Dip your toe into developmental economics and you’ll find the overriding notion to be “trade not aid.”
All over the world, sustainability pioneers are demanding this shift, and small businesses are beginning to flourish in developing countries.
So, what does “trade not aid” mean?
Simply put, while aid organisations bring temporary relief and short-term change to a community, trade creates a long-lasting difference, ensuring individuals can support themselves for a lifetime. Where aid organisations may, for example, build a school, trade will ensure the children who eventually attend that school are supported due to their parents’ stable incomes, and can stand on their own feet when the time comes.
Trade is empowerment. It allows individuals to become self-reliant and actively build their futures, using their own talents and skills. Of course, aid has its place, too, but it is the practical and deep-rooting approach of trade that offers prosperity, while shattering misconceptions of doomed nations.
A developing country much in need of such sustainable business is Ethiopia. Debra Mark’os is a rural, east-central town there, best known for its production of agricultural products (such as potatoes, onions and barley). Walk through the streets of this beautiful, bustling place and you’ll see carpenters building furniture on the street, barbers cutting hair, ladies running their traditional cafes and performing coffee ceremonies.
It’s immediately evident that the majority of people work, and that they are salespeople. Competition is fierce, and the bargaining skills of any shy travellers are quickly sharpened.
Unsurprisingly, many of Debra Mark’os inhabitants are forced to travel to the capital of Addis Ababa to find work, where they often end up begging on the streets. Despite its energy, the Debra Mark’os’ job market is stagnant, meaning that instead of developing a product, efforts are spent in making marginal profits.
People end up selling small things on the street, like chewing gum, cigarettes and wooden toothbrushes. Some try to help others by offering a favour, and asking for money in return. As per tradition, many herd sheep.
In the midst of all this, skilled artisans—such as weavers (or “shamani” in the local language)—have slightly better chances at finding stable incomes in manufacturing sectors. In Ethiopia, there’s a secrecy surrounding the weaving methods behind traditional garments, with shamanis wishing to protect their skills, and often refusing to be filmed. In Debra Mark’os, you may find a shamani weaving at home, such as Bekabil.
Bekabil, a kind soul, lives in Debra Mark’os with his three young children. As most houses are in his neighbourhood, his home is made of wood, covered in a mix of mud and grass from the surrounding countryside. He uses a traditional hand-loom to create his beautiful pieces—such as Ethiopian tartan—using locally-picked cotton. His loom is simple and his technique ancient, meaning he needs no electricity to do his job. This comes in handy, considering Debra Mark’os can experience up to five power-cuts a week!
Wanting to provide security for his family, Bekabil has agreed to train local women on how to operate the hand-loom – a skill he learnt as a boy. This is significant as the weaving industry in heavily male-dominated, with women often being barred from such stable job opportunities due to a lack of education and child-rearing duties.
One of the women Bekabil hopes to train is named Maaza. Widowed with five children, Maaza wants to eventually manage a weaving workshop, supporting her family and paying one of her older children’s school fees, who is currently studying computing. Maaza learnt to crochet in eastern Ethiopia where she grew up with her family, before they were torn apart during the Ethiopian civil war.
Over the past six years, Maaza has learnt to use a pedal-powered machine to sew, and during that time, began to make and repair the clothes of her community. However, as time went on, she saw the market for her skill decline due to the rise in cheaper clothes and consistent migration from rural areas to Addis, in search for jobs in the clothing industry. Maaza is now looking forward to learning a new skill with Bekabil. She plans to make traditional dresses, scarves, and other garments, exposing her skills and also her heritage to the world.
It is through trade that people like Bekabil and Maaza can begin to live in a sustainable way. By bringing items that such artisans create into a wider market, we can help them support themselves, all while bringing fascinating, often hand-made pieces from other cultures into our own homes and lives.
Author: Kate Rose
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: Nickie Shobeiry