Today is April 25, 2016. Exactly one year ago I was driving to Montreal when PBS broke the news of the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that had ripped through the Kathmandu Valley, devastating hundreds of thousands of people, deeply affecting the lives of many people I know and love. Villages were flattened. World heritage sites crumbled. The earthquake triggered the deadliest avalanche in Mt. Everest’s history. An equally forceful aftershock further crippled the nation just two weeks later. Nepal has never been in the world’s focus as much as in those several weeks in 2015. One year later, America is in the throws of an election year, refugees flee Syria, both Japan and Ecuador also face their own post-quake triage. It’s pretty messy everywhere.
So what about Nepal?
Shortly after last year’s quakes, we went to Nepal to check on our teams and do what we could to help. And while devastating, relief was pouring in. Hundreds of palettes of food and supplies covered the airport tarmac. Millions of dollars were pledged. There were hopeful signs that things were going to change for this tiny country in the shadow of the Himalayas. Perhaps, because of this awful catastrophe? Besides, the “hands-on” attitude of Nepalis, the world was paying attention and because of that, there would be an accountable use of funds, and this could actually help kick-start a mostly failed economy. Right?
This was my hope as I returned to Nepal in March of this year.
While we found selective restoration underway with a few less tent villages scattered about, Nepal was essentially the same as it was before the quakes. The reality is that Nepal is a mostly unchanging place. For all the smartphones and fluorescent lights, it, if anything is a country standing still, and maybe even sliding backwards.
I don’t write this with condemnation. Sure with frustration, but this is a fact I have come to acknowledge as “normal” for Nepal. It is a country held hostage by a government intent on keeping it from moving forward. And so it stays put. It doesn’t matter that it has been catastrophically jolted or halted by fuel blockades. Its people are flagrantly denied aid even though piles of money are continually infused into the country. With a corrupt government, no one is held accountable.
So, no, things haven’t changed. If anything, things might actually be worse.
But, MULXIPLY is not in the business of complaining about systematic issues that we’re mostly incapable of speaking to. We are artists, not politicians or humanitarians. Plus, nothing gets accomplished by griping. The truth is, Nepal requires a legitimate revolution in every sense of the word. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Full stop. So do we jump ship and wait for that to happen, meanwhile working somewhere more developed, less challenging?
No, because the revolution has already started. And it’s based on something really unlikely.
Let me explain. Societies thrive when people feel secure. People feel secure when their basic needs are met and are provided (or create) opportunities that are dignified, gainful, and life-giving. Opportunities as such are scarce in Nepal. Less than half the population are educated. Those with higher education, often leave the country. Understandably, few return. But, those that have stayed in-country or have returned and are investing in grassroots, long-term ideas, are quietly rebuilding Nepal from the inside out—with creativity, diligence and determination. While none of them are politicians, they are the makers of change. They are the leaders of the quiet revolution. And their energy is intense and contagious.
How is beauty revolutionary? Because beauty is inspirational, it has staying power. What motivates people to come to Nepal? Besides the Himalayas, tourists come to see the ancient temples, palaces and monasteries built exquisitely by artisans that are masters of their craft. Without artists, there is no art, no heritage sites, no tourist attractions. Simply put, when beauty is tangibly translated into art, design and architecture it becomes a quantifiable business that creates jobs. Jobs that employ artisans. Jobs that are contributing to stabilizing the local and global economy. It’s slow capitalism in action. And it’s working.
Artisans in Nepal were and sometimes still are considered low-rung vocations. Since our first visit in 2010, we see how this however is changing. Each year we meet visionaries who are elevating both art and artisan by creating innovative solutions that shift how Nepalis value art, therefore pulling global attention to the artistic potential in this country and elevating art as a vocation. We meet Nepalis from all generations who are investing in the arts, by creating successful businesses that are training artisans to apply age-old techniques to produce contemporary designs in partnership with designers from all over the world. We meet architects who are creating modern yet authentic Newari guesthouses, restaurants and galleries. We meet young creatives who are collaborating with each other by developing spaces for making art, music and really good coffee. There is a whole new guard it seems that are slowly, yet noticeably reshaping a city that’s become a dusty, polluted mess. And on first view, it still is. But deep within, there is change. And in part, it’s the artists who are at work.
