Challenges and Considerations of Making Products Abroad: Part 2

By Brooke Breazeale, Associate Director

This is part 2 of a 2-part blog series. Read the first part here.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”   - Margaret Mead

Moved to Action: An Entrepreneur is born

So, there you are. You have fallen in love with a country or region, its people, and their culture. You see the senseless poverty or discrimination or lack of opportunity, and you are determined to do something about it.

If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, the answer is simple, right? You give these women a fair wage for their products that will allow them to provide for their families. Then you return to your country, sell their products, and give back a portion of your profits to the communities who made them.

Maybe you even get so inspired, you fill up your suitcase during your travels with your favorite items and schlep them back to your home country. You show them to your closest friends and family who excitedly deplete your inventory, moved by your story, by the cause, and the impact that you are making.

Maybe you have the means to return to the same community where the women reside, or you found a contact from the community who wants nothing more than for you to provide economic opportunity for their women.

You take the leap. You set up an organization, develop a website, and launch a business…and you are off.

The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma:

As your fellow social entrepreneurs, we commend you, admire you, and support you!

We also know that you will quickly run into various unexpected challenges that can prove to be defeating and prevent you from having the success and impact that you are striving for.

But, take heart, you can succeed. We just encourage you to consider the risks involved when working with communities abroad and map out tangible steps that you can take to mitigate the risks before you take the leap.

So, although this is not a full-proof blueprint for success, we can share with you a few of our ‘lessons learned’ to consider when starting your business.

1. Creating Market Driven Products

It is a beautiful thing that more consumers are more socially conscious when shopping for products. More and more people are willing to spend a bit more because they know what they are buying will help support a cause they believe in. But one of the resulting challenges of this trend is a market that is saturated with similar products being distributed by those of us determined to support artisans abroad; a person can only have so many bags made of African prints or necklaces made of recycled paper beads.

The way to really help these women is to come up with a product that stands out and is in line with current trends, while still reflecting the look and feel of their culture.

2. Managing production

This is another challenge that can derail your efforts if you do not secure a production system that is sustainable and to scale with the demand of your product.

Field Manager

I have found that it is nearly impossible to get high quality products to market if there is not someone on the ground managing the process. This person needs to have a solid grasp of western markets (i.e. quality, style, colors, etc.) and also an intimate relationship and understanding of the women with whom they are working and their culture.


All artisan groups and the organizations that support them want your business, but if they do not have the resources or skill set to produce what you are asking for, it becomes a frustrating process for everyone involved. It is so important for you to be very clear on what resources and capacity a group has. Some good questions to start with: How many women are involved? What is their specialty? Can you see pictures or get samples of some products they are currently making? Do they have sewing machines or the necessary equipment? Are the necessary materials readily available?

Most importantly, request a prototype or sample of what you are requesting to be made before you place an order! It sometimes takes a few tries before you get what you are envisioning and it becomes expensive and frustrating to receive an order of 50 items that you cannot sell.

3. Shipping

This is a seemingly minor detail that can derail the success of your business. If shipping the products is extremely difficult or expensive, it will be very challenging to actually get your products to market, or worse, you simply cannot make a profit at a price point that makes sense. It is essential to get a quote from your contact for an estimated number of products in line with what your first order might be. It is also a good idea to ask what the process is (do they have to travel far to the post office, do they have packaging materials, what the turnaround time might be, etc.)

  • 4. Accessing your markets
  • In our excitement to get the products made and in our hands, we can overlook the challenges involved in actually getting your products in front of your customers. A website is a great place to start, but do you have a broad enough audience that follows your site that will click on that purchase button and keep the product moving? Do you have high quality photos to entice potential customers to buy? Is your site easy to navigate and is the purchasing process seamless? Do you have the necessary shipping materials and shipping processes in place to handle orders when they do come in?

    Events are another vehicle for sales, but as local markets and seasonal events become more and more popular, competition increases and attendance decreases. There is also the event fees to consider, which can sometimes be steep and make it hard to break even, much less make a substantial profit.

    Wholesale is always going to be your ideal avenue for sales. Just be aware of all costs involved to produce your product to ensure that the price per item that you agree upon with the buyer actually yields you a profit. Because if you can’t make a profit, you can’t sustain your business or make the impact you want to make in the communities you are supporting.

  • 5. Keeping it simple
  • I learned this the hard way. We want to help everyone, right? There are just so many communities and need and causes to support. What if we just try different products from various countries or use our proceeds to help multiple causes?

    Start small, keep it simple. Choose one product, one cause and perfect it. This will help secure your branding and streamline your marketing efforts, while instilling confidence in your customers that you can deliver a high quality, consistent product.

    We won’t sugarcoat it, starting a business is not an easy endeavor. All of these things to consider can be overwhelming. But we have confidence that you can do it! What we have learned is that the more preparation you do on the front end (research, demographics, product demand, etc.), the easier it will be for you to be successful and make an impact when you finally ‘open your doors’.

    So, be patient, do your homework, ask anyone and everyone for advice, surround yourself with supportive, like-minded people…and don’t give up!!!

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