In the Market for Good

Indulging in retail therapy can help create social good, as e-commerce social enterprise ACTS Market is proving.

BY SOL E SOLOMON
PHOTOS ACTS MARKET

 

T

he Internet and digital technology have emerged as valuable tools for those wishing to reduce poverty and transform people’s lives for the better. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Youtube can be used by social enterprises to build communities, attract resources and galvanise volunteers into action. And in today’s connected world, online retail, too, can have a positive impact on the needy.

With the desire to help empower the impoverished, disabled and oppressed through e-commerce, Cheryl Lee co-founded ACTS Market Pte Ltd in 2016. The Singapore-based social enterprise sells handmade crafts online from regional social enterprises that work with marginalised communities. For goods that are on consignment, ACTS Market handles warehousing, delivery and payments, transferring funds to the social enterprises upon the sale of goods.

Lee, an executive coach and behavioural consultant, first conceived the idea for the e-marketplace when she was selling calendars to raise funds to liberate child slaves. Faced with distribution issues, she decided to create an online store stocked with limited edition crafts sold by various social enterprises. Proceeds from the sale of these items would go towards supporting a good cause. For instance, purchasing a bar of soap from Kolkata-based Touch Nature – which is featured on ACTS Market’s website – can help provide an alternative livelihood for trafficked sex workers.

Artists create handwoven bags based on designs provided by ACTS Market; the products created by ACTS Market's partners range from clothing to fashion accessories.

NETWORK OF GOOD
But getting started was no mean feat. Aside from assembling a team of interns, volunteers and business mentors to set up the platform, hard work went into building a community of social enterprises.

Lee started out by scouting for local companies, arranging meetings to gauge their legitimacy. She also took pains to conduct research on overseas social enterprises recommended by friends, and even paid visits to their factories.

Naturally, there were hits and misses. “Not all prospective social enterprises I met were a good fit, but those who made the grade eventually met with good response on our website,” Lee shares.

However, the pragmatic individual soon realised that simply gathering a pool of ideal vendors was not enough. Lee and her team found that their overseas partners lacked the business acumen to stay sustainable. Thankfully, ACTS Market’s team, with its business background, managed to guide the social enterprises towards more commercially centric organisational cultures.

For instance, though students of Kolkata’s D.F. Blind School in India already had woven products in various designs, these did not appeal to international markets. So Lee and her team spent four weeks at the school working on product development and new designs. They also helped them to produce a marketing video and sales flier.

According to its director, Jabesh Dutt, the weavers were inspired by the Singaporeans’ hardworking mentality, with Lee encouraging to become self-sufficient by producing better goods.

“Lee stressed the importance of being competitive and honing their craft with confidence, as customers recognise quality. Realising their economic potential spurred them on to work harder,” explains Dutt.

Those lessons, as it turns out, were a two-way street. While they were imparting practical skills to the Indian artists, the Singapore team gained valuable insights.

“More time is required to build economies of scale, as we are not driven by profits but rather to improve lives.”


Cheryl Lee, co-founder of ACTS Market Pte Ltd

Collaborating with craft teachers from the school to develop new lines of handwoven bags, Lee was moved by their resilience and genuine desire to help their community. “They work long hours and are paid less than government school teachers, yet they told me that they are lucky to have a job. I realised that they truly care for their students,” shares Lee. “They also tend to be more patient, which taught us forbearance.”

While sourcing for materials, for instance, the Indian artists made multiple trips to the bazaar. “The Indians like to go with the flow and are more people-oriented, taking the time to explain their processes, compared to us task-oriented Singaporeans,” she adds.

CONCRETE DREAMS

The visually impaired Indian artists from Kolkataʼs D.F. Blind School produce handicrafts to support their livelihoods.

 

Now in its fourth year of operation, ACTS Market helps more than 10 social enterprises in Thailand, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines and Singapore. Among them are Care Channels International, which runs skills- training programmes in the Philippines and Indonesia to improve the livelihoods of slum-dwelling families.

The next step, Lee says, is for the social enterprise to become more commercially viable. Currently, it is funded by private donations, sponsorship by companies and grants from government initiatives.

However, Lee notes that its current sales levels are not sustainable – the crafts are produced in small quantities, as the disabled and needy artists require more time to learn skills.

“More time is required to build up economies of scale, as we are not driven by profits but rather to improve lives,” she explains. She hopes to one day establish a brick-and-mortar shop for ACTS Market, as well as to partner retailers from Europe, the US and other developed countries. This is expected to increase demand for the social enterprises’ products, thus helping to keep the set-up sustainable.




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