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Fair trade program benefits Nepali education

Fri, Feb 3, 2012

Backpackers adventuring past their own borders are common among 20-somethings. Some are on a quest for self-fulfillment and others for a beach town retreat, but to quote the novel Lord of the Rings, “not all those who wander are lost.”

Blake Huseman, an American English teacher in South Korea, turned his wanderlust into a social entrepreneurship project promoting fair trade in India and educational development in Nepal. After working and traveling in Asia, Australia and Central America for three years, he returned home to found the non-profit organization, Rising Spirals.

“Some people got me thinking about fair trade and economic structures that are designed to help people in every level of the supply chain rather than exploiting the workers,” Huseman said, “I started thinking a lot about creating economic opportunities for people who don’t really have them or who make quality things, but don’t really have the outlet for them or access to marketing and customers.”

While in the Kashmir region of India, Huseman discovered a new realm of the global marketplace: luxury crafts. “My focus is on really high-quality stuff that in the past was crafted for royalty,” Huseman said of the emperor wool shawls and silk rugs. “Now it is more available because of cost of living differentials for people over here. They are all totally organic, unique, beautiful handmade things made by people working to support their families.”

Huseman’s new business sells brightly dyed cashmere shawls, emperor’s wool wedding ring shawls, hand knotted silk rugs, chain stitched silk rugs, chain stitched pillow covers, and beaded patchwork. The items come from the extended Gundroo family in Kashmir with the exception of the beaded patchwork, which is traded by the family with artisans in Rajasthan.

In total, 200 Indians benefit from the profits made in the exporting business, which also works with Europeans and a few other Americans, including Huseman, to sell their crafts abroad.

Scarves range from $60 to $120 and Kashmiri rugs done in a variety of patterns range from $700 to $7000, depending on the time and materials spent on the intricacy of the work.

Women do most of the weaving and handcrafting, but men of the family hand knot the carpets. Huseman said, “As for the cashmere and rugs it’s really just this one family group working with their ancient styles and designs.”

Huseman notes the shawls are made of some of the finest wool in the world and then colored with vegetable dyes, rather than synthetic materials. “What we’re selling is going to last a lifetime. They’re all unique designs, completely original and made from scratch with organic materials,” Huseman said. An artisan spends one to three weeks creating a cashmere shawl or five months to one year for an investment-quality hand-knotted rug.

He went on to give an example of one woman and artesian who crafts the goods in addition to other work she does to support her family. She uses the income from Huseman’s fair trade business to provide education for her children.

Huseman invests profits from Rising Spirals in a developing school in east-central Nepal.

“I was in Nepal hiking in the mountains and I ended up in this little village and they really wanted me to help out with this school, so I volunteered there for a bit and saw that there was not a whole lot of infrastructure, industry or economy in this area,” Huseman said.

“There’s a road to get to the next village which you can see on the next mountain that takes you four hours walking or two hours or more in a bus.” He added that the village’s mountain is “several days walk from Mount Everest.”

Whil spending time in the village and volunteering at the local Kanchanjangha English School, he saw the dedication of Dili Kharki, a man who founded the school. Huseman became inspired to find a way to also make an impact in the community.

The school is currently funded by minimal tuition paid by parents of the 65 Nepali students. More funding sources will be available with Lights on Tiwari Bhanjyang, founded in conjunction with Rising Spirals.

“First we want to make sure the school can operate and provide quality education and once Dili is not going into debt to operate this institution then we’ll get books, but everything has to come in steps,” Huseman said. The school is also in need of new materials and training for teachers on effective methods, possibly through U.S. study abroad arrangements. Huseman went on to explain, “A new facility would be fantastic and wouldn’t be really expensive, right now it is just basically bamboo and tin.”

Many of the students are the first-generation to receive an education. Huseman hopes the school will become more sustainable and increase the value of education in the community. “The school is in an English medium and that’s huge so they can participate in the global marketplace,” said Huseman.

Huseman is currently looking for new venues in Chicago to showcase the luxury items, whether in art galleries, home parties or fair trade shops. Go to the online world boutique www.crownloom.com and register with the invitation code StreetWise12 to view or purchase the luxury handmade items from Kashmir and Rajasthan. He can be contacted at blake@risingspirals.com.

Written by Angela Wells,
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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