The world needs more people like Pru and Murray McMillan founders of Community Project World Wide. We interviewed them as a part of a series of blogs we are putting together for the Fair@Square Ethical Lifestyle Festival.
Q. How did you two meet and what sparked the initial idea behind Community Projects Worldwide?
We met in high school in Albury and have been married for 30 years. In 1992 we began travelling and ended up running lodges in remote locations in Africa, PNG and Australia for the following 10 years, where we had a great exposure to the incredible talent and skills people had when using anything around them to create items for both everyday use and as souvenirs for tourists. It was that experience , and the fact that we wanted to start a family based in Australia, that we realised we needed a new career. I was trained in Accounting and Economics and Pru’ s background was banking and marketing, and neither of those careers seemed appealing after our experiences of the past 10 years .
We wanted a business doing the things we loved – travelling , working with the new cultures we had connected with, promoting their beautiful handicrafts, and educating people on the benefits of buying Fair Trade and ethically produced items. Thus Kalahari Trading was born. Many of our groups and artisans had the skills to diversify their creations away from tourist souvenirs to things that would appeal to consumers anytime anywhere. Certainly some were already doing this, Ngwenya Glass and Swazi candles were two of these groups. We could see there was enormous scope to offer these products into the Australian market.
We began retailing in Montville and then pretty quickly started wholesaling but struggled to get retailers to pass through the stories of our producers to their customers . At that time many retailers wanted a product they could buy for $1 and sell for $2. We had the idea of printing up each producers’ story on cards which would accompany every product so the end users could engage with the producer on some level and possibly appreciate the importance of that purchase in terms of what it meant to the producer. This worked well,, however most retailers would only stock a small percentage of our range. In 2006 we had the opportunity to open our own shop in Eumundi Square, close to where we live on the Sunshine coast , and that was the beginning of Community Projects Worldwide. We really told the stories well, we have flyers explain what Fair/Ethical Trade is on our walls, we set up TV monitors with videos of Artisans making the products and it was like a light bulb moment, customers could get the concept and engage. Pretty soon after we opened another shop in Port Macquarie and we were off and running.
Retailing however is a very tricky environment in Australia, our rents and wages are high and the consumer is getting more and more dispersed between the shopping strip, malls and online. In 20 years we have seen so much change, and have had to adapt quickly and readily. We now have a growing online presence, and social media platform.
“EMPOWERMENT THROUGH EMPLOYMENT has always been our catch cry”
Q. Your story is incredible and deeply inspiring, what has been the most impactful/eventful moment for you throughout your entire journey? The ‘sliding doors’ moment if you like for me (Murray) was in Botswana in 1992. We had been travelling by various means through Africa for 8 months and then applied for a job working at a safari lodge in the Okavango Delta, which we did not get after going through the interview process. We were then hitchhiking out to our campsite and were given a lift by a woman who wanted to go camping with her friend that week, however her friend was running a lodge and didn’t have anyone to relieve her. We suggested that we were quite capable and within 2 days we were in charge of a five star safari lodge. This kicked off a 10 year stint running exclusive lodges in Africa, Papua New Guinea and Australia. It gave us enormous exposure to Indigenous cultures and a deep understanding of some of the challenges they face in everyday life.
In terms of a real learning experience in our business we had a “light bulb” moment early on when a friend of ours introduced us to a group of women in Soweto that he was teaching English as a volunteer. The Ladies would sew and make dolls during his lessons and he wanted to know if we could help sell these dolls for them. When we went to Soweto,(in those days you had to be a bit careful when you went and how you got there) and met the group, they were all grandmothers who had been through the Apartheid years and done it fairly tough. The dolls were beautifully made and I think from memory they wanted the equivalent of $20 each, we knew that we couldn’t make any money on them at that price but didn’t have the heart to say we couldn’t sell them. That night we thought it over and decided we could buy their dolls and just try to recoup the purchase price as a goodwill project. We said we would take all they could make and they were over the moon. We called them our Goodwill dolls and asked all our retailers we sold them to if they could also just sell them for that $20 so we could provide as much work for the ladies that we could. We are still dealing with that group 20 years on (we ordered more dolls last week) and Daisy Mahalaba still runs it, we still sell the dolls for $20 now and must have sold thousands over the years. We once bought Daisy’s husband a new taxi when the authorities did a crack down on the unroadworthy ones in Johannesburg and she paid us back in dolls over the next couple of years. We had been telling the stories of our artisans all along however that story really got some cut through and we learned to be better story-tellers. We realised that there are so many people (from retailers to the general public) that want to be involved with Fair trade but just have not had the opportunity, and that from small gestures larger ideas flow. People want a personal story to relate to , and make them feel good about the item they are buying. It also showed us we could be flexible with margins, as value can present in ways other than monetary.
Q. As you have travelled to a myriad of countries, what are some of the ways you adapt to new cultures and connect with different communities? We were both very young when we started travelling and working overseas and as a result really didn’t know much about anything. Botswana was a great training ground for us. Within the Tswana culture they have what is known as a Kgotla, essentially a meeting of anyone who is interested/involved in an issue. Everyone has an equal right to voice their opinion and be heard and we would literally all sit in a circle and talk things out, very respectfully, no one would ever raise their voice. There was a lot of listening and decisions had to be considered and explained. We have taken this approach with all groups and communities we work with.. go about things quietly, communicate well and listen to what everyone has to say, ask a lot of questions and listen to the response. In a conversation you learn nothing by talking all the time! Also pay the respect of trying their language, just a few tortured words is enough sometimes to break the ice. An early lesson I had in Botswana involved our guides not wanting to take their Mekoros (dugout canoes) to the airstrip to collect the guests luggage.
