by Rob Arnott, the founder and managing director of Okapi Home (www.okapihome.com)
Today’s shoppers like bespoke, they like unique. Across the UK there has been a monumental surge in the popularity of independent retailers – shunning the big brands is a source of great pride amongst many consumers. And it is this trend that our business taps into, offering something a little different – in our case, high quality, contemporary homeware from East and Southern Africa.
Sounds great in practice, but of course, such an approach is not without some chunky and unique challenges. And so, having recently returned from our first sourcing mission, I wanted to share a few of our experiences when it comes to building relationships with suppliers from vastly different backgrounds and business cultures:
1. Follow the crowd, sometimes.
Before we set off, we spent hours trawling the web, looking for leads which could help provide our sourcing trip with at least a little structure. In our efforts to identify small-scale businesses who had the potential and appetite to become suppliers, we fired off hundreds of emails, almost all of which were met with either silence or an automated bounce-back. It seemed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the people we were looking for simply didn’t have an online presence.
However, like most businesses, ours isn’t totally unique. There are similar companies, especially in the US. So we turned our attention to tracking their supply chains back to source (there’s no harm in following others in part, if what they are doing is successful). This proved more fruitful, and also came with the added benefit of fast-tracking our competitor audit.
2. Talk their language.
Informal business contributes 55% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and unsurprisingly, many of the best craftspeople we came across on our travels operated without bank accounts or even the ability to conduct simple email correspondence.
Working with, supporting and even mentoring these sorts of suppliers may not make much business sense to purely profit-driven enterprises, who may simply ask, ‘Why not just find a supplier who is already equipped for international trade?’. However, one of our founding principles is to provide a platform for talented artisans, whatever their situation, to showcase their work – and in turn to offer something genuine and unique to customers. If it requires time and effort to help these artisans formalise their business, it’s an investment that can only reinforce our underlying social enterprise principles.
A colleague working with artisans in the Himalayas shared an interesting word of advice; ‘Speak their business language,’ he said. ‘If the local way is to organise businesses through village-based cooperatives, that is likely going to be the best way of ensuring the artisan is comfortable.’ Use a structure which is familiar to them. Invest time in ascertaining how they usually conduct their trade, and work to familiarise yourself with their business culture. It will pay off in the end.
3. See the potential.
Sometimes, the skills and expertise you are looking for in artisans abroad may not be instantly obvious, but that’s what makes them even more exciting to uncover. For example, we have a range of beautiful Malawian cushion covers, which are produced by William, a local tailor in Blantyre. William is completely new to cushions, as his background is as a tailor. Unfortunately, the good intentions of charities and NGOs have ripped the heart out of his livelihood, flooding the local markets of Blantyre with cheap second hand clothes from Europe and North America, putting him out of a job.
Luckily for us, we were able to identify those skills – passed down from generation-to-generation within William’s community – which could play a crucial role in our business, and in turn revitalise his livelihood. It’s vital to keep an open mind, ask questions, seek alternatives and look for potential in your suppliers. You’ll be surprised by what skills you uncover, and you could change someone’s life.
4. Get the whole story.
Shoppers are more conscious than ever before of how their buying decisions impact on people and the natural environment. Thus, businesses have had to clean up their supply chains, which for so long have consisted of an opaque web of relationships which are impossible to trace back to source. But now, authenticity and transparency are becoming the new currency of business.
For us – a company built on the stories of each of our products and the artisans behind them – a short, transparent supply chain is essential. Crucially, this also means you can ensure ethical working conditions for your suppliers. Identifying the source of a product is not always straightforward but it is crucial in maintaining the principles of your business. On more than one occasion when we were browsing ramshackle street markets, trying to pick out beautiful contemporary items amongst a mass of carved wooden animals, the stall holder was reluctant to reveal their source for fear of being cut out of any possible deal. However, without a source, there is simply no sale. I would urge any business, in any sector, to be totally clear about where their products come from. Ultimately, it will help strengthen and nurture the relationships you have with your producers, and that is key for any business.
Rob Arnott is the founder and managing director of contemporary homeware business, Okapi Home (www.okapihome.com), which sources its products from independent artisans based in East and Southern Africa. In his previous career he advised some of the world’s largest businesses on their communications strategies. Follow Rob on Twitter @OkapiHome.