Going mobile: Geneva business imports fair trade Nepali crafts, transforms lives

Colorful felt mobiles of owls, dinosaurs and llamas hang high in the Fair Trade Store at The Little Traveler, 404 S. Third St., Geneva, all handmade by artisans in Nepal.

Madhav Pandey started the felt goods company with two people in 2011 and now employs more than 400 full- and part-time felt workers and designers in Kathmandu.

The mobiles and finger puppets come to the store through The Winding Road, a company started by Geneva resident Marla Showfer the same year. She went to Nepal to bring artisan work from developing countries.

"He was just opening a small shop," Showfer said. "Fate put us together, somehow."

She liked what she saw and told him she could sell the items in the United States.

Now she imports more than 98% of his handcrafted goods to 1,000 stores in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.

She said they sold 68,000 felt finger puppets this holiday season.

Fair trade is a designation that supports farmers and craftspeople in developing countries with fair prices, nondiscrimination and no child or forced labor.

Nearly all of Pandey's felt craftspeople are women. Many work from home as they care for young children, he said.

Pandey's felt company also supports international businesses. The felt is made from sheep wool imported from Australia and New Zealand, and nontoxic dyes to color them come from Switzerland.

The process to create one-finger puppet takes three days, Pandey said.

It involves mixing water into the wool, hand rolling it, then drying it out for a day in the hot sun, Showfer said.

"There is no electricity used, there is no waste, there is no chemical waste," Showfer said.

Good wages lead to children's education

Nepal, a landlocked country between China and India, is most famous for Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Most of its economy is supported by mountain trekkers trying to climb Everest, Showfer said.

But creating these little felt products - toys, finger puppets, mobiles - is transformative in the lives of the workers and their children, she said.

"For a lot of people, a living wage would not allow them to put money in a bank or save money," Showfer said. "Now that these women are working, they have now two-income households. They are now able to send their kids to school."

Pandey said Nepal's public schools lack the basics, so most send their children to private schools and pay for tuition, books and uniforms. The cost would be equivalent to $350 to $400 in U.S. dollars for a year.

Showfer said the illiteracy rate for women over 50 in Nepal is 80%.

"Imagine walking down the street and not being able to read a street sign ... or getting a government letter and not being able to read it," Showfer said.

But all of the children of women working for Pandey are in school, Showfer said.

Working and being paid a good wage also keeps vulnerable Nepali women from human trafficking, Showfer said.

"We are not certified in Nepal as fair trade," Pandey said. "But in the meantime, we (are) doing much more than fair trade."

Pandey said if a woman can only work in the late afternoon with a baby at home, he accommodates her.

"This is what we call fair trade. Fair wages," Pandey said. "We pay them for transport - come and go - bus fare. And lunch ... in the afternoon. And health things if they are sick."

Pandey pays bonuses to all his employees during the festival of Deepawali, or Diwali, so they can go to their villages for a month.

Lives changed

As much as their work has transformed lives in Nepal, the lives of Pandey and Showfer also were changed.

Pandey was from a small village of just 68 families in Nuwakot. A college graduate, he was 21 when he started his own business in Kathmandu and met Showfer.

Showfer had just started her company, The Winding Road. She has a master's degree in advertising and integrated marketing communications.

No matter what new idea she would throw at him, Pandey would pick it up. For example, she wanted felted images of various dog breeds - but they do not exist in Nepal. She showed him photos of popular breeds so his designers could create them.

"He is very adaptable and super smart," Showfer said.

It took Pandey a year to get a visa to travel to the United States, requiring an interview at the U.S. embassy and for Showfer to sponsor him. She is taking him to gift shows to see the trends in merchandise in person.

The next step for him is to complete a new earthquake-proof building in Kathmandu for his workers - a far cry from where he started with a dirt floor.

"There are so many poor people in Kathmandu," Pandey said. "Creating jobs is the most important thing. This is what we try to do."

For more information about Showfer's company or how to help Pandey's workers, visit

Madhav Pandey, right, who lives with his family in Kathmandu, Nepal, has a fair trade business that makes artistic felt items by hand. Geneva resident Marla Showfer and her company, The Winding Road, imports his items for retail stores throughout the country. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Local News Network
Mobiles and finger puppets sold at The Little Traveler in Geneva come to the store through The Winding Road, a company started by Geneva resident Marla Showfer. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Local News Network
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