Awards 1999 The Crown Agents Foundation Award for Small Businesses

The Crown Agents Foundation Award for Small Businesses

Short-listed: One Village

Trade in craft articles from developing countries is generally conducted for profit by privately-owned businesses, though sometimes through charitable channels. While such trades can help create jobs, private traders' success tends to widen the gap in prosperity between them and the craftspeople. Charity sales can seem paternalistic and fail to offer a commercially sound future.

The earnings of individual craftspeople are often less than a living minimum, forcing them into unrepayable borrowings from unscrupulous moneylenders. Over 20 years, One Village has developed an alternative approach. It has along term commitment to co-operatively organised producers and markets their products by wholesale to over 400 independent High Street shops in the United Kingdom as well as through two smart shops of its own in quality shopping areas. Products are sold on their own merit as quality articles reasonably priced.

One Village's commitment to producers can be demonstrated by the length of time the same producer organisations have been selling through the company. Producers are described as partners and are taken into the One Village network after consideration whether a long-lasting commercial market can be reasonably assured. They are therefore not subjected to flash-in-the-pan fashion bonanzas which could leave them disappointed and disillusioned.

To maintain sales, products are continually reviewed and adjusted if appropriate to keep them fresh in the marketplace. One Village keeps in touch with trends. Every year for 20 years it has had a prominent stand at the Birmingham International Spring Fair and other major trade events. It keeps ahead of the market through close contact with retailers, plus experience in its own shops. Nevertheless, some unaltered items from the same suppliers have remained good sellers for all of One Village's history.

One Village works enthusiastically with its partners to improve working conditions and to encourage producers to be involved in their businesses. Products are costed carefully, to try and ensure that all those taking part receive a very satisfactory return for their creativity. Business administration costs are kept to a minimum. High margins can often be achieved even after producers have been generously paid. This has led One Village to offer something extra to producers if it can be used for social improvements in the producing communities. This 'community surcharge' has contributed to low-cost housing, education projects, workers' provident funds, water supplies and even pressure cookers for co-operative members.

One Village has done all this from a starting base of under 5,000 capital. It has never had charitable status or a church support network. It was formed by Roy Scott who, having left his roots in the grocery trade, pioneered Oxfam's Bridge scheme in the 1960's and early 1970's. While working in 1979 for a United Nation's agency in the Philippines, he revisited producers supported in his day by Oxfam but then replaced by cheaper suppliers. One Village was initially formed to try to re-establish for these producers a more reliable commercial market in the United Kingdom. The products of the initial Philippine co-operatives are still sold by One Village, alongside a large range of articles from India, Bangladesh and elsewhere. People wishing to offer support have contributed additional funds. This now enables One Village to provide interest-free working capital to producer organisations.

One Village focuses on articles for the home: rugs, fabrics, lighting, cushions. These are less exposed to fashion changes and therefore likely to offer continuity in sales. Although the products do not have a particularly ethnic look. One Village's policy is that designs and styles should have their origins in the producer community, while being adapted to the requirements of the British market. Rather than designs being exported from a British studio, producer communities adapt designs themselves, with guidance from One Village's market intelligence service.

One women's co-operative in Western India writes: "One Village is the most outstanding customer we have. It is the only purchasing agency that on its own increases prices and even reminds us to increase them to meet the inflation of costs. In terms of social justice, even if it doesn't place very large orders compared to other big buyers, it is outstanding. One Village has a nobility that is rare in the competitive world."

One Village Charlbury, OX7 3SQ
Tel: 01608 811811 Fax: 01608 811911