MBQ: a social enterprise transforming handicraft of ROMA

foto credit: Ross Cheung

From the ninth century AD, the Roma immigrants fled from Ancient India to Persia and Armenia and from the northwest India they learned the Romani which is the language they are using. The diaspora has existed for thousands of years and spread into various European countries. Just like indigenous ethnic groups in Taiwan, ethnic minorities in the Mainland China and other global immigrants, they only live with low socio-economic status and are marginalized from the mainstream society, and face identity crisis.

Cultural assimilation theory believes that ethnic minorities should take the initiative to integrate themselves into the mainstream society. Shalom Almond’s Documentary „The Love Market” describes a story at the border between China and Vietnam. Those young Hmong women, as an ethnic group of one-twentieth of the population, were under social pressure and intended to stay away from hometown. They wore the mainstream King ethnic costume, worked for tourist service industry and tried hard to adapt to the lives of other women in the country. Is modernization a one-way traffic? If the minorities do not bow to reality, they may face the similar situation of Rohingya. The other option seems to be like the ethnic groups from the Potala Palace to Changbai Mountain who are now staying in the ghettos of metropolitan areas like New York, London, and Paris. The film „Comrades: Almost a Love Story” directed by Peter Chan depicts the protagonists who migrated from the Mainland China to Hong Kong, and then unpredictably meet in the United States with regrets. In general, becoming immigrants is like the Aborigines of Australia who escaped from the Cadatrix, or the Jews who eternally left the temple of Solomon.

The plights of Roma

Although the Roma community in Romania could be possibly the best integrated among other European countries, Roma people are still distanced from the mainstream society and labelled by the media in a negative way. „(T)he Roma are treated as a class, but as a race” clearly shows that the Roma is a stereotype. It was a tough period for Roma people through the transition from a socialist state to a country in the European Union. After the end of the Cold War, assimilation policy, proletarianization and the extinction of traditional occupations sieged Roma people from social, economic, political and ethnic perspectives. Since the 1990s, unemployment, poverty, and the underclass became their additional hashtags.

The social entrepreneurial attempt

MeşteshukarButiQ was found in 2011. It started with selling Roma handicraft branded products. The attempt in Bucharest was to rejuvenate the traditions of Roma and to provide employment opportunity for them. Under the umbrella organization of Romina’s social-economic enterprise network, MBQ has brought new design and distribution channel to Roma arts and crafts. At the beginning, due to the handwork quality and the pricing, the sale was not impressive. What’s more, the communist regime ensured that the Roma products were produced and distributed under the planned economy. Also, the tempo of business was completely different from the one in the underground economy during the communist era. Not all of the Roma producers could get adapted to the new market economy normalcy and the modern product management system. Andrei M. Georgescu, with a marketing background, is the one who took the lead of MBQ in 2013. The student organization AIESEC gave him the exposure of MBQ and provided him a chance to assist Roma people’s employment and craftsmanship reservation.

Remarketing Roma’s handicraft

Andrei recognized that Roma’s handicraft should be market-oriented. He invited designers to redesign and to reposition the Roma’s final goods. As the traditional handmade commodity, most of the stakeholders tended to focus much on exhibit and event. According to Andrei, MBQ should shift its orientation to retail market, household items, and interior design. At the same time, in his plan, the jewelry market would be another untouched land for Roma arts. MBQ started repacking the Roma culture product with modern design. Andrei and his team put photos of products online with brief product info on the MBQ’s official website.

Currently, based in Bucharest, Andrei’s shop is lining up supporters and customers with multiple alliances with commercial, non-profit, and curatorial sectors. After winning the ERSTE Bank Foundation competition, MBA became the foundation’s partner for promoting Roma culture. Besides, the common market in European Union allows MBQ to conduct cross-border marketing. For example, the supporters sponsored the exhibitions and the travel cost to make the Roma products and culture exposed in a foreign country, such as Vienna Design Week. Given the socio-economic differences among European countries, MBQ let the Roma to work domestically, to adopt materials, to preserve their arts and to improve the livelihood. The business model is that MBQ commissions Roma workers to produce handicraft and sells the products to the customers. The craftworks include garments, jewelry, furniture, and kitchenware which employs 50 local Roma. In short, according to Kim & Mauborgne’s Blue ocean strategy, MBQ redesigned the Roma products to find its own ‘blue ocean’. First, redesigning the market value of hand-making. Second, from small niche market to mass retail. Third, online marketing. Fourth, corporate responsibility sponsorship. Fifth, entering the European common market with more than 20 countries.

foto credit: Ross Cheung

Discussion and insight

In the Middle ages, Roma craftsmen played an important role in the Romanian economy, especially they dominated the time of agrarianisation and became the indispensable manufacturer of utensils and household commodities. The Roma artisans were considered as ‘natural guilds’. MBQ revitalizes the Roma’s economy with its great tradition. Through the collective efforts of social enterprises, corporate social responsibility, and cultural industry, MBQ has established a sustainable system for Roma people which allows them to income security, to continue cultural traditions, and to settle down for life. The company repacks handicrafts as the economic pillar for Roma to attract European customers based on the ethnic cultural characters, the impoverished situations, and the pricing for middle class standard.

MBQ sheds light on the role of social enterprise in supporting disadvantaged groups. On the one hand, social enterprises can carry out cross-border and online marketing through diversified business collaboration, corporate social responsibility fund, mutual aid organizations, curators and transnational networks. On the other hand, social enterprises can renovate ethnic heritages and promote minorities so as to individual empowerment and cultural reservation.

by Ross Cheung

 

Ross Cheung is a student of Erasmus Mundus Master in Global Studies (Vienna University, Macquarie University and Leipzig University). He engaged in research projects on social business and graduate entrepreneurship in Hong Kong, attended the ASEF Young Leaders Summit in Luxembourg and participated in the Alternative Economics and Monetary Systems in Vienna.

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