As a design-focused social enterprise, MULXIPLY champions this movement. Every one of our teams is led by a Nepali citizen who lives and breathes this model of change. When we are in Nepal, we spend hours alongside our teams, working shoulder-to-shoulder with hardworking people who love their country deeply. They understand its soul, its problems and its history more than we ever will. We learn from them. We are inspired by them. They call themselves artisans. We call them revolutionaries.
We can’t change the past. We can learn from it and remember it. We can live each day so that the future looks bright and the past is worth remembering. So today, April 25, 2016, one year after a cataclysmic event changed the lives of a nation, we can see that Nepal is very much on the brink. Yes, from a political, environmental and humanitarian standpoint, Nepal is nearly in ruins. But as a designer, working with artisans, we see beauty in the ashes. We see a Nepal rising slowly from within.
Our mission is to stabilize economies in the developing world through creating dignified jobs by investing in indigenous, artisanal businesses who collaborate to produce our contemporary designs via age-old techniques. In doing so, we are keeping heritage handicraft alive and providing local employment in societies where those with little or no education are at risk of being trafficked to other countries or enslaved in migrant worker schemes abroad.
We partner with people and organizations that mirror this mission because they love and understand their country far more than we ever can. We consider it an honor to work alongside these teams. We are humbled by their expertise and willingness to take on our projects.
OUR TEAM INCLUDES:
The Association for Craft Producers Nepal (ACP):
Founded in 1984 with just 38 producers, ACP now employs over 1,200 artisans, of which 90% are female. ACP recognizes the need for female employment in both rural and urban settings, providing opportunity for both. Situated at the foot of the Himalayas, ACP also recognizes the exquisite beauty of their country and as stated on their website, “takes careful and deliberate steps to preserve our environment”.
The current Executive Director, Meera Bhattaraihas nurtured the growth of ACP for over ten years placing it at the forefront of the Fair Trade movement in Nepal. She understands the plight, particularly of women in Nepal and fosters an environment of “future-thinking”. In addition to a fair wage, each employee is provided with an interest bearing retirement fund, a monthly stipend for employees who keep their children in school for 4 consecutive years, a medical allowance, and a Producer’s Alliance which protects and encourages knowledge of employee rights. Most of these benefits are not the norm in the developing world and certainly not a right.
We took a wrong turn down an alley in Patan’s Durbar Square and wandered in to the surprising studio and passion project of Pravin Chitrakar. A true visionary, our journey with Pravin and his team of artisans has been nothing but rewarding. His commitment to keeping Nepali handicraft alive and thriving is so contagious, you can’t help but intentionally design projects for his team to create. He understands Nepal more than anyone I have met in this process. He loves his country with such dedication, you know he’s in it for the long haul.
Pravin is an artist first. Therefore, his outlook on the world around him is largely aesthetic. He doesn’t see an old house falling in on itself. No, he sees an opportunity to construct a creative space for artisans to display and sell their work. Instead of building a factory, he found a space with a garden in the middle so his metal workers could work in an airy space with ventilation and sunshine. He’s built an expansive atelier which includes: metalsmithing, weaving and paper making. He understand without a doubt that in order for Nepali handicraft to stay alive, it must adapt to the market, which therefore makes working with him and his team a collaborative dream.
Featured in the photos above is Mahendra. We love his story because is represents innovation, hope and risk. He was working as the security guard for Pravin’s studio. One day when they were chatting, Pravin asked him what he’d want to do if you could anything. Turns out, he really wanted to learn the art of metalsmithing. We wanted to make jewelry. So, Pravin took a chance on him and now he is one of Yala’s finest artisans. He made our samples, which were and are exquisite. We also love that Pravin named his sister his Chief Financial Officer. Julia, pictured top right is a calm yet driving force in the business. Both brilliant and gracious, she is a part of what makes Yala Mandala mission so successful. She is also a major advocate for the women’s equality movement in Nepal.
Yala Mandala produced our entire jewelry collection as well as our gift boxes.
Making something is always a process. It’s different for everyone and everything, particularly when you choose to make your things in far-away places like Nepal.
Our design process is a collaborative experience that evolves over conversations about what we like, what we see trending in the marketplace and what can actually be made in Nepal. We sketch ideas, play with patterns, send emails, sew samples and source hardware. We often hand-carry or ship our hardware to Nepal as it is difficult to find quality hardware there. Rome Fastener in Connecticut has been a great help to us. We love that they are a long-time Made in the USA, family-run business and take the time to work with the small guys like us. Our newest partners Yala Mandala, based in Nepal are exploring hand-forged hardware with us. It is our hope that at some point every element of our pieces will be made in Nepal.