This was a difficult job, particularly in the heat and no one ever really volunteered for it. It was about an hour and a half round trip through the canals and back. On this particular occasion none of the guides would go, protesting that there was a hippo blocking the channel, and they wanted to use the motor boat (for emergencies only). In my defence there was always a degree of scheming to use the boat and I mistakenly thought this was such an occasion. Because no one would go, I said I would, to call their bluff. Now I was not a great ‘poler’ of a Mekoro (quite a skill) however I had gone past the point of no return. By the time I got back with the luggage having to get past this hippo, not once but twice, I was extremely relieved, (the hippo had charged at me both times I had run the gauntlet past him). As I pulled the Mekoro into the bank of the river all the guides were waiting for me (not out of concern for my welfare I’m sure at that point). They didn’t say anything however I had to approach them and very humbly suggest that until the hippo found somewhere else to hang out they could use the boat! The Guides had every right to be very angry with me however they weren’t, they respected the fact that I did the job myself and admitted I was wrong. This was a seminal moment for me in particular and I often reflect back on what that Tswana culture taught us in terms of cultural sensitivity. We also had some San Bushman as guides and it was so much fun learning from them and watching how they interacted with guests.
Q. What have been some of the greatest challenges throughout your whole journey and how did you overcome these challenges?
There is no doubt that starting this business and keeping it afloat in the first few years was the greatest challenge. All of the largest obstacles are there at the one time.
Dealing with our artisans and communities, the amount of travelling involved, managing cash flow, trying to establish a market for the products. In the property industry the catch cry is location, location, location. For us that is logistics, logistics, logistics, It is simply critical, you have to get your product to your end user in one piece (in good condition) at a price that is attractive/fair. This has been particularly challenging, as for so long our market has been dominated by Chinese products and the predominant driver in the sale of these things has been price. Whilst we have always felt strongly that our products represent extremely good value for money it has been challenging to get the consumer to look at the product and the work involved in creating it before they look at the price label. We have always gone to great length to tell the story behind every product in an attempt to give our end users the insight that we have seen. I am still in awe today at the skill involved in creating any item that we stock, not to mention the time that has gone into it. We often comment that if someone from the developed world displayed some of these skills they would be revered in the arts world.
Q. What motivates you to keep going?
We just love dealing with all of our groups, we make a real difference to their lives and they are so appreciative of the work we provide. It was/is a real challenge during the height of covid as many of them do not have a lot of work (they rely on the tourist industry often as a staple) and we were advancing money to some of our individual suppliers just so they could buy the essentials. There is very little welfare and not a lot to fall back on.
The positive feedback from our customers, and their willingness to be involved is also very rewarding. We know that our model works, and would love to see Community Projects Worldwide grow to a National brand level, where it will last longer than just us.
We try regularly to visit all our suppliers and it is very clear how important this work is for them and how it provides not only an income, but a sense of worth and support to their community. We have tried to convey this message to our own customers… EMPOWERMENT THROUGH EMPLOYMENT has always been our catch cry, and we believe very strongly in this.
Q. What is the message that you wish to instil into future generations? We have two children and I would just like them to be kind, considerate and grateful. We are so privileged, just by pure circumstance, where we are born and the support around us in the form of a secure functioning political system and infrastructure. Access to education and the necessities of life. We deal with some very smart and capable people in the developing world and they struggle simply because they lack many of the things I have mentioned. The future generation is already onboard with realizing the impact of ethical business, and I would encourage them to always try to leave a place better than when you found it.
“try to leave a place better than when you found it” Q. For Murray: Have you faced any setbacks being a male advocate within the women empowerment sphere? That’s an interesting question, and one we have never even considered in 20 years of business. I suppose that is the beauty of one of the Fair Trade principles – equal opportunity, respect and pay for men and women. I have never viewed myself as an outsider in any of our dealings with any of our groups, and you are right that women do dominate many of the groups and communities we work with. They are all very strong women and I see the sense of community that is created when a group of women come together for work. I have never felt any disadvantage in dealing with our women dominated groups, however possibly a willingness to listen has held me in good stead. It is very true that when you invest in a woman, she will pass that directly onto her family by way of food and education. Fortunately we also work with many many men who also have this ethos. A funny story…last year we visited Gone rural in Swaziland who make our beautiful placemats and coasters from Lutindzi grass. There are approximately 700 women involved in this group and we drove about an hour out into the Swazi (Eswatini) countryside to visit a group doing some weaving. There was also a workshop/clinic being held for the ladies at the same time. Whilst we were talking to the ladies the clinic started and to my shock I realised it was about re-usable female sanitary products and their use etc. Seeing some rather awkward looks and giggling I quickly exited to go for a walk around the village.
Visit https://www.moralfairground.com.au for video interview with Pru McMillan and also to see the range of products you can buy from Community Projects Worldwide.