A crafty way to help entrepreneurs

Dubai’s community of craft-makers is using its surge in popularity to help fellow crafters in developing countries

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Torpeky lives in Kabul. She is married with four children. She is a good tailor and would like to open a clothes shop. But first she needs money to buy cloth, thread, needles and scissors. Would you loan her the money so she can make a start? She needs Dhs800 and will pay you back in monthly instalments.

This, in a nutshell, is the thinking behind US charity Kiva – it connects lenders to entrepreneurs in developing countries who need a helping hand setting up. The idea is that Kiva cultivates a partnership whereby the lender stays in touch with the entrepreneur, following their progress and eventually making the money back (interest free, of course). Kiva says that loans ‘encourage more accountability than donations, where repayment is not expected’. Basically, the receiver of the loan is more compelled to use the money wisely if they have to pay it back.

In a heartening show of support within the crafting community, Dubai’s ARTE souk – the monthly market made up of UAE crafters – is regularly lending money to Kiva entrepreneurs. The recent surge in ARTE souk’s popularity – and, in turn, profits – has made this possible. As Paul Townsend, a silversmith and founder of ARTE souk, tells Time Out: ‘Last year we might have had 60 or 70 stalls on a market day; now we’re up to 100 on average every month. We have this float available and we thought: Why don’t we use it in a more creative way, rather than just having it sitting there doing nothing? Ninety-nine times out of
100 we’re going to get the money back. So once it’s helped one person, we can help someone else.’

The UAE crafting community has steadily swelled in the wake of the financial crisis. ‘We’ve seen our market expand drastically in the past year,’ explains Townsend. ‘We’ve changed from being something that housewives do on the weekend for a bit of pocket money to a main form of income. We’re becoming more and more a part of society because we’re keeping people employed.’

It seems ARTE souk is doing good at home as well as abroad, growing a profitable grass-roots community of crafters and using that profitability to help fellow crafters around the world.

Do Kiva lenders always get their money back? ‘It’s not always guaranteed,’ Townsend admits. But he adds that in his experience, people have paid him back quickly. ‘The reason they can do that is because you’ve given them the money to go out and buy a ton of stock or whatever they needed to kick that business off,’ he explains. ‘The difficult thing is that initial amount of money.’

The rate at which you will be repaid will depend on how well the business performs, and it’s satisfying when it does work out. ‘Every now and again you get a write-up about what they’ve done, and maybe pictures,’ says Townsend. ‘It gives that sense of wider community and allowing other people around the world to do what we’re doing, actually making a living for themselves and putting food on the table.’

Before ARTE, there were a few small craft markets around Dubai, but they often sold commercial, mass-produced items. At ARTE, everything is local, hand-made and one of a kind. This is why the markets are so popular – for example, Times Square shopping centre normally has around 2,000 visitors on an average Friday. On ARTE souk Fridays, which happen once a month, 8,000 people regularly turn up at the mall. It just goes to show that ARTE souk’s initiative is win, win, win – buy something unique and help entrepreneurs in Dubai and beyond. Crafty!

The next ARTE souks are on June 4 at Festival Centre mezzanine, near Ikea, 2pm-9pm; and June 11 at Times Square, Sheikh Zayed Road, 12pm-7pm. For more on Kiva, see www.kiva.org.

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