We plan our trips to Nepal based on market deadlines. Things take time in Nepal so we build our delivery schedules knowing this. Full production once samples are approved takes anywhere from 2-4 months. It’s imperative to spend time with our artisans in the development process — it’s essentially our reason for being. Currently we are there for 4-8 weeks a year, but it never seems like long enough. the time spent with our teams is focused on getting our samples to a place that we are confident that they will be carried through full production. It’s always hard to leave. Despite the endless turmoil in Nepal, it is an incredibly hospitable country that takes you in and treats you like its own.
We currently work with four different groups in the Kathmandu Valley. Our time on the ground is split between meetings, spending time with artisans, working on samples, sourcing natural materials and researching new ideas. Each year, we are thrilled to meet more like-minded individuals who are not only creating dignified jobs for the Nepali people, but honoring their heritage and keeping age-old handicraft alive. Plus, exploring in the valley and villages is an endless source of inspiration. You never know what you will find. We met Yala Mandala our jewelry partners by taking a wrong turn down an alley.
Our favorite part of this venture is ultimately meeting the artisans, learning about their lives and working alongside them. It’s so very different from our daily lives, it’s both humbling and inspiring to hear about what they must overcome on a daily basis. They know so much more about how things can be done than we do. Being knee-deep in their creative process is a joy that there really are no words for.
We are reminded when we face challenges in our production or quality issues, that these are all part of the process. Life is hard in Nepal, and working there is no exception. Recently two massive earthquakes shook this already fragile country to its core. Nepal will be rebuilding for years to come. As a result of this, we are even more committed to investing in our current partners, seeking stability and continued growth for them. They persevere. We persevere. And it’s in the midst of this bustling creative process where beauty is created and lives are changed.
As stated above, collaboration is the name of the game for us. MULXIPLY wouldn’t exist without Nepal and it wouldn’t exist without YOU. Every single piece that makes its way to our website, to your shop, and to your hands, brings with it a story. Thank you for being part of it.
Why Nepal? That’s a great question.
There are approximately 28 million people living in Nepal.
Half of the population live below the poverty line,
earning less that $1.25 per day.
Only half of its citizens can read: only 35% of the literate are women.
Employment rates hover around 50%.
Millions of men continue to leave the country as migrant workers in the Middle East,
leaving women and children vulnerable to human traffickers.
Most of Nepal lives in the country or mountain regions. They are historically a “village” society, heavily dependent on agriculture, which provides sustenance and perhaps a small income to their families. Most Nepalis live in remote and hard-to-reach regions, where it can take two or three days on foot via mountain paths just to reach public transport. There is very little developed infrastructure outside of Nepal’s few big cities.
Only 17% of the Nepalese population live in urban centers, a statistic which increases yearly due to people seeking opportunities outside their village, particularly the younger generations. This rapid urbanization results in high levels of poverty because cities like Kathmandu cannot economically accommodate for the influx. Unemployment coupled with global inflation continues to widen the gap between “the have” and the “have nots”. The poor strive to put food on their table leaving little or nothing left to acquire “basic” services such as healthcare and education. That’s half of the population of Nepal.
Nepal’s recent civil war and continued political instability unleashed well-documented human rights abuses, including sexual violence against women, forced abortions to decrease the number of female children, female infanticide, and trafficking of women into prostitution. Even now, after the end of the civil war, there are more than 118 legal provisions as well as customs, rituals, and practices that directly discriminate against Nepalese women. Child marriage and child labor are a continuing problem, as is human trafficking, particularly after the two recent earthquakes. Educational differences also contribute to the low status of women—only 35% of Nepalese women are considered literate compared to 63% of men.
We have recently shifted our focus to a more all-encompassing view of the Nepali economy. While spending time in Nepal, we have come to learn about the massive movement of young Nepali men leaving the country seeking employment elsewhere. For more information, read this article in the New York Times. There are very few jobs for young men who have minimal education. As a result large “manpower” firms from outside the country prey on these willing young men, essentially tricking them in to indentured servitude in places like Saudi Arabia. While it may provide a salary, this is a scheme that takes men away from their families for months at a time, hijacks their passports and convinces them that their meager salary is worth the trade. Just like the fast-fashion garment industry, wealthy opportunists are building fake empires on the bones of the poor. With this understanding, MULXIPLY has broadened its mission to providing dignified work for men and women alike. A successful society cannot be built without equal opportunity and respect for both.
