I founded Pelagona based on a mission to make faraway places accessible. I wanted to share the beautiful things, incredible craftmanship and stories of the people behind the products I discover on my travels. It is no surprise that travelling and exploring different cultures is, hence, deeply woven into Pelagona’s DNA. Before the pandemic, it was normal for me to travel and meet the artisan partners in person and hunt for new products in faraway places. Everyone’s life has been affected in one way or the other over the past weeks. I thought it was time to share what happened behind the scenes at Pelagona.
From a day-to-day work perspective, nothing much has changed for me as I always work from home. My “café office hours” have reduced drastically and I have been grounded for the longest period in a long time. Being grounded in Austria also meant that I had to come up with a temporary photo studio – I work in a bright room with natural light but I also use the garden to shoot the products.
Needless to say, the travel restrictions and border closures have affected my work processes. I invest a lot of time and effort to meet with the artisans and build up trust and a long-lasting relationship. At the moment, I cannot travel to the countries I source from – from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, to India and Kenya – it is simply impossible to travel there at the moment. And considering the current political landscape across the world, I think it will stay that way for quite some time. Consequently, we had to rely on video and telephone conferences and emails to work on new products, discuss how to move forward and develop strategies on how to get the products to Europe.
Speaking of shipping: this has been one of the biggest challenges. When we think about air travel, we almost associate it with tourism or business travel. Rarely do we think of transporting goods. But many passenger flights are also used to ship smaller amounts of cargo – letters, parcels or smaller shipments which are not sent by sea. Because the majority of passenger flights has been suspended, it also affected the volume which could be shipped overall which meant that a lot of products were waiting to be picked up and shipped. Furthermore, for about six to eight weeks, the focus of the European postal services was to guarantee shipments within the EU and, hence, suspended their international services. If shipments made it into the EU, they were and still are very often stuck at the customs due to a backlog. In many countries such as Kenya or Cambodia there are still only a few private companies which ship once or twice a week. Therefore, many of the products were sitting around for weeks but we finally managed to ship them – thanks to the great Pelagona-partners.
I also want to say thank you to customers who patiently waited to get their products. Even within the EU, delays in shipping are, unfortunately, still a part of the game…
Apart from the logistics, running Pelagona shows me how differently lives have been affected by Covid-19. In addition to the health impact, the economic one is vastly different. While we have government programmes in many industrialised countries to save the economy, this is financially not an option in many developing countries.
What about Pelagona’s artisan partners?
Pelagona’s artisan partners are located in developing countries. The healthcare systems are mostly only accessible to a few privileged. Running water is a luxury. Many people who live from very little in non-corona times now lost their only income streams due to the lockdowns. We are talking about a few dollars per day but for those affected a few dollars may decide about life or death. Many families need the money they make today to make it through tomorrow. Savings are a luxury not accessible to many.
India went into a strict lockdown for almost three months and it was almost impossible for anyone to leave their houses. Hence, the artisan group I work with could not meet. The school where the women can work on the products has re-opened, but many women and children are still staying at home. From a European or North American perspective, you may now think “well, then they just need to sit it out at home.” But I would like to remind you about a quote by an Indian doctor to which I referred in my “No Panic Diary”:
“Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. Hand sanitisers are a privilege. It means that you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways to ward the Corona off are accessible only to the affluent.“
We are privileged to have nice homes to social distance. For most of the women in the group, life is very different. They live in very small houses, sometimes five to eight people live in one room. Sometimes, the husbands are abusive. And for many of the women, the school is the only place where their child gets a warm meal. With the schools being closed, this poses a big problem. I am currently discussing with my Indian partners how we can take up our project to ensure a sustainable income for the women.
Kenya also was in a kind of lockdown, even though it did not seem as strict as in India. Nevertheless, with the shops shut, the economic impact is there as well. In the first weeks of the lockdown, the women could not leave there houses and meet to weave. Weaving for them is more than just making a product. It is also a social gathering where they discuss their issues and help each other out.
Part of my shipment from Kenya was delayed not only because of the bottleneck in shipping but also because the artisan group sold off some of our products locally. My approach is to always make a down payment so that the material can be bought and that the artisans are covered. Nevertheless, they were so desperate because many orders were cancelled that they sold a few products locally to make money.
My artisan partners in Cambodia were heavily affected by cancelled orders. Out of the 24 women employed, 12 had to be let go temporarily because the organization could not pay them anymore. We are trying to work together and, of course, I kept placing further orders and hope that the organization can re-employ the women soon.
I am trying to do as much as I can to support my partners by placing further orders and planning ahead. A plus for Pelagona definitely was that it is almost exclusively run online. This allowed me to keep working almost like before the crisis. In general, I think that social distancing helped overcome many barriers in our heads about online shopping. I know that interaction at a store is something very important. Hence, I installed a chat feature on pelagona.com where customers can get answers quickly. I also wrote an extensive FAQ section where I tried to anticipate the most important questions customers may have.
The future is still uncertain but the pandemic will most likely accompany us for quite some time. I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek behind the scenes of my online store. If you did, let me know and I will share more. Have a nice week ahead!