To lift Ethiopian women out of poverty, Connected in Hope gives them a chance to create and a market for their products

Every morning, women in Ethiopia rise before dawn to gather large bundles of fuel wood to sell at the local markets for less than a dollar. The challenges and dangers they face just to provide for their families’ basic needs compelled Pam Simpson and Ryane Murnane to create steady streams of sustainable income for these women. It’s from this motivation that Connected in Hope was born.

The North Carolina-based nonprofit corporation now offers an array of handmade, fair-trade goods — from leather products to art to scarves — all made by the very women Pam and Ryane strive to help. Ryane talked with Design Good about how Connected in Hope got started, their successes and challenges and what they’ve learned throughout the journey in Ethiopia. (The interview is edited slightly for length and clarity.)

Tell us about your background. How did you start Connected in Hope?

Connected in Hope 2My background is in social work, and my early career was spent in Atlanta working with pregnant women who were battling drug addiction. Things shifted in 2008 when my husband and I began the process to adopt a little boy from Ethiopia. In 2009, my mom and I traveled to pick up our new son and completely fell in love with Ethiopia and the wonderful people that we met. Our time spent traveling back and forth to Ethiopia over the next couple of years allowed us to see firsthand the impact of generational poverty on the lives of undereducated, marginalized women. We launched Connected in Hope in 2010 as a sustainable way to support these women, so that they could lift their families and, by extension, their whole community out of extreme poverty.

What motivated you to start Connected in Hope?

During a trip to Ethiopia in 2011, we were introduced to a cooperative of women artisans who had been trained to weave through a grant from a large international development organization. Unfortunately, when the grant expired, the women were left with new skills and new looms, but absolutely no market for their products.

These were amazingly talented women; the only thing they lacked was opportunity. Opportunity — through a connection to the global market — was something that we could easily provide. Being able to give a mother the opportunity to work, in a place where she is valued, so that she can provide for her family, is an incredible thing!

What have you learned from running Connected In Hope? Any greatest successes or failures?

We learned quickly that a sustainable income source is the first step on a woman’s path out of poverty, but multi-Connected in Hope 3generational poverty is a complex issue that money alone cannot solve.

We have created a holistic model — including capacity building programs, training, literacy classes, social work services, early childhood education and access to health care — that addresses the needs of entire families and gives our artisan partners the tools they need to succeed. This model has been successful, and we are getting wonderful feedback from our staff on the ground about the impact. We are also unique because we are a licensed nonprofit, but operate using a social enterprise model.

What’s most challenging or surprising about running Connected in Hope? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?

First off, it is way harder than we ever could have imagined! Anyone looking to start a social business should be prepared to put in long hours! I think I was probably a bit naïve going into all of this, although it is pretty much impossible to anticipate all of the potential challenges you will face in this type of work. Fortunately, though, the successes have far outweighed the challenges.

What’s your best piece of business or design advice? What would you tell new designers/entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

One of our greatest successes has been the relationships we have developed with the artisans, their families and the Connected in Hope 4community. I can’t emphasize enough, to anyone considering starting a social business, the importance — and necessity, really — of strong, trusting relationships.

I once read on the Acumen Fund site that “There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it.”  That is so true.  Building trust takes a long time, and it can be lost very quickly.

We’ve been lucky to have formed strong, lasting relationships in the communities where we work. I think that trusting relationships — especially with the poor — are built when we listen more than we talk.

What’s next for you and Connected in Hope?

We have some really exciting things on the horizon in Ethiopia! We are expanding our leather production capabilities, which will allow us to train and employ more women. We are also adding a new home goods line, which will feature a variety of hand-woven textiles.

Source: Design Good
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