Learning to Look Far & Wide: A Q&A with a Founder

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Far & Wide Collective discovers the beautifully unique and carefully made things one can only stumble upon in the tucked-away workshops and rural village markets on exotic travels. Founded by Hedvig Christine Alexander, Far & Wide connects artisans in emerging economies to the international market and helps artisans partners grow their businesses, to help with sourcing new products and to developing new artisan networks and channels. Shop the collection here.

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Kena: Tell me a little about your story.

Hedvig: After graduating from University, I ended up going to Afghanistan where I stayed for 7 years. I worked for the UN and for several NGOs including one where I worked to revive Afghan arts and crafts. I saw firsthand how quickly people were able to produce very high quality, very beautiful products if they had the right kind of support, but how difficult it was (even for an artisan with a great product) for them to connect to consumers in North America. So when I moved to Canada about five years ago, I thought if I was going to continue to try to make a difference, that difference would be the most important. There are many NGOs doing incredible work, but they largely lack experience in business and retail. So I thought I should try to understand that area, to really be able to help the people I’m working with.

K: That’s one of the reasons why I was so fascinated by what you’re doing – it is one thing to help a community make product, it is another to ensure they are serving a real market with that product.

H: That’s right. The missing piece is access to the market. If you see a group of 5 widows with eight children to feed and you discover they do beautiful embroidery, the inclination is to give them money to produce more scarves. But at no point are you thinking about the colors of the scarves, the kind of embroidery, who is going to buy them, what kind of fabric, what season, all the things that any buyer would consider in the retail market. We need to turn that around and have a more demand driven vs. supply push approach when it comes to developing product.

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Jamdani cotton scarves woven in West Bengal 

K: What initially brought you to Afghanistan?

H: I’ve always believed social change is possible with the right circumstances. As a child I paid a lot of attention to what was happening in Afghanistan. I grew up in the time of the Cold War and from a young age felt very sorry for the Afghan people who suffered greatly – they were caught in the middle of a war that had very little to do with them! I was already intrigued by Afghanistan, but then 9/11 happened and I was graduating a few months later, so of course I went!

Towards the end of my time in Afghanistan I thought a lot about how to include producers of craft in the global economy. I felt that if we really are serious about  helping people move up the prosperity ladder then we need to do something about giving them this kind of access.

K: Tell me about a family or community that has been impacted by your work with Far + Wide Collective.

H: We are still small, but you don’t have to buy very much for it to make a significant impact. There is a girl I know from my time in Afghanistan who started a jewelry business just as I was leaving there. In five years, she’s done incredibly well. I saw her transform from a 19-year-old girl who was coming back from spending most of her life as a refugee in Pakistan turn into an empowered, strong woman who has a family, married for love, and is now also a successful entrepreneur. In fact, not only does she run her own business, but has also become a catalyst for change in her community. She is helping develop other businesses including one that involves recycling paper waste into packaging materials.

That’s what access to markets and the world economy brings – it opens up markets to consumers, to their preferences, to what they want – a different kind of vision to what people in Afghanistan are used to. So apart from being an economic driver, it's also just an incredible connection for people – it breaks the isolation and helps them aspire to something bigger and pull their community out of economic hardship but also lack of education and other things.

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Studs featuring uncut Afghan emeralds

K: How do you educate remote communities, say in Kenya, about the consumer in New York City?

H: It is still very hard for the woman who weaves baskets in her mud hut to understand the woman in New York. We try to tell them about it and show them pictures of where that woman lives and what her life is like. We want to give that woman the market research she needs so she can grow her own business knowing what the end consumer wants and move her business to the next level.

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Pink Striped Basket handwoven in Kenya

K: How can we as consumers help?

H: I grew up in Denmark in a time when it was too expensive to buy “cheap things”. So you would save up and buy something special and have it for many years. Now our consumer culture has become more disposable and consumerism in general is highly driven by big box stores where their story is: we’re the cheapest. I think a basket like this isn’t expensive because it will last you longer, you will like it longer, you won’t get rid of it next year.  Consumers could help by making more conscious choices, perhaps by shifting their mindset when buying.

K: Who do you most admire?

H: I admire so many of the women that I’ve worked with. They’ve broken through so many overwhelming obstacles to achieve success. I really admire women who’ve found a way to overcome and had a vision in a place where there really wasn’t room for a vision of this kind.

K: They had to find it themselves – there was nobody to emulate.

H: Yes exactly, it was a vacuum. These women have an incredible drive. And it lies in all of us, it’s just whether you’re able to find it yourself or if someone or something pulls it out of you.

K: How do you define a well-crafted life?

H: A Well-Crafted Life is one where you follow and live (to the best that you can given your surroundings) the instincts and beliefs you have. As an entrepreneur with two small children and a husband who travels a lot, I often wonder if I’m doing the right thing, but I do think that when you’re involved in doing something that you believe in, and feel you’re making a difference (and you don’t have to travel to Afghanistan to do that) then the satisfaction and sense of achievement you feel when things go right is so wonderful and it makes you feel so full of energy, which makes you a much better person, citizen and wife.

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