Tate and Lyle Award for Sustainable Development
The Winner: Courts plc (Guyana)
When Courts took over the Huggins retail chain in Guyana in November 1993 to sell furniture and electricals on hire purchase, many thought it could never make it pay in a small, far from rich country. However, the British furniture company, established in 1850, was confident it would work, just as its first Caribbean store in Kingston, Jamaica had done in 1959 and a further 130 have since around the world. Courts knew its biggest problem would not be getting people to make their payments but finding furniture for them to buy.
As the eight newly liveried yellow stores traded at levels rising to 800 per cent of Huggins, Courts buyers scoured the country for affordable furniture. The search revealed there was little available that met Courts' quality and price requirements. The only two major factories manufactured exclusively for export and the remaining workshops made individual pieces in small quantities. It became clear that, if Courts was to have a commercial future in Guyana and supply the mass market with locally made furniture, it would have to help the furniture industry in a quite fundamental way.
Thus, four months after Courts' arrival in Guyana on February 11, 1994, the Furniture Investment for National Development (FIND) programme was launched. FIND provides training in all aspects of furniture manufacturing from forestry to finishing. It aims to provide a better all round product for local customers at a lower cost while also benefiting everyone in the supply chain.
Courts brought in expert volunteer advisers from the British and Canadian Executive Service Overseas agencies, who conducted seminars and worked with local manufacturers. Derek Crump formerly of the London College of Furniture, who went for BESO, trained workers in efficient methods, including the use of jigs, so that a design can be copied and output increased.
Courts gave workshops guaranteed orders, to allow them to borrow money from banks to expand their operations. Over half its purchases come from firms with fewer than 20 employees.
Much of Guyana's furniture is made from solid wood and sold ready assembled. Cheaper alternatives, like chipboards used in European flat pack furniture, do not withstand the humidity. Courts is trying to introduce new materials such a fibreboard (MDF) which has the properties of solid wood at a lower. It is keen to replace the timber used, save waste and not use hardwoods from the virgin forest. To this end, FIND provided a scholarship for a student to study a certificate in forestry, to help furniture makers acquire suitable timber.
FIND arranged for woodwork students to have work placements in the furniture industry. It organised work with manufacturers for school drop-outs, street children and truants, Courts paying 50 per cent of their wages. The 50 furniture makers in the FIND programme are expected to double employment in the coming year, to about 750 people.
Manufacturers have loudly praised the FIND initiative and are keen to take part. They have developed new furniture lines and customers have recognised the improved quality. Christmas is a particularly busy time when shopping in Guyana goes 'way out of the window'.
A Manufacturer of the Year award has been introduced by Courts to recognise success and reward improvement. Design competitions have been held to encourage new talent. Rewards have also come in export orders from other Courts companies in the Caribbean.
Courts says it has a long-term commitment to Guyana and will continue to help the furniture industry develop. Canadian executive Service Overseas is now applying the FIND blueprint to three further trades: jewellery, handicrafts and agro-industry.