Here at Expat Living, we’re always keen to support ethical businesses and small startups driven by a strong cause. Artisan & Fox is an online marketplace that connects artisans in developing regions to consumers all over the world. Founder Jaron Soh fills us in.
Tell us more about how and why you started Artisan & Fox.
I launched it with one mission: to uncover and empower unknown makers in hidden areas around the world. My journey with Artisan & Fox started in the summer of 2015, in the Nepali Himalayas.
Back then, I was still an undergraduate at the London School of Economics in the UK. I had the opportunity to spend a month in Nepal, conducting fundraising and development work with a non-profit organisation. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake had just struck Nepal, so there was a lot of humanitarian work to be done.
I was doing interviews and photography work with many locals, many of whom were extraordinary artisans. Among them was Prem, a silversmith in Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is a beautiful city with centuries of history, but unfortunately most of its infrastructure was destroyed during the earthquake. Prem’s shophouse (where he peddled his silver) fortunately survived, although it was damaged and his family had to live temporarily in tents. I learnt that he was struggling to provide for his family, because there were virtually no tourists after the earthquake and local trade had dwindled too.
That was when I had the idea of helping Prem sell his silver pieces online. He had never done this before and didn’t understand e-commerce, but he did own a smartphone. We got together with other craftsmen and craftswomen in the area, and I created a pilot store for US$300.
Prem already had extraordinary craftsmanship, so together we designed some of the first pieces to be sold online. They sold out very quickly, confirming that there was a demand for this sort of artisanal craftsmanship. Prem’s story isn’t unique. Many artisans all over the world are struggling with the same issues – particularly the lack of access to global markets. This gave me the inspiration to expand Artisan & Fox to help artisans like Prem. Since 2015, we have connected over 200 artisans to mindful consumers worldwide. Currently, we work with artisan communities in nine countries, including Afghanistan, Guatemala, Mexico, Cambodia, Vietnam, Syria and Kenya.
How do you select the products to sell on the website?
We do this in two ways: curation and co-creation. Firstly, we have a strict curation approach; the designs must be suitable and relevant. They often mix culture and history with a modern aesthetic.
We also co-create new pieces with our artisan partners. Sometimes, just a little design work or guidance is required to help them adapt their pieces to suit an international audience while preserving their cultural integrity. For example, our Guatemalan shawls retain the traditional Mayan motifs and symbols, but we customise the colour palette to suit global trends. We aim to raise artisan incomes, but we have to do this sustainably by only selecting the best craftsmanship. This means no touristy trinkets, no mass-produced pieces, and no low-quality products.
How do these artisans benefit through Artisan & Fox?
Our artisans receive 50 percent of the gross profits. We only work with independent artisans or small social businesses, boosting their income by helping them tap into the wider international market.
We also aim to empower more women artisans to be financially independent. This is especially important in patriarchal communities. For example, our Thrive Transfers scheme provides zero-interest, micro-credit loans to help our women artisan partners to grow their micro-businesses.
Lastly, we’re helping artisans to move up the value chain so they do not simply produce more, but also produce better. This involves refining our artisans’ designs so they can charge more for the same amount of work. In some instances, we help by finding reliable material sources, figuring out economical shipping routes, and forecasting global fashion trends.
Shop the full range of bags, jewellery, shawls and accessories at artisanandfox.com.
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