Style: People: Giving Back Boutique
Giving Back Boutique
Tucked in a breezy space on the top floor above Yangon’s Monsoon restaurant, Helping Hands Loft (www.helpinghandsyangon.wordpress.com) is a genius fair-trade boutique. It collaborates with NGOs in producing quality gifts, fashion and accessories that give back to the communities that make them. It’s run by a network of volunteers of various backgrounds and nationalities, including ones from Myanmar, Australia, Italy, Brazil, England, Poland, America and Germany.
Ulla Kröbler is a German-born architect who had previously been stationed in Myanmar in 1994 and 1997, thanks to her Dutch husband’s work for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Returning in 2011, she met the motivated group behind Helping Hands and was immediately inspired to get involved. Here she speaks about the shop, its challenges and introducing the idea of fair trade to Myanmar.
Don’t miss the shop during your next visit: Helping Hands Loft.
What is the inspiration behind Helping Hands Loft?
Our aim is to be a marketplace for communities that produce and create products as a way of funding their own initiatives. These can range from health care to education. Remember that the Myanmar government, so far, spends the biggest part of its budget on defense services and not on education or health care. People have to start their own initiatives and fend for themselves.
Thanks to the amazing political reforms at the moment, our shop is now possible. But we also believe that with the opening of Myanmar and the influx of cheap goods from neighboring China, Myanmar craftsmanship is facing tough times. Therefore, we want to take part in preserving Myanmar’s cultural heritage, and to also encourage local artisans to create their own contemporary designs .
Bringing craftsmen, NGOs and volunteers together in this way is a new experience for all of us. It is a process of discovery about each other and about ourselves. Our ultimate goal is that Helping Hands Loft will be completely Myanmar-run!
What are some of the NGOs and organizations with whom you partner?
We are currently working with twelve groups, but this can change as we are growing our reputation and more producers come to us. Some groups are established and have their own websites, others work out of a hut and don’t even have telephone access or any English speakers, which sometimes leads to funny misunderstandings.
These organizations work with HIV-positive people, disabled people, health prevention programs and monastic education.
What has the local response been?
So far everyone seems to be eager to see us grow. As Myanmar has been basically cut off from the rest of the world for about 50 years, the idea of “fair trade,” “fair play” and socially responsible business are completely unknown concepts.
How do you see the fair trade concept developing in Myanmar?
We hope that more businesses will follow and act socially responsible. Traditionally Myanmar people have a good sense of community, and there are amazing and enthusiastic young people here who feel a responsibility towards their communities. Everybody in town realizes that these are historic times of change!
What are some of your favorite items currently sold at the boutique?
I am amazed by the back-strap weaving coming from Chin state. Fifteen years ago no weaving of this quality was available here in Yangon. Now textiles can come to Yangon and if we pay a fair prize and honor the producers’ creativity, we contribute to the preservation of these traditional techniques. The textiles give a cash income to people in rural areas, which is also very important.
Another product are the Moon Bags from the Helping Hands Workshop. They are designed by Italian designer Valeria Turrisi, who volunteers her time, sewn by women of the workshop and embellished by street children. Recently, a young girl joined and with her income she, her siblings and their mother can now rent a room, so they are not sleeping in the street anymore. When you buy these bags, you not only have purchased something quite beautiful, but you know where your money goes.
We also have a number of bracelets that are produced by Lanthar Yar disability group. Naw Eh Wah came to the shop with their creations and asked whether we could sell them. Within a week, I had to call and ask for more stock; by now we sold a couple of hundreds. They were so inspired by this success that they’ve come up with more and different products. We can now also pay more to the people of Lanthar Yar Disability center. I love this story.
Do you have any new products in the works?
Recently, a young pastor came to us and said that his community consists of sixteen villages who produce an organic green tea. There are no customers for the product, as the villages have high unemployment. Of course, I am now wondering how we can bring this product to our customers. Will visitors to Myanmar buy green tea to take back home?
To be honest, a big part of our work at Helping Hands Loft is to figure out what will appeal to visitors. It’s about figuring out that small alteration in a design, that little tweak that makes the items desirable. And everyone is very eager to learn. Just recently, one of our producers asked, “Can you teach us to look with foreigners’ eyes?”
How can interested travelers get involved with Helping Hands?
We want our producers to have a decent income, so we have to raise awareness. Stay informed about Myanmar, visit the shop when you are here, and please spread the word.
Read Indagare’s Destination Report on Myanmar