All work/All play: Crafting a way out of a war zone

January 5, 2007

Amber Chand was frustrated. Even before the palm grass baskets sold on her Web site arrived from Darfur to her warehouse in Massachusetts, they had sold out. And given the risks presented by a supply chain originating in the violence-shattered region of the Sudan, there was no guarantee that she would be able to fulfill her back- order list before Christmas.

A month later, she faced a 25 basket back-order after a Christmas season that saw her client base grow and her revenues top $50,000. Though delighted by the success of the baskets and committed to buying goods from Darfur, she was nervous about basing 2007 projections on sales of goods whose sourcing was so precarious.

“There is a strong market for this product,” said Chand. Her online business sells gift items made by women in conflict regions with the goal of supporting both them and her fledgling enterprise. “My obstacle is I am not getting enough in terms of production,” she said.

Under an agreement forged by Chand and the humanitarian relief organization CHF International, 100 women living in camps for internally displaced persons across Darfur have produced 150 baskets for Chand’s online store, The Amber Chand Collection. In return, CHF pays the weavers $12 a basket, a 30 percent premium over local market price. Chand purchases the baskets from CHF for sale online to her customers throughout the United States. The baskets retail for $65, a standard mail order markup that leaves Chand about $40 to plow back into her business once the goods and their transport are covered. They are sold on her Web site,

Creating her own collection marks a new start for Chand, 56, a native of Uganda who fled Idi Amin’s dictatorship at the age of 22. In 1999 Chand helped found the online retailer Eziba, which sold handicrafts from around the world and offered global entrepreneurs access to the lucrative U.S. market. A dot- com darling, the business received $40 million in venture capital before running out of money early last year, a victim of too much growth too fast, Chand said. Now she is taking it slow and starting small with a line produced by skilled craftswomen in regions wracked by conflict.

Since its beginning at the start of 2006, the alliance between Chand and CHF has caught the attention of the World Bank’s International Finance Corp., among others. It has also exposed both the difficulties and the opportunities of blending aid with commerce, while providing income to women in desperate need.

Many of the women weavers landed in the sprawling camps with their children, having fled their homes amid the region’s ethnic warfare. More than 2.5 million people are reported to have been displaced by the fighting between government and rebels, which has killed more than 200,000 since 2003.

Security is a pressing issue for these women, many of whom have lost their husbands to the fighting. The CHF basket project is one of several the organization runs to help the women in the camps earn income without having to leave the safety of their loosely marked borders.

The baskets, woven in bold colors and criss- crossed by geometric patterns, are a part of the Darfur region’s handicraft culture. Both the workmanship and the conditions under which they were made drew Chand to the sturdy covered baskets when she saw them at a CHF handicrafts workshop in Washington in 2005.

Chand and CHF say they are committed to making the project work, and to helping women earn the money they need to provide for themselves and their families. “When you give women a chance to earn income, it usually goes right back to their children,” said Jennifer Marcy, of the CHF Program Office, who administers the baskets program. “This money goes to pay for educating their children, feeding them, clothing them.”

For both the organization and for Chand, there have been numerous hurdles to overcome in getting the business off the ground, the biggest being operating in a war zone.

“Our staff stays in one area and travels throughout the camps,” Marcy said. “We don’t have coordinators at the camps 24 hours a day. It is hard to manage a crafts project when you are not able to be there.”

Then there are the more mundane business questions of style, scale and capacity. “Making a standardized basket is something new” to the women, Marcy said, noting that many women chafe at having to adhere to a pattern. Transport also is complicated and costly, totaling roughly $400 a shipment.

Chand says that she is committed to expanding the business and increasing the number of women it reaches. Plans are under way to streamline the transport process, and the baskets are a hit with U.S. consumers, who view their purchase as helping women in Darfur. Each time Chand has posted the baskets online, they have sold out within 48 hours.

Pamela Murphy of Riverside, Connecticut, purchased 10 baskets last summer, one of which is with her son at college in California. “It is a very accountable, tangible way to make a tiny little statement,” she said. “As small as it was, I was doing something, something born out of respect for a mother somewhere.”