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December 14, 2017
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Decorated vodu bottles by Axelle. Source: nuvohaiti.com.
Vodu Nuvo arrives at Selfridges.
Source: pinterest.com.

Almost three years after a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, leaving it open to poverty, instability and violence, the sense of disaster and adversity still lingers in the Haitian air. Among the initiatives working to improve the hardships faced by Haitians is Canadian-based BRANDAID Project. The social enterprise project was co-founded in 2008 by artist Cameron Brohman, who has lived and worked in Haiti and other developing countries for the past 25 years, and his friend, Tony Pigott, president and CEO of marketing and advertising firm, J. Walter Thompson Canada.

Through its collaboration with UNESCO and other design and development experts from around the world, the project identifies master artisan-led and community-based projects in Haiti which collaborate with BRANDAID to design and develop new products. BRANDAID then connects these groups of very poor but highly-skilled workers with the opportunities and wealth available in bustling global markets, building for-profit brands in the process. As Brohman explained to Fastcompany.com, "Artisans are the backbone of the Haitian economy. Like most poor countries, it is a handmade economy where people make whatever they need from whatever is available. The artisans also channel the culture and ancient techniques. They are storytellers and employers in every community."

BRANDAID plugs artisans into the global economy through a combination of establishing a brand name and wordmark for each collection, providing micro-financing, careful and precise marketing, intelligent distribution networks, strong development cycles and establishing productive relationships with key mass retailers who represent the collections across the globe.

In a world still coming to terms with the global banking crisis and the impact it has had on societies around the world, a business model that focuses on delivering benefit to the community, rather than a few corporate shareholders, is very attractive.

The innovative project also aspires to offer fair levels of pay. Brohman tells The Genteel, "BRANDAID pays artisans between 30 to 50 per cent of wholesale price. They are paid a 50 per cent advance on the receipt of purchase order and the remainder on delivery of [the] order." 

Already stocked at Macy's department stores, and with one collection recently launched at Selfridges, the handmade products are quirky, unique and highly desirable. Turning a sea of debris into luxury items, the project currently represents ten brands that each promote a variety of artisanal techniques. 

The decision to separate the products out into branded collections, according to the company website, is to ensure that the labels "function as unifying platforms for an assortment of products picked from our individual brands." The project explains, "when introducing a selection of products from a range of brands under a branded 'umbrella' collection, we are able to more efficiently communicate the full story of our initiatives."

One of the brands developed by BRANDAID is Vodu Nuvo, a collection of over 30 products ranging from furniture to home décor to traditional textiles. Within the collection, traditional oil drums have metamorphosed into mottled green and silver incense burners, recycled galvanised steel has been transformed into hardwearing metal pails and tin cans have been given a second burst of life as colourful ladles and strainers. To date, the collection seems to have been a success. Georgia Frost, the Selfridges Food and Home Press Officer, told The Genteel that, "Vodu Nuvo has performed really well since it arrived at Selfridges in October."

In a contrasting aesthetic to Vodu Nuvo, the Croix des Bouquets collection features stunning bowls riddled with perforations, made from recycled oil drums, while Axelle designs caramel-coloured sugar paper dresses, decorated vodu bottles from a combination of reprocessed glass and sequins and Govi pots made from brindled Haitian red clay. Carnival Jakmel uses traditional paper mache techniques to create both colourful and neutral Ciment bowls and Tobacco vases, whilst cotton shirting has been used in various coordinating colours for the thick quilts of the Peace Quilts range.

Carnival Jakmel's tobacco bowls.
Source: stitchbystitch.eu.

The beautiful products have gained wide admiration, most notably from the likes of Charlize Theron, Josh Brolin, Diane von Furstenberg and Diane Lane. The company's celebrity-driven marketing and attention-grabbing tag lines such as "Poverty Needs Marketing" achieve their purpose of getting much-needed publicity, but for some consumers, the market-driven focus of BRANDAID is perplexing.

At first glance, the project conceivably comes across as a charitable organisation due, in part, to its requests for donations, a name that sounds incredibly similar to Bob Geldof's Band Aid charity and selective marketing that makes a point of promoting the company's social endeavours. This impression is further perpetuated by many media outlets wrongly describing BRANDAID as being not-for-profit, including sites such as Wikipedia.

BRANDAID makes no secret, however, about the fact it is a social enterprise working on a for-profit basis, drawing a neat balance between financial gain and social responsibility. Pigott openly explained to The Globe and Mail in August 2012 that "BRANDAID is a for-profit business, just one with a social conscience. Making a profit is essential to our future sustainability." As it explains in its mission statement, BRANDAID wants Haitian artisans to "receive a just portion of the proceeds" and get "the recognition they deserve and opportunities for sustained business." 

Brohman told The Globe and Mail, "the big idea here is that reducing global poverty is a business opportunity." Whilst this may sound harsh, Jonathan Alder of Exeter-based brand agency Alder and Alder, who wrote a brand-building manual for charities, non-profits and social enterprises, says he has "read many articles in the last year describing it as the business model of the future." Explains Alder, "In a world still coming to terms with the global banking crisis and the impact it has had on societies around the world, a business model that focuses on delivering benefit to the community, rather than a few corporate shareholders, is very attractive."

...utilising the skills and expertise of a community that has suffered, as the residents of Haiti have, brings value far beyond purely financial gain. Being a valued part of a supply chain brings enormous benefits to a community, in terms of self confidence and self respect, something that hand-outs and charity can never do.

For the model to work, the social enterprise needs to benefit, or there would be no incentive, but says Alder, "the benefit to a community making goods for the luxury market is that the profit margin is probably higher." As Pigott tells The Globe and Mail, "being market driven is not only important to investors but also to the artisans themselves, who want to do business, not ask for a handout." 

Despite the tough economic climate, consumers are buying into ethical and organic product ranges as they spend longer searching for items offering unique designs, quality and longevity. As The Guardian records, "The purchase of ethical products with high awareness and broad appeal, like fair trade and locally produced goods, is also on the rise." BRANDAID is certainly tapping into a profitable niche in the marketplace, and with celebrity endorsements and beautiful products, it seems the project is on course to becoming a success.

As a result of BRANDAID's positive impact on Haiti's communities, theirs seems to be a business model worth advocating for. As The Globe and Mail reported, at the time of writing, it was estimated that some 3,000 Haitians had benefited from the high-profile deal between Macy's and BRANDAID - all the while, as Brohman tells The Genteel, BRANDAID has yet to turn a profit. "Once the company is in the black, 10 per cent of profits will flow into the [BRANDAID] Foundation for community projects [in Haiti]."

In offering impoverished artisans the unique chance of global exposure, domestic stability and an unprecedented creative platform, BRANDAID has indeed had a positive impact upon the local Haitian communities. Brohman comments, "the developing world is one of the next design frontiers, producing goods that fuse quality with creativity beyond just low cost. Through the push and pull of cross cultural collaboration a new vernacular emerged - one that respects and elevates local traditions." Concludes Alder, "utilising the skills and expertise of a community that has suffered, as the residents of Haiti have, brings value far beyond purely financial gain. Being a valued part of a supply chain brings enormous benefits to a community, in terms of self confidence and self respect, something that hand-outs and charity can never do."

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