Not a handout, but an opportunity

Not a handout, but an opportunity

November 14, 2019

The people streaming out of the plane stir the still, stagnant air at the airport. Security control and luggage screening seem just a formality; the staff apologizes for the body scanners that alert with every passenger passing through them. A blond woman forces her way to the telephone operator’s desk and tries to get the customer service agent’s attention. We have arrived in Kathmandu to meet some of the Nepalese manufacturers and makers of Store of Hope.

Store of Hope is a strong believer in sustainable development as well as empowering local people and improving the opportunities of women and girls in particular. To ensure the transparency and integrity of Store of Hope operations, founder Eeva Valopaasi visits her Nepalese partners regularly to discuss future prospects. This time, I accompanied her on her trip together with her business partner Anna Takala. It is the first trip for Anna and me, and we aim to get a better idea of the meaning of fair work and entrepreneurship in developing countries.

Eeva Valopaasi uses the word “fair” a lot. Fairness is at the heart of Store of Hope. The company’s values largely correspond to the values and principles of Fairtrade. However, the Fairtrade certification process is complicated and expensive, which is why Store of Hope cannot and does not expect its partners to get certified. Fortunately, fair and just operations are possible even without a certificate.

On the first day of our trip, we meet the owners of two such companies. The working conditions offered by the companies Purnaa and Dinadi are considerably better than average. Purnaa, for instance, covers the school fees of all employees’ children and offers employees health insurance and pension. Dinadi has set up a system that enables underprivileged women to start a new life and work from home, even part-time if they prefer.

Both companies train their employees for their jobs and offer them health, nutrition and housekeeping guidance. Many employees come from poor regions where families can only afford to send their sons to school. As a result, women often lack information about issues related to work or money. The founder of Dinadi, Mirjam Thiessen, also stresses the importance of spending time together and having fun: childhood is short in Nepal and many of the women have never sat together, having a good laugh or playing. Many Finns have played “spin the bottle” as children, and now the game gives Nepalese women a chance to have fun and laugh together like never before.

The owners of both companies stress the importance of education. It is not about pity and handouts, it is about giving people opportunities to educate and improve themselves and their communities.

The next day, we meet the owner of Posh Pashmina, who agrees with the statement. Posh Pashmina makes all the cashmere products sold at Store of Hope, and their sales have soared during the past year. The owner of the company, Saroj, is particularly pleased with the progress; the Nepalese are slowly recovering from the earthquake of 2015, and the company has been able to recruit new employees.

The night of our meeting with Saroj, Anna has a light-bulb moment. Saroj’s story about considerable growth and the need for recruiting additional workforce is just what the women behind Store of Hope have barely dared to dream of: a sign of the business becoming more established and stable! With growth, Posh Pashmina might become the first company to get Fairtrade certified and extend operations beyond Nepal with the help of Store of Hope. While Store of Hope does not require an official certificate of fairness from its partners, many other players and wholesale dealers do.

Store of Hope understands that changes take time to be felt and verified. The company is not trying to make a quick buck out of sustainable development or ethical operations. However, Posh Pashmina is an encouraging example that shows that Store of Hope is on the right path and truly making a difference. These are things that we found out during the first part of our trip – I wonder what the rest of the journey has in store for us!