This Social Enterprise of Weavers in a Thai Hill Tribe Lifts the Whole Community
When missionaries-turned-tribal-advocates Gene and Mary Long moved to Thailand in 1978, they were initially tasked with supporting a hill tribe in transition. The Mlabri (or “Yellow Leaf”) people had lived an almost perfect jungle existence with limited interaction with outsiders. The Longs arrived, along with their toddler son Allen, at a time when deforestation was slashing back thousands of acres annually—soon there would not be enough jungle terrain for the Mlabri to continue hunting and gathering. Allen (Udom) Long came of age in close contact with the Mlabri and observed what happens to a shrinking culture as their home turf disappears. “The Mlabri had no place to hide, in a very real sense,” Long told me.
Northern Thai farmers and other hill tribes, including the Hmong, moved into the area. While cultural precepts demanded the Mlabri could not become farmers themselves, they could farm for others for wages. Theirs became an odd amalgam of new experiences—Allen’s father introduced the Mlabri to mirrors, something they’d never before encountered. Modern inventions attracted them—flashlights, radios, lighters. Long explains that the community “didn’t understand the market value of the products they wanted.” Laboring for Thai and Hmong farmers, some Mlabri would work half a year to earn a flashlight. Some naively became linked with drug trafficking. Slash-and-burn agriculture using dangerous chemicals, at abusively low wages, became their means of survival.
The Long family experimented with various forms of product-development with the Mlabri, attempting to use traditional skills to create products with appeal to fair-trade shoppers and tourists. Rather than making computer chips or iPhones, Long explained, the goal was to find a product over which the Mlabri already had ownership. They began making hammocks, which offered modest sales in-country at a smattering of Thai tourist shops. “For years I tried getting into the U.S. market with these hammocks,” says Long. He tried eBay, contacting retailers. He’d all but given up on breaking into the American market when a 26-year-old backpacker named Joe Demin showed up in the village. He’d stumbled upon a hammock at a resort and took an impetuous journey to the Mlabri that would mark the start of a growing lifestyle brand, Yellow Leaf Hammocks.
In the years since, the startup grew into a social enterprise that supports the work of 110 weavers, who can earn 650 percent more making hammocks than they did in slash-and-burn agriculture—or as much as a college-educated teacher. Demin says they're now able to afford uniforms and shoes for their children. "Every child of a weaver goes to school," he says.
Yet Yellow Leaf struggled with many of the same challenges that face startups—such as lack of capital to establish ready inventory. “We never had capital to guarantee fulltime work beyond a single hammock order,” Demin says. During times of heavy orders, the weavers could count on work, but when demand ran low, they still were turning back to slash-and-burn agriculture.
For Yellow Leaf Hammocks, loyalty to the Mlabri was paramount, and early on the company was hesitant to dip into venture capital (and any strings that may come attached). Fortunately, at the time that it became clear that the Mlabri were in need of more predictable income, and that the company needed steady inventory to get product to customers faster, Yellow Leaf was invited by Kiva to participate in its new Experimental Partnership Program (an extension of the popular microfinancing program into the social enterprise sphere that now includes 30 partners, and is set to grow).
When I asked Jason Riggs, director of communications at Kiva, by email what prompted the fundraising site’s move to include for-profit social enterprises, he explained: “‘For-profit’ means that they have a business model that aims to be self-sustaining and that can eventually attract regular market capital.” Kiva’s patient and risk-tolerant capital can help prove the viability of such models, and Kiva lenders are willing to support these organizations so long as they see a strong social impact. “The hope is that Kiva can help quantify their risk profiles and make it easier for regular investors to work with them.”
Through the Kiva loan program, Yellow Leaf began piloting a program whereby a Mlabri weaver might have up to six months of work crowdfunded through a Kiva loan, at zero percent interest. Long went from family to family within the community totaling more than 300 people, explaining the potential of the program. “The Mlabri were skeptical,” says Long. They were wary of loan sharks. “They took several different angles of cross examination, which I was thrilled about.” For a community so exploited for decades, caution was wise. In the end, nine weavers from each of the major families signed on to pilot the loan program, and will repay their loans (usually over nine months) through hammock sales. Other weavers can still work under the old model, being paid per hammock made.
The Kiva loan program marks a milestone for Yellow Leaf Hammocks and the Mlabri. There’s been talk among the Mlabri about what to do with the profits—improved housing, maybe a television. One weaver has been considering buying a telephone. “When I pointed out I didn’t know who he’d call,” Long says of that particular weaver, “he kind of smiled.”
But having a chunk of cash to manage over time—which offers freedom and the ability to plan for the future—also means learning to manage finances, banking. Sharing your abundance is of the upmost importance to the Mlabri, who once hunted and gathered to support the collective; personal banking seems to run contrary to that. Even a decade ago, everything needed to be shared. Long told me that if someone bought five eggs, for example, they had to share them with everyone in the village. “It would take forever and everybody would get a little piece,” he says. Banking is yet another transition to navigate.
For Yellow Leaf Hammocks, and with the added benefits of the Kiva loans, the emphasis is on empowering the Mlabri to live their lives as they see fit—without exploitation, without the environmental and health risks associated with slash-and-burn agriculture. It’s a tricky mix of using modern economic structures to support a traditional way of life. The weavers determine how much work they need to put in to support their lifestyles. (“Full-time” means something different to the Mlabri, who with steady income, save time for traditional activities.) It’s a formal structure that lets the Mlabri decide when and how they want to work. It's far from the exploitation they experienced in the past. As Riggs puts it, “by providing flexible income activities, the Mlabri are better empowered to make their own decisions as to how their culture and society should develop and adapt.”
Images courtesy of Yellow Leaf Hammocks