Welcome Box Introduction: Interview with Jane from Didi Bahini

Jane Gragtmans is the founder and director of Didi Bahini, one of our Welcome Box partners. Didi Bahini has been in operation for over ten years, working closely with partner artisans in Nepal, purchasing, designing new products, helping with business systems, and offering encouragement and support. They have sold the beautiful artisan products on a small scale from home here in Canada, at local community centres, Christmas bazaars, a few trade shows, and through e-commerce to both retail and wholesale customers. 

Didi Bahini is a business intent on supporting fair trade artisan networks in Nepal, with a particular focus on women's empowerment. Approximately 80% of their artisans are women. By supporting these women, Didi Bahini is helping to empower their families and communities as well.

We are so happy to partner with Didi Bahini, and excited to share a little bit more about this great company with you here. If you would like to know more, you can visit their website, or send us an email and we can put you in touch with Jane herself.

Good Stuff: Where did the inspiration for Didi Bahini come from?

Jane: Didi Bahini (or 'sisters' in Nepalese) began 12 years ago when I lived in Nepal for 3 years with my family. Once my kids were both in school full-time, I began to explore the fascinating environment of Kathmandu much more. I became an active participant in the Cultural Studies Group of Nepal that took us to visit a new artisan group throughout the city each month. By the end of a year, I was so impressed with the variety, quality and aesthetic beauty of the handicraft sector I was witnessing. I had made a commitment to support them in some way, and decided to build a fair trade business to help them market their goods.

GS: How did your background influence your decision to launch Didi Bahini?

J: With a degree in International Development, and 5 years of experience living and working in Malawi and Ethiopia prior to our time in Nepal, this experience enabled me to see both the needs and potential of the artisan sector in Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries. I have always been drawn by the beauty of hand-made artisanal crafts, loving the originality and talent each product requires. Most importantly, I love the energy that each product is imbued with from the care and creativity of the maker. I consider our 'sisters' in Nepal our true sisters that need the love and support of their 'sisters' in North America to deeply appreciate their crafts and to help them to build their businesses and livelihood. In my heart, I know they have much to give us, and I anticipate the future will be full of surprises for all of us due to our connection through this business endeavour. 

GS: What drew you to working with Nepalese artisans?

J: The potential and beauty aside, there were some very real challenges each group faced to get their products made and to market. The complex political, social and environmental conditions in which these small businesses operate mean they experience much more stress and challenge than any business in Canada.

They do not have the support of governmental programs to nurture their development. They do not have "buy local campaigns" and instead have most locals with money looking for foreign goods. Until recently, businesses and households were crippled with the limited electricity available. This meant that any work requiring electricity had to be planned when electricity was available (usually only 6-8 hours per day)... not easy to run a business effectively with these conditions. Bank loans are non-existent or come with a very high interest rate. Selling internationally is challenging as credit card purchases are not allowed as the government ensures control of all foreign currency. Strict foreign currency controls also means that groups experience challenges to purchase raw materials internationally if they can not be found locally. 

On the social and cultural side, Nepal suffered from a ten-year-long war roughly a decade ago. Although that conflict has ended, the impact this has had on the country is huge. Every successive government elected since has shown little progress in meeting the most basic of needs of the poor; this remains a serious challenge. This is not an exhaustive list of the challenges that exist for these small businesses. Despite the challenges, I have been SO impressed that my partners (over 22 suppliers during my 12 years of operating Didi Bahini) always managed to pull together their orders within a reasonable time frame. They are a joy to work with and full of promise. They have indicated a real eagerness to learn, to grow and expand their businesses.

GS: What production principles are crucial to Didi Bahini?

J: My partners have in fact gone the extra mile, even though they are already experiencing very challenging times. They have agreed to a global set of fair trade principles in managing their businesses. Didi Bahini has been verified as a Fair Trade Federation member for the past 12 years. 

Didi Bahini sources our products being concerned about not only fair trade (mainly labour issues), but also about the sustainability of the planet. (See "The True Cost" documentary on Netflix for a real eye opener).

GS: Why did you want to work with Good Stuff?

J: Having worked with many fair trade companies over the years, I sense that Good Stuff is very much on track with a serious plan to help bring fair trade to many more people. Your passion and careful planning is so appreciated.

Didi Bahini is ready to work with Good Stuff in providing products for boxes, to explore additional ways to educate clientele, and to explore working in innovative ways together. We remain guided by our common objective to support the empowerment of women in developing countries through small business.

I am currently working on building a global network connecting North American fair trade small businesses with suppliers in the developing countries. Good Stuff can be connected to this one day. We are growing in numbers and need women who are willing to step up in their courage to move towards a more sustainable method of trade. I warmly welcome Good Stuff to our ever growing community. The world is in great need of businesses that are heart-centred, sustainable and environmentally friendly, and I believe consumers are increasingly ready for us.