You may have heard of Doctors Without Borders or Engineers Without Borders, but you have probably not heard of Seamstresses Without Borders, as we have just started the first branch in Limbe and Ranquitte, Haiti. Ellen Schreder and Abbie Ahner traveled to Haiti this week to work with Haitian women who are interested in a microfinance loan thru Helping Haiti Work, but do not have a pre-existing business. We have been collecting fabric over the past few months and 6 – 50 pound suitcases followed the women on their journey over potholed and washed out roads to the rural village of Ranquitte. Ellen and Abbie are helping women with basic sewing skills develop a business plan for constructing and marketing the items that they sew. We will be continuing to encourage the women to use the reusable menstrual pads that I have written about previously, in addition to reusable diapers and mens and womens underwear.
The board of Helping Haiti Work has had numerous discussions about how we can make this business sustainable but also profitable for the women. Too many projects that are started in the developing world falter and break down when funds to sustain the enterprise dry up. Using donated fabric and supplies, purchasing remnants of fabric and using used flannel sheets has allowed us to keep the cost of each item low enough so that a profit can still be made when the women sell the items in the local market. Unfortunately, flannel fabric is difficult to find in Haiti so most of the fabric will need to be brought in by volunteers.
The first day of the project went beyond our expectations. The sight of an electric sewing machine (the norm in Haiti is a treadle machine as electricity is variable) generated much excitement when women saw it in operation the first time. During a teaching session about business models, women brainstormed new ideas building on the sewing program. One woman wants a loan so that she can purchase fabric in Cap-Haitian and then sell to the sewers so that they can focus on sewing. Women wanted to teach their sons and daughters to sew to increase production. Although cooking is considered women’s work in Haiti, many of the tailors are men.
Free handouts to those who are poor are easy and make the giver feel fortunate and superior. The recipient, however, does not benefit to the same degree and is left waiting for the next handout. Programs such as this are much more difficult to implement, involve more time on everyone’s part but create a sustainable business that will be in place long after the Americans have left. Haitian women also benefit by realizing that they have the power within themselves to make a better life for their family and their community. They no longer need to rely on handouts and can replicate this same business in neighboring communities.