Many brands nowadays choose to work with disadvantaged communities in countries across the world to create and manufacture their products. Unlike large corporations which primarily focus on profit and growth, usually the intention behind these businesses is to generate social impact. Most don’t function as charities but aim to provide sustainable employment and income for the people behind the products. Operating in disadvantaged communities often comes with its own set of challenges and benefits and each business has a unique story to tell. Working in refugee settlements on the Thai-Burma border, Cara Boccieri and Akamae established a method of co-creation through research and lived experience. It’s a beautiful tale of human connection.
In 2011, Boccieri designed a research project that investigated a holistic approach to refugee settlements. Across the world, humanitarian aid too often focuses on what a community is lacking and aims to fill that void. Backed by the United Nations, Boccieri’s research aimed to flip this idea on its head. She wanted to look more closely at the human beings themselves and the valuable skills and resources that they possessed. Having worked in Thailand previously as an English teacher for three years, Boccieri chose to carry out her project in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border.
Thailand’s neighbour, Burma, has been plagued by internal conflict over the years. A decades-long fight for equality led by the Karen ethnic group against the Burmese government forced tens of thousands of people to flee across the border into Thailand. At the time of Boccieri’s research, many people had been living in these settlements and surrounding villages on the Thai-Burma border for over 25 years. Conditions were difficult and Thailand, up until very recently, restricted people’s ability to work and travel, contributing to and compounding various social and psychological issues in the camps. For years these refugees had been entirely dependant on humanitarian aid and had experienced very little self-determination.
Through participatory interviews with people living in the refugee settlements, Boccieri discovered a common theme. “People were saying to me over and over again, ‘We have traditional skills, we don’t have access to a marketplace because we’re in these camps but we’d like to be using these skills to move towards self-reliance. Can we create something together?’” she shares.
It wasn’t until a few years later in 2014, after completing her research and publishing a book, that Boccieri returned to Thailand once more to see if she could build on this concept of co-creating a line of products using traditional craftsmanship and skills. Moving to Mae Hong Son in Thailand’s north-west, she arranged a meeting with the chiefs of the refugee villages in the local area to discuss and develop the idea. All were enthusiastic about the proposal and they got down to business.
Boccieri cites their biggest challenge as working against the model of humanitarian aid that exists globally. She laments that, “It’s actually getting in the way of what we’re doing every day. A lot of these people have been told for 30 years that they’re refugees and they’re not so valuable and their skills, experiences and lives are not so valuable.
“That they don’t know their needs, that outside NGOs and international governments, they don’t know their needs. Being told by outside NGOs, by governments, by the education system, it’s hammered home regularly for a population living in a refugee situation.”
Because of this, when it came down to trying to create a product together, many of the villagers had doubts about their abilities. Through workshops and discussions, Boccieri worked with the community to build confidence and self-worth. “I communicated to people how valuable I see them as, that I also see myself as valuable and together we can create things,” she explains.
It wasn’t long before people who had previously thought they had little to offer were brimming with ideas about what they could co-create. Boccieri notes, “I was seeing women who had previously said, ‘I don’t have any ideas, you have the ideas, you tell me what to do,’ to women walking in, interrupting and saying, ‘I don’t like that design, try this design it’s better.’ Grabbing a piece of paper, drawing it out and all of a sudden we have a new design!”
Three months after arriving in Mae Hong Son, Akamae was open for business. Boccieri and her team listen to the needs of the community, work with the artisans to create their own businesses through training and workshops, and then buy directly from them. Akamae sells the products, including jewellery and accessories, on their website and invest the profits back into the project. The stories of impact speak to the success of the co-creation method.
When Boccieri visited Hoi Phu Kang the chief showed her a big loom that was supposed to be used for weaving but instead was locked in a bamboo hut. The chief pointed out that it was symbolic of their displacement because if they had been living at home, all of the women would have known how to use it. Because they were living as refugees, none of the women knew how to weave on the loom. He identified that learning these skills would be very important to the community. Akamae hired a woman from one of the camps to come and live in the village and train the women on the large loom and now cultural practices that are valued by the people living in Hoi Phu Kang have been preserved for another generation.
Le Tuan is one of the only Kayan jewellers in the region and his story is another example of positive social impact. His designs are very traditional and in the past, when he was living in Burma, every family would have owned one of his traditional necklaces. However, in the refugee settlements, nobody can really afford to buy Le Tuan’s jewellery and this had meant that not only was there no market for his product but he was also struggling to pass on his skills to the next generation. Akamae worked with Le Tuan to determine the quantity of jewellery they would need to order to allow him to train and hire an apprentice. Although many of the trainees dropped out once they realised how hard it was, a few of them stuck with it and Le Tuan’s traditional knowledge and skills will live on.
These are just two of many stories that speak to the power of this way of working. Boccieri reveals the magic of co-creation lies within the connection between different people. “Often in our societies we remain in this place of disconnect; disconnected from ourselves, our environment and everyone around us. I see this idea of co-creation as a remedy to all of this because in order to co-create together we have to value ourselves, value each other, hear each other, be with each other, and connect with each other.” Now, with ambitions to take the practice of co-creation global, Boccieri is sharing this way of working with as many people as possible, offering courses in co-creation and connecting fashion designers with refugee artisans to co-create products. Boccieri describes it as, “An antidote to cultural appropriation in the fashion industry.”
While there may be many ways to operate in disadvantaged communities, through co-creation, Akamae is developing a roadmap for a more connected and meaningful method of driving social impact. Boccieri imparts, “I’m hearing more and more, ‘This is unique, no one is talking about this, no one is doing it like this.’ I guess people enter communities kind of doing rather than being, being with the community.” Rooted in self-reliance and self-empowerment, the brand demonstrates that people have incredible potential to help themselves, provided the right conditions.
For more information visit akamae.com.
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