Working in development for more than a decade has convinced me that one of the biggest obstacles for low-income countries on the path to prosperity is lack of access to international markets and buyers.

I spent seven years in Afghanistan working for the United Nations and a number of NGOs. The country has an increasing number of talented craftspeople that create very high quality products like handcrafted jewelry, woodwork and ceramics. However, beyond the local bazaar, access to buyers is limited.

But now there is a golden opportunity. Demand for the authentic, handmade accessories, home decor and fashion items these artisans produce is on an upward trend. The challenge is to create a reliable supply chain linking artisans to this growing market.

The Missing Link

Part of the problem is with the aid system itself. Most public donors are eager to invest in training and skills development, but less comfortable investing in factors that are not considered to be part of the development process, such as logistics, marketing and sales.

Even donors who are willing to invest in this part of the supply chain lack experience. In countries with any major international presence, logistics are almost always focused on inbound goods -- whether it is equipment for the international military forces; computers for education; or perhaps shelters for refugees. As exports are often negligible compared to imports, outbound logistics are cumbersome and very expensive -- especially for small shipments amounting to less than a container full.

Creating connections with established international retailers or setting up an e-commerce website with warehousing, inventory systems and marketing and sales strategies, in a crowded marketplace, are challenges very distant from the problem sets most development professionals are trained to handle.

Mainstream retailers worry that sourcing from emerging-market artisans is too risky. Online platforms that currently carry crafts tend to only work with producers with access to a computer, able to process credit card payments, and with access to reliable postal systems. Unfortunately, this excludes many talented artisans in the developing world.

Far & Wide Collective

I started the Far & Wide Collective to help overcome some of these obstacles and assist artisans in developing countries in gaining access international markets. It’s an online marketplace that gives talented producers an opportunity to connect with international buyers.

After having left Afghanistan and living in North America I felt that I was better placed than ever to help build the “missing” part of the supply chain. We work with artisans in Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan and plan to expand to more countries. We invested in a solid supply chain parenting with logistics companies and a warehouse in the US.

We are a development-oriented online retailer building on the collective experience of a number of organizations and individuals who have tried to create market access for Afghan craftspeople over the past decade. We buy directly from our partner artisans and take care of all issues related to getting the product to the market, allowing artisans to focus on making high quality, beautiful products. At the same time we provide buyers with the convenience of being able to buy a unique product in a few clicks and have it arrive at their doorstep a few days later.

The Power of Crafts

This investment has a huge potential social return. The craft sector is the second largest employer, after agriculture, in many developing countries.  It represents an opportunity for thousands –millions even – to earn a living and own their own business. Crafts are often made by women, who remain among the most vulnerable in these societies.

If women are able to earn a decent living, there is a proven trickle-down effect. Their families and communities thrive. Their work usually does not require literacy, but rather concrete skills that are passed on, creating an important legacy for generations to come. In even the most deeply conservative countries, craft production allows women to empower themselves and lift their families out of poverty.

A Sustainable Financial Model

Finding the right business model has not been easy and continues to be challenging. Creating a solid financial model with reasonable pricing while incorporating the many costs of transportation, tariffs, warehousing, pick and pack, shipping to costumer, returns and customer service – among other factors – is undeniably hard.

We all tend to think that something made in a low-income country should be inexpensive. The opposite is in fact often the case because of the cost factors mentioned above, but also because most artisans and small craft businesses don’t have enough financial security, market access or scale of production to plan ahead. This results in inefficient workshops. In spite of these difficulties, each of our 29 artisans and small crafts producers – most of whom live in very isolated communities – delivered exquisite and flawless work on time.

Now more than ever there is an opportunity to level the playing field by connecting isolated and disadvantaged communities to the global economy through innovative business models and cheaper technology. By leveraging the investments donors and many NGOs have made in skills development and catering to consumer demand for handmade and authentic products, we have the opportunity to include a new segment of producers in the global economy. The recent tragedy in Bangladesh has only made it more urgent for us all to identify responsible, sustainable ways to include producers from emerging economies in the international market place economy.