Preventative solutions including vocational opportunities are helping to lift Nepal out of poverty. There is however a great need for more opportunity! Nepal is a country rich with resources and hard-working people. It is an opportune environment to create a business or partner with existing businesses that need projects to sustain and expand their reach in providing gainful employment. Beauty is intrinsic to this country, not only in its proximity to the expansive Himalayas, but with its heritage of woven textiles, metalwork and wood-carving. While it is heart-breaking to see the fall-out corruption has reaped on this country, it is also in places like Nepal where hope and possibility are far-reaching.
And that is why GIVEGIVE chose Nepal to launch MULXIPLY.
All statistics from CIA World Factbook
Wandering through the markets in Kathmandu, you can’t help but notice there’s something going on with felt in Nepal. Shoes, hats, bags, toys, you name it. Why? Well, come to find out:
Felt is the oldest man-made textile known, predating knit and woven cloth; in fact, archaeologists have found fragments of felt in Asia dating back to the Bronze Age. It is made by wetting layers of wool with soap and water and agitating the fibers so that they form a dense fabric. This can then be stretched into all sorts of items, including shoes, socks, bags, coats, and even shelters. Today, the art of felting is mainly found in the “Felt Belt,” which runs through Central Asia, and is a particular specialty of Nepal. (Global Good Partners)
When we first started talking about products and countries, I shared this anecdote with Annalisa and it stuck in her creative brain. Soon she was buying yards of felt, shopping for leather and beautiful hardware, sewing, re-sewing, etc. Fast forward a couple months—voilá, we had 3 prototypes designed and 2 tickets to Nepal.
It wasn’t until we were visiting our partners, Associated Craft Producers of Nepal that we really understood the process of making felt.
So here we go:
You start with wool: sheep, yak, alpaca. Years before Nepal became a sought-after destination for mountaineers, it was composed primarily of nomads, shepherds and farmers. In the north as the elevation increases dramatically towards the Himalayas, it gets cold. Before there were fancy North Face jackets and tents, alas, there was wool from your own animals. And that’s how it started. Now, most of the wool used for modern-day felting is imported from New Zealand. As felting has become a profitable business (not just a utilized by-product), buying wool versus shearing your own livestock has become a necessary step.
Raw wool is first dyed to create uniform color consistency. While many colors can be created, it is the actual felting process that “makes” the color. For instance, we wanted a dark heather grey, so 3 different color wools were mixed in the felting process to create our custom grey. The wool is boiled with the dye in giant vats. Because it is so fibrous, it takes to the dye quickly. Once it reaches the desired saturation, it is removed, rinsed and placed in the sun to dry.
The wool is then aerated to separate and straighten the fibers so that when it is felted it binds together better. Once it is separated, it is then carded to get out any dirt or obvious flaws. At ACP they have a machine that helps with this since they are often making a lot of felt in one color for one product.
Once that is complete, the felting may begin. Generally speaking, this is where the magic happens. Felting occurs when water and soap is mixed with the wool, then agitated so the fibers are compressed and bound to one another. In the image below, an artisan has completed that process and is tightly rolling the felt to flatten it in to one large surface.
Then, it will be rinsed to remove excess soap and hung out to dry in the sun, where it will harden in to a smooth yet pliable textile.
Once it is dry, the felt is then ready to be cut and used to make any product designed.
This little window of time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve always provides an opportunity to look back and think forward.
Two years ago I was curled up with this same blanket on this same couch. I was very sick and very sad. And, very convinced that life as I knew it would never be the same again. Having just returned from South Asia, my body was revolting against something foreign and my emotions were still trying to process what I’d observed in the previous four months researching human trafficking in the developing world—the issue and solutions. I had no idea what lay ahead of me.
2011 turned out to be a year of recovery and rebuilding. It was long and difficult, particularly the emotional aspect. I think I’m still a pretty changed person. I learned that healing is sometimes slow and patience is necessary. I learned that we really need each other, especially in times of crisis. I learned that we never, ever know what lies around the bend. And, that there is purpose, always purpose in pain. I think that’s called redemption and sometimes you can’t see it until you look backwards.
Towards the end of 2011, I was able to look back and see steady uphill healing. I was able to say, yes, things are getting better! And, my friend Annalisa and I began having very intentional conversations about a potential business idea. My heart stirred again and recognized feelings like hope and excitement.
