What’s considered a ‘woman’s weakness’ can work as her strengthIn the last couple of years, Jhamsikhel in Lalitpur has become a hub for ethical fashion and Made-in-Nepal products. The area is popular among locals, expats and tourists alike for products that are not readily available elsewhere.
In the last couple of years, Jhamsikhel in Lalitpur has become a hub for ethical fashion and Made-in-Nepal products. The area is popular among locals, expats and tourists alike for products that are not readily available elsewhere. Located only a few metres from Jhamsikhel chowk is Danfe, a Nepali clothing outlet that retails its own garments but also does customisation work based on its customer’s preferences. Danfe might appear to be a fully commercial business but it is actually a social enterprise that works to provide skills and employment to women affected by the 2015 earthquakes. In this conversation with Abha Dhital, Kritishma Karki, executive director of Danfe, talks about the nature of her business, what it stands for and the challenges it’s currently facing.
Danfe has been around for a couple of years as a Nepali fashion brand, but I hear it’s more than just a clothing outlet. What exactly does the enterprise do?
Yes, Danfe is a ‘Made in Nepal’ clothing brand, but it is not a fully commercial business. It is a social enterprise that kicked off as a livelihood project and soon adopted a business model for sustainability. We launched Danfe in response to the 2015 Nepal earthquakes under Saath, an NGO that focuses on education, capacity building and livelihood for girls and children who belong to marginalised communities.
At Danfe, we enrol women who were affected during and after the earthquakes and provide them with tailoring and leadership skills training, which they can use for their financial independence. While most go back to their communities to either start an enterprise of their own or work as home-based entrepreneurs, some stay behind and continue to work for us at our production unit here in the Capital. All clothes sold at our outlet are made by these women.
How many women have you trained so far, and how many currently work for you?
We have trained approximately 80 women. Six of them are working for us right now in this very building. Seventeen of them work from their homes in their communities—which means, they visit us once or twice a month, take the order alongside required materials, go home with a certain deadline and return with a finished saleable product.
You come from a social work background with no prior business expertise. What inspired you to transition into business?
We have many NGOs in Nepal and I run one myself. I am not trying to undermine their role in a country like ours, but while many of these organisations launch substantial programmes—mostly vocational training—that contribute to the upliftment of certain marginalised populations, not all of them have a sustainable model. They are highly dependent on funding and the question ‘what happens when the aid stops coming in’ looms large. There’s always a sense of uncertainty. Hence, we adopted a sustainable model—which means we turned Danfe into a money-making enterprise—so that it can continue doing what it does even in the absence of any funding.
We don’t want to wake up one day and realise that our work has to stop because there isn’t enough money. We are thankful for our current partners, but we also have to be prepared for the fact that they won’t always be around.
How far are you from your goals?
It’s important to set realistic goals. We have set a timeline of five years to become a sustainable organisation. We opened the outlet in 2017 so we have at least three more years to go before we meet our goal.
Running a social enterprise can be tricky. There are important ethical questions that need to be tackled. How often do you ask yourself if what you are doing is fair?
Very often. Every time our team sits for a meeting, we reflect on how far we have come and if the journey has been fair for all stakeholders—most importantly for the women who make up our clothes. As far as money and impact are concerned, we as a social organisation have to maintain absolute transparency, because we are being held accountable for every rupee that we use. As far as labour is concerned, our trainees make the choice as to what they want to do with the skills they have acquired. Our door is always open for them. They can always work for us, but if they don’t want to, we respect that. I am also conscious about the fact that not everybody has the same pay range and there are times when the gaps seem large. But we are trying to bridge this gap by making sure everybody is getting paid on the basis of their expertise, time and labour they bring to the table.
What are the current challenges that Danfe is facing?
To begin with, the government could be a little more supportive of local enterprises of all nature and make policies that don’t hinder their growth. Then there is the issue of having to compete with products that are imported from Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese markets. The imported clothes are so cheap because these countries have both the technical and human resources needed for the clothing industry. One, we don’t have access to these resources and two, we do not exploit labour—hence the cost price is naturally high for us. Not all customers understand this and sometimes it can be daunting to explain why things made in Nepal are costly. Another thing that stands as a challenge for us is how expensive this city is—the rents are so high, and to make it worse, there is a growing syndicate in prime locations that demands that we pay ten times the amount upfront to secure a space (even after we have agreed on the rent). It’s ridiculous.
Despite the challenges, Danfe seems to be doing well. It is often said that women make better managers, do you agree? How do you manage your human resource and their varying energies?
Management skills are not something that we can generalise. But I do believe what’s usually considered a ‘woman’s weakness’ can work as her strengths when she takes up a management position. Attributes such as sensitivity, empathy, nurturance—they all add value to the organisation.
The key to efficient management is a strong team. I can’t manage this organisation on my own. I need a solid team that shares my vision and I have been blessed with one. Another important tactic is
openness. I have learnt that people walk in and out of an organisation all the time. Everybody has an ambition and it’s not always that the organisation and its employees will be on the same page. Hence, in order to manage our human resources we cash in on what they are really skilled at. So often, we hire somebody for a certain position but soon realise that they are fit for another position altogether—so we take a flexible approach and let them grow in a position that they truly enjoy. For example, if we hire somebody for marketing but if they are better at management, we offer them a managing position instead. It’s very important to understand the key skills of every single employee.