Civic engagement is all about equal partnerships between universities and the communities they serve. So when representatives of Lahore University of Management Sciences, or LUMS, went to work with a small female-run cottage industry in a remote corner of Pakistan last September, they were expecting to have plenty of input from the women involved.
What they were not expecting was that their dealings with the women would turn their whole way of thinking about business on its head.
The initiative began as a search for a case study that could be relevant enough to teach young people in the Hunza region of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province about social entrepreneurship.
This in turn is part of LUMS' participation in the Youth Economic Participation Initiative or YEPI, a Talloires Network and MasterCard Foundation project to test-drive ways of easing young people’s transition to the labour market at eight universities in developing countries.
The Women’s Weaving Centre, a co-operative run by village women, seemed a good candidate. It had been producing handmade carpets for several years but was run in a seemingly ad hoc fashion with no formal accounts and reliant on visiting tourists for sales.
Local partners the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and local development organisation KADO suggested that the Hatchery, the LUMS YEPI vehicle for incubating social enterprises, could help the women with issues such as marketing, access to markets and quality control.
“So we said, yes, we can make them a marketing model, we also have contacts in urban markets and we can suggest ways in which they can be more efficient,” said Maryam Ahmed, director of the Social Innovation Laboratory at LUMS.
The LUMS team came up with a way of working more intensively so that a carpet that previously took four months to produce could be made in just two months as well as suggestions for alternative sources of supply. But they found that the women had other ideas.
“When they ask a cousin in Lahore to buy them thread or a family member from the mountains to get them flowers to make the dye, each of them gets a cut,” said Ahmed. This means that a lot of local actors are benefiting from this one activity.
“All the things that we might see as economic inefficiencies are actually important to the economic well-being of the community, so this is a cost they are willing to bear,” she added.
Neither were the women very keen on the LUMS suggestion of changing their work patterns to a more intensive model, which for instance meant taking fewer breaks.
“When they are working together, it is also a social space and a help network where they can share their worries,” said Ahmed. “The women said they would be interested in quality control, but in terms of the production line, they are very happy with the rate at which they are producing.”
This input from the village women has made the LUMS team ask itself some fundamental questions about what kind of business model it should be advocating.
“One of the things they are getting from the way they work is peace of mind and it is ridiculous that when we talk about business, we shouldn’t take this into account. The lesson for us is that to help them become sustainable, we need to promote these values too instead of just sticking to our narrow version of the economy and how it works.”
They are now developing a new set of metrics for measuring the broader social impact of small indigenous enterprises and are keen to ensure that the work with the women weavers does not disrupt the social benefits the enterprise creates.
“The idea is to have a bigger picture approach and to keep to the idea that small can be beautiful,” said Ahmed. “So long as the essential human-ness of an endeavour is maintained, people will find ways to keep going.
“This is something we would never have imagined one year ago.”
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