written by Michael Bass (Rajana Marketing Advisory and MCC SALT participant)
Rajana Crafts Association is a fair trade crafts producer, distributor, and retailer. This organization does it all. Going up the steps, to the floor above the Phnom Penh retail store, you see a strange mix of handmade pottery, greeting cards, and excel docs. Stepping into the accompanying room you see Nimul, Rajana’s manager, either discussing a design, meeting with a potential export buyer, or typing away as she manages relationships with partners across the globe. There is always something happening within the Rajana office’s four brick walls.
30 artisans work in the head office, and another 120 artisans produce for Rajana throughout Cambodia. I had the honor of accompanying Rajana on a recent site-visit to one of the communities supplying traditional scarves for Rajana, 2-3 hours outside Phnom Penh We met with the area coordinator, who manages sales for the people in the community, and he led us on a visit to the homes of the artisans producing for Rajana. We walked from home to home, visiting with families as they sat together while working on their latest project from right within their home. After hearing the horror stories of the Cambodian garment factories, it was refreshing to see a family enjoying a meal together, then to step 2 meters over to begin work.
What surprised me was that as much as it was a pleasure to see these artisans at work, it was even more special to see the Phnom Penh office staff off their computers and back into their “other” life. You could see it in their faces, they felt back at home! It appeared similar to the look you see in your parent’s faces when they return to the community they grew up in, after being away for 10 years. I saw the staff, whom I’m used to discussing marketing strategies with, energetically be a part of the world they’re often separated from, but which they still love, and a world I could never fully understand. It seemed as if they were so thankful for what the people in the village communities were providing for the larger Rajana. While I would certainly expect them to be thankful, I was surprised by the extent of their thankfulness, and the sense of companionship shown between the office workers and the rural artisans. I had always imagined that Rajana functioned with a “serve the others” mindset, and I had subconsciously placed the village artisans at a lower level, as the one’s being served, even though the Rajana office staff rely entirely on the artisans’ skills for their own livlihood. My subconscious placement may have been due to the way that that particular community’s population and buyers had been decreasing, but also due to the notions that commonly surround fair trade crafts (sympathy problematically being one). Though those notions may have even been a concept that foreigners founded Rajana on, it is not what stands today. The Rajana office staff are beyond that, and view their relationship with the village craftsman as a mutually beneficial one. It’s not as if the city staff are slaving away in the office just to help “the poor people of the village”, no, they simply rely on each other. They are working cooperatively.
I believe that it is more challenging for foreign workers and village artisans to develop level, cooperative relationships, relationships that are beyond the giving and receiving of sympathy and service. Now of course, the idea of employing village workers out of love or sympathy might not be an awful thing, but there is a higher chance that the village workers could find themselves challenging their own self-worth as artisans, and even as people. This then shines light on the beauty of how MCC works and who MCC chooses to support. Though there are many NGOs and social enterprises doing similar work to Rajana, Rajana is one of the few that is completely managed by Cambodian staff.
After returning to the office, and getting back to our “market strategy” talks, I now feel provided with a stronger understanding of relationship between the office staff and village workers and it is less hierarchical than I may have imagined. I see know why it gets personal when the idea of trimming one product line and expanding another comes up. Office staff are thinking of their “sisters” in the villages and what would happen to the worker’s children and rest of family if Rajana’s need for their art was lessened. I admire that, and have learned a lot from those conversations. In the end, Rajana is not just an organization providing services for artisans. Rajana is a collaboration of societies, shaped and led by both village tradition and Phnom Penh business practices, and founded on mutual respect and dependence.