This Isn’t Your Mama’s Macramé

‘Nest’ is a nonprofit that helps women in developing countries start their own craft-based businesses.
Some of Nest's partners in India show off their skills. (Photo: Nest)
Jan 18, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

When most people think of philanthropy, they think of charity. But one nonprofit aimed at helping artisans in developing countries does more than handouts, it does employment− sustainable employment that turns the impoverished into savvy small business owners. This isn’t charity, it’s Nest.

According to Nest's website, the organization was founded by Rebecca van Bergen in 2006. Encouraged by the idea of micro-financing, but frustrated by its limitations, van Bergen decided she wanted to do something bigger than give craft artisans money. She wanted to empower them to become small business owners.

Micro-loans are helpful for many, but for recipients in developing countries, sometimes that money can only go so far; funds may get products made, but they don’t necessarily help artisans widely distribute their wares.

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FastCompany reports that to address that problem, van Bergen decided to eschew micro-loans in favor of micro-bartering. Craft makers in countries like Nepal, India or Guatemala receive funds to buy supplies or rent retail space, but they pay it back to Nest in crafts, keeping them out of financial debt and allowing Nest to assist in distribution.

But in the years following her launch, van Bergen expanded the organization's infrastructure to put that distribution power directly into the hands of the artists she was assisting. Nest now pairs craft workers with western retailers and brands to form intensive teaching partnerships where local crafters are taught courses like business development, international shipping distribution, and product and technology development.

The overarching goal is to evolve a heritage-based craft practice into a fully sustainable business, one that can run on its own after its teaching partnership ends.

Cecile Fruman is a manager at the World Bank and an industry leader in crafting sustainable business models for developing countries. She tells TakePart that when women are financially empowered, it does more than benefit them, it can be a boon to their surrounding communities. "There is a large body of research that demonstrates that women tend to use their disposable income on expenses that directly benefit the family, such as food, heating and medical and schooling expenses, for girls as well as boys. Women who make an income have higher self-confidence and have a greater say in decisions pertaining to the well-being of the family, fertility and economic choices."

With economic capability comes power and for many of Nest’s participants, most of whom are women, it means they have the power to leave abusive homes, lift themselves out of poverty without leaving their communities and find new levels of self-respect.

Each of Nest's projects is unique and what the nonprofit seems to do especially well is to celebrate the particulars of each artisan’s culture and help them expand it. The initiatives, which all rely on ethically-sourced materials, include jewelry makers in Kenya, carpet weavers in Morocco, embroidery artists in Mexico and clay beaders in Swaziland.

Nest even supports an operation in Queens, New York. In partnership with Restore NYC, sex trafficking survivors are employed as jewelry makers.

For many who live shackled by the limitations of poverty, immobility and gender inequality, Nest provides a means to make their own heritage a source of freedom.