After 15 years, I still succumb to absolute mental exhaustion and frustration when dealing with the artisans and the makers of our products. Maintaining quality and consistency is no easy task. And trying to determine the true root of a problem so that a solution can be found to avoid future mistakes eludes me the way losing ten pounds is similarly unattainable.
I head to the Friday market to meet with Evelyn, the leader of the team of basket weavers, to pick up the most recent order. I had with me more than a dozen baskets from the December order which had been shipped to me but were unsellable. The colors, size and shapes were poorly done, making them impossible to sell. When I received the order, having paid nearly $500 for 60 pounds, and had seen the inferior quality, I immediately contacted Evelyn via WhatsApp with instructions and concerns.
We pay nearly twice the price to ship a basket than we pay for the actual product. When shoddy orders reach me in the United States, I’m simply stuck with product that I either cannot sell or I sell at a loss. And when I address it with the artisans, I hear some version of the refrain, “Forgive me. It won’t happen again.” Forgive me? That phrase makes me cringe. I am not your priest or pastor. You do not need to seek forgiveness from me. And the mistakes repeatedly happen.
As I walk over to Evelyn, with a bag full of the baskets I’m returning to her, she presents me with dozens of baskets that are equally poorly woven, misshapen with colors we’ve never before used. Of the order of nearly 100 baskets, there are only 24 that I can buy. And even those are subpar. As I speak to her about the misshapen baskets, baskets that are nearly flat as a plate, and question what happened, she explains that she is training new weavers. I politely, but more firmly than usual, tell her that if the weavers can’t produce quality baskets, it’s her problem, but that I’m not accepting the order.
Recognizing that I’m not acquiescing, she changes tactics. She explains that some customers like the baskets that are flat, so she thought I, too, might like them. I counter, “But, I’ve never bought flat baskets from you before, why would I buy them now?”
A new excuse emerges. “It’s because of Covid,” she explains. “We can’t make the round ones because of Covid.”
How can a problem be corrected when the excuses and reasons are as limitless as one’s creativity for inventing stories? I’ve learned that most, if not all, of the women I work with, are truly, the most creative and passionate storytellers you’ll ever meet. Though it can make for entertaining dialogue, it makes for utter exasperation from the business perspective.
After nearly an hour of this fictional discourse, I leave, standing my ground stronger than ever before. Having barely survived 2020, if I give in, I’d literally be throwing away money that we desperately need. Frustrated and angry. But it’s not that simple. There are over 90 baskets that have been made that I’m refusing to buy. The material and labor is not being compensated. They too, just barely survived 2020. I walk away knowing that their loss is greater. I hate that I have to stand my ground, knowing it’s the only chance I have at avoiding a similar mistake. I hate that I feel like a parent, trying to teach a child what is right or wrong. I am not a parent, and these are not children. They are women. Artisans. Equals. Yet because I hold the purse strings, I ultimately wield the control. I hate that responsibility. The unfairness of the situation is not lost on me.