Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, February 27

Artisan Work

Magic Wallet & More
I was introduced to my “leather guy,” as most PCVs call the artisan Demba Mbow, when I formally visited Mboro on a 5 day tour with my predecessor in September of 2009. The guy had made a couple of quality items for my predecessor: new wallet, a belt, and a few items for his female family members back home. At the time, I’d tossed him my magic wallet from J. Crew to see if he could recreate it. A few weeks later, I went back.
He’d completed the magic wallet and sold it to a French guy that lives in town. I remember being bummed and frustrated that I didn’t even get to see my own product, but he quickly made me another one and I loved it. My friends did too. And shortly after, Demba had orders for wallets from what felt like every volunteer in Senegal. That’s an exaggeration, but I did feel like I was spending a lot of time in his shop.

A few months later, the accessory incident occurred- better known as the time Demba recreated a purse for me that I have used every single day since I received it. This purse has also become popular amongst PCVs and today the only way to distinguish the original is the little Peace Corps patch that was applied to mine. That and it’s obvious over wear in comparison to the newer ones. None the less, what has been named the Sac Soda is marked as my second success at product development with leather. And by the fall of 2010, those volunteers who were finishing their service or had already purchased their tickets home for Christmas had come to me with ideas of their own for recreation. Four more items were born: the Sac Alan (a weekend or overnight back), the Sac Thomas (a men’s bathroom bag), the Portfolio (a document protector for the office), and the Envelope (a woman’s clutch resembling the size and shape of an envelope). Three out of four of them have gone on to large scale success among the PCVs of Senegal.

A few years back Peace Corps volunteers of Senegal decided the artisans they were coaching could benefit from increased vending outlets, so a selling forum was created: the artisan expo. I went to my first one in December of 2009, just a few months after starting my service. I hadn’t begun working with my Demba on a full time basis at that point (he’d just delivered the first magic wallet) but I knew he was interested in joining. I used research for his benefit as my excuse to conduct some souvenir shopping and got an idea for the amount of preparation in store before the 2010 expo.

Demba and Djibi's Shop
Throughout the year, we talked about basic business concepts like having a unique product, a target market, a catalog, and business cards. I invited him to a two day training I gave on marketing and interviewed him for one I had planned on pricing. Demba formalized a logo for his business Taibatoise Cuirs et Peaux and redesigned and printed business cards with the help of some other contacts in town and a volunteer (cough, me) pushing him to get things done. By the time my friends started placing their large orders for Christmas, he was able to use the proceeds to start building stock for the December 2010 expo.

I’ve heard a number of horror stories from PCVs who’d had to all but beat business concepts into their work partners, but somehow I lucked out. All I had to do was suggest things and Demba would immediately jump on board. “It’d be a good idea to pass out business cards at the expo just in case someone wants to order a custom item or something you’ve already run out of stock in.” The next visit a stack of cards had been printed special for the occasion. “The more stock you bring to the expo, the more you can sell.” The next visit I see the profits from a friends order transformed into a large pile of raw materials: untreated cow hide. “What do you think you’ll do with all the profits you’ll receive from the expo?” I’ll build more finished product stock. “What else?” I’ll redo the thatched awning and replace the drape wall with a formal wood version. “How much does that cost?” The next visit he’s made a cost of materials list for each of his planned investments. “Do you know much about accounting?” The next visit a ledger has been purchased and a friend is helping him set up a rudimentary credit and debit sheet. I start to feel like I’m dreaming. It’s as though everything that comes out of my mouth is a nugget of gold- to be valued and implemented as soon as possible to realize enormous profits. That may not have been true, but all I had to do was subtly suggest something and it got done. Pinch me.

And then the weekend of the expo arrives. We sold a record amount of product: 500,000 cfa or about $1,000 in 2 days. This is more money than we could’ve hoped for, covers all the investments planned, and affords Demba the means to recruit an apprentice- what was once a two brother shop is now a three man operation. Even the items we didn’t sell taught Demba valuable lessons; clients prefer a different variation of his red dye and a simple over-the-shoulder bag loved by the locals could be made into an attractive backpack for Westerners with the attachment of a clip. The event proved to be a good excuse to bone-up on English greeting vocabulary and to pump potential clients about their preferences.

In an expression of gratitude, Demba sent presents to America for my parents. In return, my family sent back a photo album to help Demba professionalize his catalog (which until that point was a small beat up Hello Kitty girl’s photo album- not very classy). The new album is large enough to fit photos of his best creations, write descriptions next to each of them, and house magazine clippings in pockets for storage of his own future ideas. I’ve been bringing him tidbits for months and the habit is starting to catch on.

Two and a half months after the expo, the group of artisans reconvened in Thies. Peace Corps hosted a one day training designed to help the group create a formal network of artisans working together to improve their businesses. The event had an aura more resembling of a secret society (with a professional coordinator0 than a training provided by PC, but either way some good came of it. The 8 artisans in attendance decided on an official name: Réseau des Artisans affilée au Corps de la Paix (The Network of Artisans affiliated with the Peace Corps); established cabinet positions and elected the representatives (Demba became Vice Secretary- I have no idea what that means); and established by-laws including membership entrance fees, monthly dues, and frequency of meetings. Demba was the first to step up and pay his entrance fees (around $10).

We’ve come a long way from the guy in a rundown shop molding leather into a trial magic wallet to sell to white girl who barely speaks French. But it’s not all glory. Any avid reader of this blog knows that Demba and I have recently had a fairly large disagreement regarding his order delivery timing. My ego is still a bit bruised and I’m pondering the best way to broach an informal training on the subject. If my words are in fact gold, I’ll only have to describe a production control mechanism once before he’ll start implementing one, but I’m starting to doubt my Midas tongue. A big sigh goes out for my days touring Toyota plants evaluating their kan-ban systems. Suggestions are welcome...

As my service draws to a close, I’m in the process of assembling my best ideas for “the 2011 collection” of new leather products. Stay tuned for a new purse, a pair of strappy sandals, and who knows what else? I can only hope my replacement has a passion for fashion and the patience to pick up where I left off with Demba. In the mean time, I’ll be all over his customer service skills. I’ll be encouraging him to use that new camera and memory chip to complete his catalog. And I’ll try to teach him a few tricks with his website. So, please, wish us luck.

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