Meet our Producers
Mulberries was established in 1993. Its origin lies in the history of the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative (PHC) in Vientiane and its director, Mrs Kommaly Chanthavong.
Mulberries is a social enterprise that seeks to create income generating opportunities for Lao people in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. They achieve this goal by encouraging the traditional community arts of silkworm rearing, reeling, weaving, and natural dyeing. The company provides training, tools and a market for village people who wish to work towards a brighter future. Today, Mulberries works with more than 2,000 villagers in five provinces, specialising in the production of naturally-dyed, handmade Lao silk.
Mulberries works to strengthen communities by developing and refining the rich cultural resources that Lao villagers already possess. The production of traditional silk is a labour intensive project which can involve many people in many different aspects of the community. From the growing of mulberry trees to the creation of natural dyes, hand-crafted silk production utilises local labour, local knowledge, and local resources. This, in turn, encourages village self-sufficiency and productivity.
Video produced by Fair Trade Connection.
Mulberries works to ensure that resources remain for the future generations in Laos. The company is active in promoting environmental awareness in the villages where they work.
They encourage sustainable alternatives to opium production and harmful slash and burn agriculture by stressing the economic rewards of growing mulberry trees with organic fertilizers. They also show the villagers how wastage in the silk production process can be eliminated by creating dependency cycles between various community activities, such as livestock rearing and fisheries. Mulberries stresses the importance of the beautiful traditional natural dyes, which are more environmentally friendly than commercially available dyes. Photography by Paul Wager
View Mulberries organic range
The Phontong Handicraft Cooperative (PHC) is a network of traditional Lao artisans which spans 35 villages and connects over 450 people. Their base is Vientiane, Lao PDR and their connections extend throughout Central and Northern Laos.
The cooperative is committed to increasing and stabilising the livelihood of Lao villagers through the renewal and support of traditional Lao handicrafts. It provides training and seeks market outlets. Their vision is to create sustainable livelihood and to promote environmentally and culturally appropriate practices in the communities where they work.
Phontong Handicraft Cooperative History
PHC was established in 1976, when a small group of 10 women who lived in Phontong Village, Vientiane, organised themselves to sell handicrafts that they produced.
At this time, Phontong Village was a haphazard settlement for the internally displaced people of Northern Laos. Tremors from the Cold War – in the form of civil strife and cluster bombs – had forced many from their homes and communities. A new communist government was in power and employment was hard to find in this time of transition.
Kommaly Chanthavong was one of the many internally displaced people living in Phontong. At the age of 11 she had left her home village near the northern town of Xam Neua and walked over 250 km through mountainous terrain in order to reach her family in Vientiane.
Video produced by Fair Trade Connection.
In 1976, two options existed for those looking for employment – find work with the Government or work within a co-op. Kommaly decided not to work for the Government, as she was hoping to help those in her community. She had noticed that many women in her village had no employment and little source of income besides the small wages men received for manual labour. She knew that many of the women from Northern Laos had learnt traditional weaving skills from their mothers and grandmothers. Equipped with this knowledge and a lot of determination, Kommaly asked 10 women to meet together in her house and start the ‘Phontong Weavers’.
The Phontong Weavers functioned as a simple cooperative by sharing what they had and what they made. Old looms, technical knowledge, money, and time were all donated to the group, and the resulting products were sold in the ‘Morning Market’. The Weavers turned out to be so successful they caught the Government’s eye in 1977. In this year, the Government asked the group to weave the numerous ribbons needed for the uniforms of soldiers and police officers. This extra business allowed the weavers to expand their operation and start working in the villages around Vientiane.
In 1985, the group applied to the Government to become a recognised cooperative. Kommaly was elected as the director of the co-op, and the group legally became the ‘Phontong Handicraft Cooperative’ (PHC). PHC has become the only surviving, self-sustaining Handicraft Cooperative in Laos today.
One of the reasons why the PHC is economically sustainable can be attributed to its business structure. The Laos socialist government forbids the setting up of local NGOs, thus in 1990 PHC and CAMA Services (Compassion and Mercy Associate’s Services) set up a company called Phonthong-CAMA Handicraft Cooperative with the aim to run the company as a non-profit handicraft project and as a relatively economically independent organisation. The company expanded its work to include Hmong communities (the main hill minority group in Laos).
Kommaly’s vision is to expand the benefits of the PHC to poorer areas of Laos (Kommaly herself came from the poorest region in the North). She wants to see the rural farmers engaged in the whole cycle of production from silk thread to finished handicraft products.
In 1993, Kommaly helped start Mulberries in order to work with more farmers in silk production in Hua Phan and Xieng Khouang in Northern Laos.
Camacrafts is a non-profit, self-help project which markets handicrafts from Lao PDR. Camacrafts strives to provide a sustainable method of income for village women that would otherwise be unavailable.
Camacrafts’ income generating activities produce handcrafted pieces using traditional patterns and needlework techniques. Hmong symbols and motifs, appliqué, cross-stitch, embroidery and batik are fashioned into contemporary home décor and accessories.
Camacrafts’ goal is to lead Hmong and Lao villagers toward self-sufficiency, to generate income as an aid to socio-economic development, and to preserve and encourage traditional skills and handicraft.
Camacrafts fosters family unity by decreasing rural unemployment and subsequent migration to urban centres. An estimated 70% of women who sew for Camacrafts are the sole income earners of their families. Money earned from the handicrafts is largely used to send their children to school and to buy food and medicine. This income supplements the produce they receive from their farms – their only means of livelihood.
Camacrafts products are sold in local and international markets.
In 1990, CAMA Services established the Camacrafts project. CAMA Services was involved in building schools and clean water projects in Lao PDR. It is currently involved in teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and working with Lao partners in a silk and mulberry project.
Camacrafts has worked with over 400 Hmong and Lao people, in over 20 villages. Camacrafts initially trained villagers to produce the contemporary crafts they sell today. The villagers used their traditional skills to develop handcrafted products and train others in Hmong traditional needlework methods. Camacrafts currently employs around 12 Hmong and Lao men and women in the Camacrafts office. The project includes over two hundred Hmong and Lao villagers from the Vientiane municipality and the Xieng Khouang province.
Camacrafts strives to generate income as an aid to development for local people. As a result, about 40% of sales profits go directly to the original producers. Another 30% of sales income is used for raw materials, which Camacraft purchases and provides, free of charge, to the producers. The other 30% of sales covers overhead expenditures and Lao staff salaries.