Colorful felt mobiles featuring owls, dinosaurs and llamas hang high at the Fair Trade Store at The Little Traveler, 404 S. Third St., Geneva, all handmade by artisans in Nepal.
Madhav Pandey founded the felt goods company in 2011 with two employees and now employs more than 400 full and part-time felt workers and designers in Kathmandu.
The mobiles and finger puppets come to the store via The Winding Road, a company founded the same year by Geneva-based Marla Showfer. She went to Nepal to bring handicrafts from developing countries.
“He just opened a little shop,” Showfer said. “Fate somehow brought us together.”
She liked what she saw and told him she could sell the items in the United States.
Now she imports more than 98% of his handmade goods to 1,000 stores in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.
She said they sold 68,000 felt finger puppets this holiday season.
Fair trade is a label that supports farmers and artisans in developing countries with fair prices, non-discrimination and no child or forced labor.
Almost all of Pandey’s felt craftsmen are women. Many are working from home as they take care of young children, he said.
Pandey’s felt company also supports international companies. The felt is made from sheep’s wool imported from Australia and New Zealand, and non-toxic dyes for coloring come from Switzerland.
The process to make a one-finger puppet takes three days, Pandey said.
It involves mixing water into the wool, hand-rolling it, and then drying it in the hot sun for a day, Showfer said.
“There’s no electricity used, there’s no waste, there’s no chemical waste,” Showfer said.
Good wages lead to children’s education
A landlocked country between China and India, Nepal is best known for Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Most of its economy is supported by mountain hikers attempting to scale Everest, Showfer said.
But making these little felt products — toys, finger puppets, mobiles — is changing the lives of workers and their children, she said.
“For a lot of people, a living wage wouldn’t allow them to put money in a bank or save money,” Showfer said. “Now that these women are working, they have two-income households. They can now send their children to school.”
Pandey said Nepal’s public schools lack the basics, so most send their children to private schools and pay for tuition, books and uniforms. The cost would equate to $350 to $400 for a year.
Showfer said the illiteracy rate for women over 50 in Nepal is 80 percent.
“Imagine walking down the street and you can’t read a street sign … or you get a government letter and you can’t read it,” Showfer said.
But all the children of women who work for Pandey go to school, Showfer said.
Work and a good wage also deter vulnerable Nepalese women from human trafficking, Showfer said.
“We’re not Fair Trade certified in Nepal,” Pandey said. “But now we do much more than fair trade.”
Pandey said if a woman can only work at home late afternoon with a baby, he accommodates her.
“That’s what we call fair trade. Fair wages,” said Pandey. “We pay them for transportation – coming and going – bus fare. And lunch… in the afternoon. And health matters when they are sick.”
Pandey pays bonuses to all his employees during the festival of Deepawali or Diwali to go to their villages for a month.
As much as their work has changed life in Nepal, so has Pandey and Showfer’s life.
Pandey came from a small village of just 68 families in Nuwakot. A college graduate, he was 21 when he started his own business in Kathmandu and met Showfer.
Showfer had just started her company, The Winding Road. She has a master’s degree in advertising and integrated marketing communications.
Whatever new idea she threw at him, Pandey would pick it up. For example, she wanted felted pictures of different dog breeds – but they don’t exist in Nepal. She showed him photos of popular breeds for his designers to create.
“He’s very adaptable and super smart,” Showfer said.
It took Pandey a year to get a visa to enter the United States, which required an interview at the US Embassy and Showfer sponsored him. She takes him to gift fairs to find out about product trends in person.
The next step for him is the completion of a new earthquake-proof building in Kathmandu for his workers – a far cry from where he started with a dirt floor.
“There are so many poor people in Kathmandu,” said Pandey. “Creating jobs is the most important thing. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
For more information about the Showfer company or how to help Pandey workers, visit shopthewindingroad.com.