2010 social enterprise visit to Russia - 1

When I got into the car in Rybinsk this morning Victor pointed to the temperature displayed on the dashboard. Although it was a beautiful sunny morning and not even particularly early – about 9am – the outside temperature was still only -16°c. Victor told us about a previous visit to Rybinsk, when even he had found it so chilly he ran to the car. When the dashboard lit that day the outside temperature read -42°c.

Over the last two years I've been advising Oxfam on the role social enterprise might play in their anti-poverty work in Russia. At first this was focussed on strategy: understanding the legal/financial environment for social enterprise, the resources and capacity of the NGOs for disadvantaged people Oxfam is working with, what external support might be available, and so on. Now at last the work has moved on to what for me is a more exciting phase: real social enterprise development work.

The kind of felt character that first caught my eyeThe kind of felt character that first caught my eye

Last year I met a group of people from the 'Big Family' NGO in Rybinsk who were creating a network of homeworkers to manufacture felt products. It was work ideally suited to housebound, single parent and hard-pressed families. Among them was a very talented designer, Pavel Gavrilov, whose felt characters had such personality they almost told you their own back story themselves. I immediately knew they would sell in the West, or anywhere there was significant disposable income, but the simple lack of economic activity in most of Russia (outside a few big cities - which are booming) made it impossible to realise anything approaching the real labour time they embodied.

How to solve this problem?

I approached it by bringing together two kinds of business model:

  • fair trade, and
  • merchandising (book and movie tie-ins)

First, incorporate some of the characters in a book aimed at children and sold through the Oxfam shops and other sympathetic retailers – this book itself being a wholly ethical product - and second, set up a 'fair-trade' style supply chain mechanism to take the felt characters from disadvantaged home workers in Rybinsk directly to the shops to sell alongside the book.

The idea is that they acquire sufficient added value to pay the homeworkers at least the average wage in Rybinsk, because they both reach a market with more disposable income and gain the emotional attachment people have with characters in a well loved story. I have never presented this idea to anyone without acknowledging how difficult it will be to pull it off – not least to create a great story starting only with the characters; yet everyone I have spoken to has loved the idea, including Oxfam, who have now brought me out to Rybinsk again with a writer and publisher, Helen Limon, to initiate the development of the story for the book.

One of Pavel's new more child-friendly felt charactersOne of Pavel's new more child-friendly felt characters

There are two main reasons for this I think...

  1. You only have to look at the characters to see them living and breathing in a successful story; and
  2. There is actually in this idea an attempt to move fair trade models up to a whole new level.

More of this in my next blog – but obviously Oxfam, as one of the fair trade pioneer organisations (they were among the founders of Cafedirect) saw in this approach an initiatve whose ripples might spread far further than the poor Russian families who will be its immediate beneficiaries.

So, after flying into Moscow at the weekend – fortunately just in time for the Maslenitsa pancake festival - and a Monday of meetings in the Oxfam office there – we traveled yesterday the 500k through the beautifully frozen Russian landscape, northeast to Rybinsk.

Read my next post from Russia here.

Stories with 4 dimensional characters

This is a beautiful idea Geof and there are other communities who might benefit from it. Last year, while out in Kathmandu (on a fair trade errand) i met a really inspiring business woman who made wonderful dolls all of which had a story to tell. And each of which you could relate to someone you knew. If I can find her details i'll send them to you.

Love the logo by the way, if we ever get to meet i'll share the image that penny newman used to take around producer communities to explain the relationship we were building with consumers through Cafédirect. I rekon you'll find it familiar.

Good luck with this extraordinary venture.