an importer from Europe, how we try to be straightforward, how AW pay his (Ringo's) wages and that we won't be asking for hidden commissions or last minute discounts. I gave him my business card in the usual Asian fashion - held between finger and thumb of both hands details facing him. He studied it carefully - although I'm sure he wouldn't understand anything - and tucked it safely away.
In that case, he told Ringo, he could give us a good discount off the supermarkets price. But we don't want that many, and not just one design, a lot of designs. No problem.
Turns out that the dodgy agent from Jakarta had demanded a hefty backhander, which had to built in to the price. That was the day we got a better price than the big boys.
View from the workshop. Notice the albesia logs.
Ringo explaining about albesia
Take care and happy trading.
PS: If you have never ordered before...
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Friday, August 3, 2012

Bulging Bags & Bankers

Last week I was telling you about "Dancing in the Dark"... the incredible energy your average Chinese person has. No wonder they have so many gold medals.
It's been very busy in the UK, three containers as well as numinous smaller deliveries. The warehouse guys are getting a little stressed. But it's that time of year when all the stock rolls in ahead of the Christmas season. I was delighted to see the Mosaic items from Indonesia appear, they represent a huge amount of work, not just for me, but the small family business that has produced them. Our order gave them three months work. I like doing business with this type of small business, because I feel that we can make a difference. The world is changing, and some really good things are happening that is bringing rapid changes in standards of living to these type of people. Let me tell you a little story.
It was a hot sticky day in June when I set of with our man in Indonesia Ringo (yes that's his name), to accompany him on his errands. Today we were delivering barcode labels to our small but growing band of suppliers. On the back seat of his small 4x4 is a bulging bag, because Ringo has already been to the bank and drawn quite literally a heap of cash. We are making stage payments against orders to help fund production:10,000 rp notes are worth about 70p each, so you soon get a big pile. We get to the Mosaic producers little showroom on the mountain road, spectacular views of paddy fields with steaming jungle back drops. No-one home so Ringo gets on the phone.
More news next week.
QC system...
Turns out today is a local special ceremony day. There are lot of those, and the family are all on the farm, which is also a production area, can we go there? After half an hour of bouncing along rutted tracks and turning down ever tighter roads we finally find the farm yard. Actually part farm, part temple, part factory and today half party. There are incense offerings been made by an ancient teak skinned grandmother, who is topless, she doesn't mind me and grins a toothless smile, scrawny chickens run around my legs. The boss a young man is sat surrounded by his small team of workers, all stripped to the waist - as we arrive they are smoking and raising a toast pouring something home-made looking from a plastic bottle. They are so happy to see us, he leaps up and pours us both some of his home-brew and offers smokes (both of which I manage to decline), and rushes off to proudly show us samples from our order.
Today they are a very different couple to the ones we gave the order to. Then humble and attentive, now boisterous and excited. The boss guy knows just enough English to make a sale and negotiate a price, beyond that he was struggling but he knew the word "quality" and he was inordinately proud of his quality. From what I could gather his quality had got them a big French company order the year before. But being a bit drunk, he was emboldened, he picked up one of the mosaic turtles (coming soon) ripped off the brown paper packaging and rubbed it vigorously. See smooth and no paint coming off. He made me and then Ringo rub it. Then he turns, grins and flings it across the farm yard, it bounces of a moss covered wall, chickens squawking. "See.. no break!" everyone is smiling, even granny. I'm suitably impressed with his QC system and a just little relieved.
Today was a holiday day, a ceremonial day, but it didn't stop them enthusiastically applying the bar-code stickers we had brought to the finished product. We had an animated discussion about French stickers being better, and where they should be positioned on the products. As we left they were well into getting the final stage of the job finished.
These are real families, who's craft work you can sell. In this way you can close the circle of trade that makes a difference to these people. You the retail trader, are the driving force behind this virtuous trade force. Those mosaic bowls are beautiful, they are really not expensive, surprisingly good value especially when you consider the work involved. Your customers will love them.
But there is another piece to the jigsaw you should consider. These small businesses are nothing like lucrative enough for regular bankers to fund. We try to fund our suppliers generously with stage payments (hence Ringo's bulging bag), but in many cases it's the fantastic Micro Banks that are doing this job. We often find that equipment or raw material supplies have been funded by a Micro Bank. Where does this money come from.. well it can come from you.
Retailers like you.
Importers like us.
Micro Banks.
Check out this micro bank funding website.. Kiva - I understand that by clicking this link, an anonymous donor is giving you $25 to get you started in micro funding. I have seen in India and Indonesia how micro funding really gives people a chance. Now you can be a banker and really complete the circle. I have done a little funding myself, it's fun and interesting.
Those mosaic bowls just arrived, see below. They are beautiful everyone loves them, but one small problem. The bar-code labels are mixed up, we are having to check them all and change the labels. Mmm - I think I know why.
Take care and happy trading.
PS: If you have never ordered before...
Check out our First Order Bonus: £100 worth of stock (@RRP's)!