Tribal Monsoon is a well known manufacturer, wholesale seller, online retailer and exporter of handmade items from South Asia. It’s a unique venture in the sense that the traditional cottage industry of South Asia has been linked with the international clientele and that too through sustainable business practices. Tribal Monsoon is the brainchild of Mr. Faisal Shahid Butt who is also serving as its president. Here Faisal Butt talks about all things related to Tribal Monsoon. Social Bridges:
How you got started with Tribal Monsoon? How did you engage with the artisans from across Pakistan? When did the idea came in your mind?
The idea came to my mind in February, 2002. I used to see lot of creative stores representing the local items of different countries from East Asia, South East Asia etc. Pakistan was underrepresented as we didn’t have a dedicated global store for our products. I decided to set up one for Pakistan/South Asia. I also wanted to connect the local artisans and craftsmen to the global platform. I moved to Pakistan and started working on the project. I visited many parts of the country, meeting and assessing the potential of our artisans.
Having completed the ground work, I moved back to the states. There I researched the market trends and the scope of Pakistani handicrafts. I also engaged a team of designers, graphic artists and photographers from the National College of Arts (NCA) to come up with international quality designs and products which were presented in a print catalogue. That is how Tribal Monsoon started.
Can you tell us about how many artisans are currently working with you?
Faisal Butt: We’ve 300 people working for eight hours a day.They include our whole team working in design, quality control, packaging etc. Also depending on the orders, we’ve around 300-500 artisans working on our products. Also we hand out projects to clusters of artisans like if we get orders of furniture we’ll give that to that particular cluster. The number of artisans varies depending on the projects.
You don’t have an international designer. The designs come from the artisans and you market them abroad?
Here’s where the NCA designers come into play. Pakistani traditional designs are transformed by these designers into internationally acceptable ones. They customize the designs as per the taste of global buyers. To make the product marketable on the international level is the duty of these designers.
So these artisans are entrepreneurs themselves or working as individuals?
No, not at all. They are working in individual capacity.
Do you think that your venture has been able to improve the lives of artisans working with you?
We take on the role of marketing their products. We nurture their skills so that they can come up with designs and products which are at par with the international professional standards. Their output has been increased as we’re marketing their products on a global level (our fortunes are also increasing). Say if an artisan in a village was earning $10 a month before joining our network, now he’s earning $100 due to his product being internationally marketed by us.
Quality of the products play a crucial role in attracting and maintaining clients. We have imparted enough knowledge to these artisans, hence none of our orders are rejected by our clients. They are satisfied by our quality. We’re seeing a rapid growth in orders.
Can you elaborate on how you are teaching these artisans to produce designs of international standards?
Product quality is a major problem area we face in the cottage industry. We help the artisans in getting to know the current trends in the home fabrics and accessories sector. They are taught on how to keep checks on the qualindards. We have also provided them training to use checklists to assure quality control. We are helping the Pakistani cottage industry to modernize and expand its business by means of exports.
What are other means of ensuring that quality of cottage industry improves in terms of supply chain management, inventory control and the types of material? Are you guys involved in making the whole process sustainable?
That’s an interesting question. We’re paving a way for more viable, sustainable working practices adopted by these artisans. Artisans currently have limited access to outside market. We’re training them to expand their businesses. I would again refer to the quality factor. If their quality is improved, they’ll be able to get more business and can stay longer and durable in the business.
Your project is profitable as well as helping social development. How would you equate the profitability and sustainability in this case?
In many ways, our project is sustainable. We’re helping the workers to attain sustainable business while continuing with their traditional professions. We’re working in a way so that artisans share the fruit of our success. Also we’re paying them wages higher than the market average thus making their lives comfortable.
People who want to start social ventures are often times wary of the profitability factor. They think that profitability and social sustainability are not a practical match or kind of evil. What’s your opinion on this issue?
I have a different take on this. I am currently enlisted as a Skoll scholar at Oxford University. Skoll scholarships are based on social entrepreneurship. Researchers at Oxford have identified two type of social entrepreneurship models; for-profit model and not-for-profit model and both are equally working fine. The for-profit model is more financially sustainable and long lasting. The non-profit model is mostly funded by the donor agencies and hence can’t be a durable one. The for-profit ends up in providing more benefits to the community.
For the for-profit model, naturally, the underline assumption is profit?
I don’t think that social consciousness and profitability are mutually proportional. A for-profit social venture shares the profits with the workers/artisans and that’s it. We at Tribal Monsoon have come up with an interesting model where we encourage our clients to donate some amount for the support of the artisans they like. In this way, the artisan not only gets his/her wages and profits but also the donations coming from the international buyers.
What’s important for your business to continue in the future in terms of building sustainability for the artisans? If you have to succeed in the long term, how do you feel you need to support the cottage industry of Pakistan?
If we continue our success in the long term, it will be good for us and of course it will be good for the artisans. If our revenues increase, the artisans will ultimately benefit. Tribal Monsoon is supporting the cottage industry of Pakistan to compete with the international market. We are continuing with our efforts to make our cottage industry financially and socially sustainable.
Do you have any interesting examples when you reached out to these artisans? If you saw that their priorities of business were different from that of the general market?
When I traveled around the country to find artisans for our project, I did notice that their working standards, quality and designs were localized. As they were catering to the local market, hence they were not up to international standards. Same was the case with quantity as they were used to produce in very small numbers while we always got big orders. Now they are a changed lot. Now we are also planning to teach some software skills to these artisans so that they can create world class designs.
What about the mobile technology as that would be more viable as compared to soft wares?
I think mobile penetration is Pakistan is huge. We are looking into using mobile technology to enable a smoother flow in our production process. We are planning to involve other organizations and government agencies on board to make it more viable and sustainable.
You mentioned about software for the artisans. Would you consider purchasing the software from other entrepreneurs or university students?
We are in the process of developing a software. We are looking for a software which is very simple and in the local language and should be very user-friendly.
What’s your thought on bigger corporations looking at sustainability as fundamental part of business?
I would repeat that profitability and social impact and social projects are not necessarily mutually proportional. You don’t necessarily have to make concessions on your profit for social causes. But, we are observing a growing global phenomenon of green business and sustainability. It will grow, definitely. Consumers are going green in the West though we have yet to see any such scene in Pakistan.
Now turning towards procedures. How do you interact with these artisans? Also what about the payment model?
We provide the artisans with the sample. We design the product ourselves through our in-house product designer. We create a sample and send a photo out to the villages where these artisans live. Our guys don’t visit these artisans every time. They only visit once when they establish a relationship. We’ve a whole procedure in place through purchase orders and other means. They are either paid in advance in cash or as soon as their samples are received at our Islamabad warehouse.
The last question will be related to training. Do you have any plans in mind to train these artisans to start an online business? Also what about other entrepreneurs seeking guidance?
I think using e-commerce to sell products will be a great boon for these artisans. That is also my success model, after all. Some people in Pakistan are trying to use the internet for business purposes but are not doing it professionally. I am ready to share my knowledge with other people in this field.