Unarrested Development

The Base Project combines fashion with empowerment.

Somewhere in an isolated village, two continents away, there are children going to school, families with healthy cattle and a group of empowered citizens who are sharing their creativity with the world-in part because the Akin brothers wanted “more” in their lives here in the U.S. and decided to sell bracelets.

“It started a little over two years ago, Doug and I were both working corporate jobs,” starts Chris Akin, co-founder of The Base Project, along with his twin brother, Doug. The brothers were both ensconced in the corporate world, and had a healthy dose of philanthropy in their private lives, but they wanted to combine the two worlds.

“[We thought] let’s tag team and do something entrepreneurial [that also] has all the core assets of what we love: the business, entrepreneurism, the creativity that comes with it, but also has some social good built into the DNA of the company,” Chris says.

The brothers developed a triple-bottom-line business plan in which profits, the people involved with the company and doing good for the planet are all equally valued.

The result was the Base Project, a company that sells hand-carved bracelets in the traditional styles found in Namibia. While they look like bone, a traditional material, these bracelets are actually hand carved out of plastic water pipes that litter the villages they’re gathered from.

The exotic bracelets are the ultimate in upcycling. Made of the most mundane of materials, they come in varying sizes and designs with names like “Himba Red,” “Kalahari Eye,” and (Chris’ personal favorite) “Kunene Cattle.”

In determining what their business would sell, the brothers liked that people wearing their product would be the company’s best advertisement.

“For an organic company that was self-funded and was going to grow from there, that was important: Someone wearing it was marketing it and telling the story,” Chris says.

How the brothers came find these particular bracelets sounds like a National Geographic special. The brothers gathered a collection of bracelets from around the world and did their own market research-they asked friends and family which they liked. “Everyone kept choosing the bracelet that wasn’t part of the research!” Chris laughs.

That particular bracelet had been a gift from a friend. “All we knew at that point was it came from Namibia and it was old plastic,” he says. “We decided, ‘let’s go and chase it down and figure it out. There’s got to be more to the story.'”

So with those two pieces of information the brothers set out looking for the makers of these bracelets. “First step, find Namibia on the map,” Chris explains. “Second step, start calling people.” The Akins called the U.S. Embassy, Peace Corps directors for the country, NGO workers that were in the field. The brothers made calls, Skype-d, even emailed iPhone photos of the bracelets in question to anyone who could help.

Eventually, the brothers found several artists, co-ops and tribes that were creating the bracelets. Another painstaking process of getting samples-often with the help of Peace Corps workers in rural areas-and choosing from those helped them select three groups that would be able to work with The Base Project’s business model.

Then, it was time to get to work.

“You can only do so much email [and] phone calls-it’s great, but at the end of the day, if you’re going to build a business, especially a supply chain and you’re going to do development work, that can’t happen remotely-that has to happen with feet on the ground,” Chris explains.

They worked with the various groups that were producing the bracelets and determined which were the best suited to ~t into the supply chain. Business skills, an ability to communicate and organization within each group were factors that the brothers considered when determining who to work with. Ultimately, two groups were chosen.

The bracelets have a history of their own. “It’s traced back to the matriarch of one of the groups that we work with, an older lady, she’s a great-grandmother at this point,” Chris says.

That matriarch, Monika, started making jewelry soon after Namibia’s war of independence, taking the opportunities afforded by the small amount of tourism that has started in the region. “She looked around and realized that there were material resources [discarded plastic water pipes] that were available that she could use,” explains Chris. “From what I understand, that would replace more traditional carvings into bone, wood, things like that. It’s a big cattle ing on the pipes. Brown coloring is the result of exposure to the dirt and sun.

“Certainly, when this one lady started off, this was additional income, probably going from a point, realistically, of zero, living as a subsistence farmer and cattler, and finding a way, ‘how can I make some additional income that will be used to send kids to schools, pay for some health care and medical expenses.’ This is where her thoughts were … how can I make some additional income?”

Chris explains that many of the artisans that The Base Project works with are earning maybe a dollar or two dollars a day. “[They’re] at the poverty line, up to the most successful ones making a few dollars a day,” he says.

When it came time to start a partnership, the brothers were keen to establish a relationship with their artisans, and help them not only grow their business but better their community.

“We didn’t want to go into the community and say ‘Great, we’re here, we want to buy 5,000, thank you for everything,’ put them in a container, ship them back. At best, we’d pop in a few years later. That didn’t make sense for our business.”

That wouldn’t build their business the way they wanted it, nor build a business for the artisans. Worse, it would deprive the brothers of any opportunity to build a relationship with the communities. “We wanted to build … long-term relationships and build our business with it.”

Because The Base Project abides by Fair Trade practices, things like determining communication and payment systems were crucial in choosing whom to work with. The Base Project negotiates with the artisans to find a fair price both sides agree on. Then, the company pays the artisans 50 percent up front “so they’re funded for materials, supplies and time while they’re working,” Chris says. “When the order lands in the U.S., the other 50 percent is paid immediately.”

“The idea is, if those bracelets land here [in the U.S.], and we don’t sell a single bracelet, they’ve been paid in full for all their work,” he says. “It’s not consignment, it’s not commission. If we’re successful, and we sell them in the U.S., … then we take an additional part of the profit and do the community development stuff.”

The development work in the communities is a series of projects. “It could be $2,000 for a community garden or $3,000 for school fees for kids to go to school for the next semester,” Chris explains.

But the artisans and their families are definitely benefitting from their added incomes that take them just north the level of subsistence farmers. “The Base Project impacted my life a lot,” says Monika. “Before The Base Project, I was living in a very small hut; but now with The Base Project helping us by buying our bracelets, I changed my house … Some of my grandchildren are in high school just because of The Base Project,” she adds. Chris also points out that the region

is experiencing a very bad drought. Two artisans told him during his last visit there that they were able to buy new cattle and sheep because of their added income from the bracelets they sell to ~e Base Project.

It’s been just a little over two years, but The Base Project has definitely taken off. As the entire operation grows, Chris projects that he’ll be making trips to Namibia four times a year. They are already working with the artisans on streamlining the production process to increase efficiency-for future, bigger orders.

The artisans have their own ideas on what they’d like to accomplish as The Base Projects grows more successful.

“We need a place [craft center] to sell our crafts,” says artisan Queen Elizabeth.

Monika adds, “When my business grows, I want to help other people by donating to schools in rural areas to make more classes, to support small businesses, to help vulnerable children and to help people who suffer from HIV/AIDS.”

That’s a lot “more” than anyone could have hoped for.

Find The Base Project bracelets at www.thebaseproject.com, Roberta Oaks, Chai Studio, Surf Line Hawaii and www.anthropologie.com

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