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Pepe Heykoop and Laurien Menter

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Nestled in a corner of Foras Road in the bustling city of Mumbai—home to more than 20 million people—lives a community of 700 people, called the Pardeshi. Three generations ago, they migrated from Uttar Pradesh hoping to find work, but life was not too kind. Mumbai showed little interest in their traditional skill, thus pushing them below the poverty line. Foras Road, synonymous as the Red Light District of the city, is one of the highest risk areas, especially for young girls.

With a mission to help improve the situation, Laurien Meuter—a Dutch bank employee who happened to be working temporarily in India—founded the Tiny Miracles Foundation in 2010. Born out of a passion to protect the young girls of the community and promise them a better future, the foundation educates the parents of the importance of sending children to school, and helps send the children of the community to better schools. But besides providing education and healthcare, Laurien had one more blockade to tackle: employment. She reached out to her cousin, Dutch designer Pepe Heykoop, who designed custom products which could be produced by the Pardeshi women. ‘From a design perspective, we have always strongly believed that consumers should buy our products first because they like the design, secondly because of the story. In our opinion, that is the most sustainable way of creating many, many jobs,’ says Laurien.

After two-and-a-half years of trial and error, the campaign finally kicked off when Pepe created a paper vase that can be folded flat to ship in an envelope. Sewn in a geometric pattern, the paper form can be adjusted to cover a bottle, making an instant vase. The construction is easy, but time intensive—something that the women can pick up after brief training, and it leaves them with plenty of work. It’s sold inexpensively at retail, so the sales are impressive. The paper vase cover won the Interior Innovation Award at the international furnishing show, IMM Cologne 2013. Since its launch, sales have sky-rocketed to around 100 pieces a day, providing full-time employment to 90 women. The women also produce flat packed lampshades made of coated paper. Once it pops out after unpacking, a certain tension in the paper creates and holds the shade up.

The foundation has set a goal to provide 150 families with a wage of 15 Euros [Rs.1100] a day—the UNICEF standard for a middle class wage. Pepe plans to train the families to manage the distribution themselves, so the process becomes contained within the community after the program finishes in four years. Among other things, the duo are planning collaborations with other Dutch designers in order to further their cause. ‘We can make the world a better place,’ Laurien writes on the foundation’s website. ‘How? Simply by rolling up our sleeves and doing it!’

 

Text Ritupriya Basu

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