At Dowser, we were excited to recently reconnect with the leadership team of Design Impact at the end of their pilot year launching an innovative social enterprise across India. Per the name, Design Impact addresses social problems using the toolkits of design in a grassroots way. Ramsey Ford and Kate Hanisian, the co-directors of Design Impact, have been working with small businesses in India to develop sustainability-produced, fair trade products for international markets.
In November, Hanisian and Ford were joined in India by six international fellows with design backgrounds, who received funding from Design Impact to work with community-based organizations, fusing design and social enterprise. When Dowser spoke to Ford, he and Hanisian were in Thiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, where they were working to develop a fair trade soap that is now being sold in stores in the U.S., including Whole Foods. Ford shared some takeaways from their pilot year, as well as thoughts about their vision moving forward.
Dowser: What’s the update on the products you are developing?
Ford: We have launched one project—we’re selling fair trade glycerin soaps—the glycerin is made locally with biodiesel energy, made from a local nut, and we’re hoping to scale through a connection through Whole Foods. We worked with ODAM to put together a shipment of about 1600 soaps that arrived in the States in December last year. We’re starting in some Ohio stores, and then got into our first Whole Foods just a few weeks ago—and as a small producer, we start out in a store or two, and if we do well we’ll move up to regional or national. Sustainable production level would be about 1000 soaps a month—so that would work if we were in about thirty Whole Foods.
How are you determining whether the soaps qualify as ‘Fair Trade’?
One of the reasons the village wanted to do this was to support the biodiesel program, but another was to create good jobs. The product is not certified fair trade-you have to be in products for about 1.5 years before you apply. But we put into practice fair trade—the primary one is that wages are about four times what people might make as agricultural labors–$5 a day, roughly, as opposed to $1.50 per day. And the women who work there have rights, they have a say in how things go, and they have benefits. The women who are working there are happy to have the jobs, and ODAM is excited to have the project—it’s a profitable intervention and for them, it’s been a big learning experience, and they’re trying to look at other places where they can do similar work, and find ways to use social enterprises to deal with local problems.
How has the first run of Design Impact’s fellowship program been going?
There are six fellows working on five projects—three Americans, one Indian-American, one Colombian, and one guy from Ireland. There are two women in the group their backgrounds vary from design strategy to traditional industrial design to brand design interface development, one has a background in natural resource management. On average they have about seven years of professional experience, two have about three, two have about twelve.
They bring a lot to the table. We had about 150 applications last year that we selected them out of. The organizations we work with in India really wanted professionals—not students—and the fellows have to be, because we don’t closely manage all the projects, we’re in touch but the fellows have to manage other people, build a strategy around a project and implement it. And few people have those skillsets naturally, or they need to develop them on the job over the course of years.
What is one project that is a good example of the work the fellows are doing?
Brian Gough, a brand development expert, is working at Manav Sadhna, a really well-known community based organization in Ahmedabad. They serve a number of low-income communities near the Gandhi Ashram with various projects from education to sanitation to craft employment. His program is called Earn N Learn, and it’s a way to get kids who are making small change on the streets–washing cars or shining shoes–to come into a school environment. So they come in and learn, and they also are engaged in paper crafts, which are sold in various fair trade markets in India and around the world.
What we’ve done by partnering with them is re-design the program and the paper-crafts. And Brian has done this starting from the students-up. Usually they would have one person make a design and the kids would follow it—but Brian is involving the kids in the design process, allowing them to critique concepts, having them do drawings for what they are designing and asking them to vote on it, and even making a game out of it. He has the students do daily reflections about life and brings them into the process of designing new pieces. The result will be an overall brand that actually emphasizes the lives of these young people and what the project means to them. And we’ve got a long-term partnership with them so it can go a lot deeper, and it also teaches the students something about design in the process. Also, the program pays the kids a small wage so they are motivated to come to the school.
Is there any collaboration between the fellows?
One of the projects is with Quest in Bangalore; our fellow there is Ali Maiorano; she’s an interactive designer, and she’s working with Quest on job preparedness for rural youth. The idea is to train the youths to be more employable so they have a better chance of getting a job when they go to the city. She’s been working collaboratively with Brian, and using interfaces to do remote teaching and she’s also been working on curriculum development. Ally’s office isn’t actually in the village where her students are; Quest is one of our projects where there is something of a space of separation between the designer and the people who benefit from the intervention. We wanted to try out this kind of a project in addition to projects where there is a more direct connection.
How has this project worked out?
So far, so good. As for now we are seeking out relationships with organizations that are community-linked. The value of our model is its embedded nature: it’s on-the-ground and has a long-term engagement. Moving forward, we’ll stick with these aspects of our model. Our projects work best when we can be a primary partner of an organization—and for what we’re trying to accomplish, smaller organizations are better. There’s an ideal point where an organization has a certain sized budget to actually implement a project—but if they get too large we kind of get lost in there. The organizations provide room and board for the fellows, as well as basic project costs and transportation costs. This year, we’re implementing a sliding scale based on the orientation of the organization—whether they’re a social enterprise or a traditional nonprofit—as well as the size of their budget and other things.
Have there been any cultural barriers?
Yes, a lot. How people set up meetings, how people look at contracts—there are cultural differences in these. In smaller business and nonprofits in India, those things can be less formal. The focus is building relationships first, and no one wants to sign anything at first. Consultancies here work on hourly estimations and generalizations of project costs. We train the fellows to be flexible and adapt to these situations, and when we do the search and interviews, we focus on interpersonal communication abilities—that’s really necessary to be successful. And they are doing really well—they learn the culture, they embrace it. We also have an issue with language. We visited Indian design universities and firms to get the word out about the fellowship, because in many cases the organizations prefer fellows who can speak the local languages. One of our fellows does speak a local language and it’s been very helpful to her. So we will look more for this in this round of fellows.
How have you and Kate been able to manage all these projects?
Sometimes we feel overworked. We’ve been on the road in India for three and a half months—we’ve visited the projects, we’ve been networking, going to conferences. But in general, we’re really excited. These new projects are kind of getting moving. The current fellows will keep on working on these projects—some even want to stay on—but they all leave the assignment, and there’s a month gap before the next fellows start in July. These current fellows will stay on as long-distance consultants on these projects for a few months, to hand over information and be mentors to the new fellows—we don’t want to lose ground in that transition. There’s a chance that one or two of the projects will get wrapped up and may not continue, but in general, most will continue. We believe that what we’re doing has merit and is an interesting way to approach problems through design.
Interview has been edited and condensed