In May 2012, Annalisa and I were on a plane to Nepal. This was happening. We were starting a business!
I can’t describe what I felt when we touched down in Kathmandu. There was this great sense of a journey coming full-circle to begin another journey. God knew I needed that. I could never have imagined that I would be returning to Nepal to start a business with a friend of mine. Now, it’s the end of December, and we’ve launched GIVEGIVE | MULXIPLY with great feedback and hosts of ideas for growth and continued partnerships with organizations such asAssociated Craft Producers of Nepal. And that too is redemption.
It is hard to comprehend why hard things happen. Working in the developing world is a constant reminder of the tremendous need for each of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of suffering and injustice, which is rampant and permissible in places like Nepal, particularly involving women and children. My friend and now, business partner Annalisa, is part of my redemption story in this crazy 2+ year journey. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the women at ACP in Nepal in preventing poverty. We are part of each other’s redemption story. And you are part of ours. All of your support as we launched GIVEGIVE is part of this bigger story. It’s beautiful isn’t it?
I can see that now—looking back. And so it’s with total confidence that I can face 2013 and say, “The best is yet to come!”
Happy New Year.
Being a western woman in the developing world is a bit of an odd thing. Not because we are generally heads taller, shades paler and always sweatier than the locals, no, the “odd” is what happens in your head. It’s wild here. Humanity is raw, it’s not sanitized or pre-packaged. It’s just down-right messy. So, inevitably you find your head spinning with questions that boil down to The One Big Question, “How is this fair?”.
It stops you in your tracks. Facing this mind-bending question of why each of us is born in to our place in the world is a hard hurdle to get over. I don’t know if you ever can. Honestly. Because the thing is, not one of us has the ability to choose the life we are born in to.
We all ask the “Why me?” in our daily lives, particularly when things aren’t going our way, when we feel unlucky, wronged, ripped-off, etcetera, whatever. But when you see small children with missing limbs begging on dusty streets or a destitute mother surrounded by her hungry babies, the issue of injustice becomes a little more hard-hitting. “Why them?” “Why not me?”
But, I’ve learned to stop asking this question with the intent of seeking an answer. There is no answer. Some might say oh that’s just bad karma. Others will say this is evidence that there is no God because a loving God would never allow such injustice. But there is no easy approach to this. And quite frankly, it is we humans who inflict injustice on each other, indirectly or directly. We can’t blame God or Karma. We can’t. We have to own the fact that we live on planet where there’s a lot of harm done in the name of self-preservation or power. There’s a lot of fall-out from bad choices made by ourselves or others. That’s the reality.
But that’s not the end of the story. The “Why?” can be the impetus to the “How?” How can we who have much help those who have little? How can we who were born in to relative ease and privilege help those who have felt nothing but pain since they left the womb? How can we be Grace to one another? And that, I believe is the true answer to the question of “Why?”. That’s where The Why ends and The How begins.
It is hard to describe the feelings I (Annalisa) have been experiencing over the last week. They’re somewhere on the continuum between excitement and anxiety. While I knew we were ready to come to Nepal to begin the execution phase of this incredible journey, I don’t think I was mentally prepared for arriving here. Truthfully, I don’t think that anyone from the US can really be prepared for seeing Kathmandu for the first time.
Tanja called her blog Beauty Lost & Found. It’s an apt title – and I was thinking about exactly that as we drove from the airport to our hotel. There is beauty here; the women’s faces and saris, the beautiful fruits and vegetables being sold at the roadside, the old brick buildings with their detailed ornamentation work and carved wooden doors, the temples, the colors of marigold and pink and orange that you see amidst the haze that settles in the valley.
But as we drove through the streets (an adventure in itself – think of a giant game of chicken between cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, buses & trucks, pedestrians and stray dogs), we saw trash everywhere, homeless children, a river polluted with raw sewage, people scrabbling out a basic existence by selling food in the hot sun… and more. Down-river, there was smoke. “That’s where they burn the bodies,” Tanja said. We drove on. We arrived at our hotel perhaps 20 minutes after leaving the airport. All that, in 20 minutes. I fought to hold back tears then, and we were only at the beginning, and watching from a distance, so to speak.
It is exactly this which confirms that we are supposed to begin here, and begin now. This is where we can do something. This is where we can serve. We don’t really know what awaits us tomorrow, when we meet with the first of the co-ops, but we are hopeful, and hope is needed here. It truly is.