“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness,” Mahatma Gandhi said. Can one be fashionable, ethical, revolutionary – and strive to hit social and commercial bottom lines – all at the same time? Lao-based social enterprise Ma Te Sai may have the answer.
Hand-woven fabrics. (Photo Credit: Mate.Sai, Justgola.com)
Ma Te Sai, which means “Where is it from?” in the Lao language, was founded in 2010 by Australian Emi Weir and Clamence Pabion. In partnership with Laotian weavers, the duo founded Ma Te Sai to preserve local handicraft and artisanal traditions, and guarantee artisans sustainable income through bringing their crafts to a wider market. Through their careful method of designing, sourcing, and manufacturing clothing that respected the local culture, Ma Te Sai is able to maximise commercial benefit to the Laotian weaver community, while being backed by a robust financial business model.
Ma Te Sai’s Story
Ma Te Sai’s story began with a chance meeting, and a problem: in 2011, Emi was introduced to Navon by Susu, a French woman living and working at a boutique hotel situated along the Mekong River. The weavers had made more towels than the hotel needed, so Susu suggested that Emi may want to sell them in her newly-opened fair trade store. That encounter took her a step further to learn more about the cotton in Navon’s home. Inspired by Navon’s fabric, Emi partnered with Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women in Vientiane. With various local resources – the talent of the community artisans and material from local suppliers – they quickly put together a design. The jacket was a success. “Tourists, and locals alike, bought it because it had a Lao motif without being ethnic, and it was metro-chic enough to wear at home. It also could be sold at a higher price, better margin, than our existing products, which meant we could sell few but gain better income,” Emi recalls.
What has sustained Emi in her 6 years working on Ma Te Sai? Here are a few tips from her story that aspiring social entrepreneurs could glean from:
- Think different to identify and seize new opportunities.
Often, aspiring social entrepreneurs may fear entering a community that they are not a part of. However, Emi took advantage of her outsider status to the Laotian village culture to identify business opportunities.
Being Australian was no deterrent to Emi trying her hand in the Laotian market. In fact, it spurred her on to bring Laotian products into the Australian market.
The level-headed Emi did not see herself as a social entrepreneur at first. She was simply solving a problem with the business acumen she had. “I didn’t know I was a social enterprise until someone told me I was – I was developing a business solution that we could benefit people and beneficiaries with,” Emi said. She recognised the business as an opportunity to develop the ethnic communities in Luang Prabong.
- Put people first.
Emi did not rely solely on her business knowledge, but strove to put people first, building connections with her suppliers, clients, and community. Her previous line of work in the tourism industry taught her that relationships were paramount. She applied the same tenacity in building trust among those she served. “When working remotely, go there (to the location where the customers or suppliers are) a lot to build relationships,” she advised. In the early days of her business, Emi would visit suppliers to purchase their goods and establish a positive relationship with them. “Many connections are relationship-based,” she reflected.
In addition to good business relations, Emi also actively invested herself in the social fabric of the community, with her wide range of hobbies and interests. The avid Pilate teacher regularly taught Pilate classes and conducted boat tours to sustain her work with Ma Te Sai. Through building positive relationships with her remote suppliers, and serving the local community, Emi was able to establish a strong social network for her business and personal life in a once-unfamiliar environment. “Working with people who are easy to work with has also been of help,” she laughs.
- Find partners whose interests are aligned.
Social enterprises are not lone rangers. Partnerships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments are often necessary for them to thrive, and funders are needed to provide the engine for the business in the long haul. Hence, social enterprises need to be flexible to understand the language and needs of these organisations, and to adapt to them as necessary, without compromising the primary vision.
Working with NGOs and Governments
NGOs provide a foot into the local community, while governments can provide structural changes for lasting impact. However, each organisation has its own concern and operates in different paradigms. Emi, a lady with firm business sense shared that NGOs, for example, may come up to her with suggestions, and she would think: “that doesn’t fit my box”. At the same time, her way of thinking would not fit the “box” that NGOs operate in. Government support can be especially significant in enabling the company to move ahead. “It’s hard for us to be loud and vocal without government ties,” Emi shared.
Indigo-dyed cotton, a popular feature of Ma Te Sai’s wares. (Photo Credit: eatdrinklaos.com)
Though the search may be rough, finding the right partner, with the right motivation, is worth it for the long haul. Ma Te Sai’s first funding came from a cotton project that was backed by a Malaysian funder that was seeking to do business in Laos. “It was a fit, because he was interested in craft,” she noted. Having a first funder makes getting subsequent funding easier.
“Look for an angel (investor),” Emi advised. In the most ideal scenario, a good funder has passion for what you are doing. Otherwise, it will be difficult to proceed, because the overall investment is not aligned to where the company wants to go. “You need to see if what they are trying to do is in line with what you are doing…and find out if what you want is what they are willing to pay for,” Emi advised.
- Understand your partner’s language to negotiate for what you want.
Sometimes, a potential partner’s interests could be aligned to a social enterprise’s – but a social enterprise will need to frame it in the right language to get their attention.
For example, a “product development” in one party’s eyes could be a “skills development” in another – but they both mean the same thing
Like a good partner, it all boils down to a good fit: you need to have a good relationship with the person as well as the organisation.
Evidently, building a social enterprise is not an effort that can occur in a vacuum. Other stakeholders in the ecosystem – governments, NGOs, and businesses – cannot afford to work in silos, but must learn how to work together in order to achieve common goals. Universities, too, are key players in this ecosystem.
How the University Adds Value
Universities can play a significant role in adding value to social enterprises with their expertise in research – both from students, and faculty.
Singapore student Team – (Team Dash) was given the mission to determine the feasibility of Ma Te Sai expanding to Singapore. On behalf of the social enterprise, they worked tirelessly on the ground to understand Singapore’s consumer market and to propose a practical marketing model to increase awareness and sales of Ma Te Sai’s products in Singapore.
Left to Right: Ranjan Raman (Team – mentor), Emi Weir (Founder, Ma Te Sai), Chew Yee Wei, Tan Ting Jie, Muhammad Khairin Bin Lilias, Sarah Lim
Team -, made up of Political Science and Communications and New Media majors from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with Emir Weir. They were mentored by Mr. Ranjan Raman, Director, Field Enablement APAC, Concur, a SAP Company.
For Emi, the Crossing the Chasm Challenge was “amazing”. “To have someone access the market for you…No one could have done it!” She enthused. Furthermore, Team –, armed with political science training, and gave her good demographic research.
This gave Emi perspective of the potential of the Singapore market, and she perceived the need to pitch the product differently—as a “rural product” in order to gain an audience. “(The Crossing the Chasm Challenge) is admirable, giving us (smaller businesses) a platform to connect with,” she shared.
Impact assessment could also be a product that is helpful for social enterprises – both to give feedback on areas of improvement, and as a selling tool to gain more funding, Emi observed.
As the university attempts to make its unique contribution to the ecosystem, it too can learn much from the best practices of social enterprises to think different, put people (and communities) first, find partners whose interests are aligned, and be flexible in negotiating for what it wants. A welcome storefront for dialogue (like Ma Te Sai’s below) may be an excellent starting point for such conversations.