Empowering Women, Protecting Cats: Impressions from the Snow Leopard Enterprises Design Summit in Mongolia
This July, members of our team traveled to Western Mongolia to work with participating herder communities on new designs and product ideas for Snow Leopard Enterprises (SLE), our successful conservation program that creates economic opportunities for herder families in snow leopard habitat in return for a commitment to protect the cats they live with. The “Design Summit” provided new ideas and motivating encounters.
“Our goal was to get our participants’ perspectives on how the program has evolved over the last years; improve the quality of our products and to refresh our product line to keep our customers interested in buying our products, as well as keeping up with the increasing competition of hand-made products that are emerging faster than ever in the fair trade market”, says Gina Robertson, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Product Development and Sales Coordinator.
Participating herder communities use the wool from their livestock to create beautiful, unique handicrafts, such as ornaments, baby booties, or rugs. They sell them to the Snow Leopard Trust for a mutually agreed-upon price. In return, they commit to protecting snow leopards in their area, and they are awarded a bonus payment if no cats are killed there during the year. The products these communities create are sold all over the world through our online shop, giving customers the opportunity to help save snow leopards while they shop for authentic, natural artisan products.
This past month, accompanied by her colleague Jennifer Snell Rullman (the Trust’s Assistant Director of Conservation), as well as felting expert Sharon Costello, Woodland Park Zoo gift shop manager Terry Blumer and photographer John Arrighi, Gina traveled to Uvs Province in Western Mongolia, where they met with Mongolia’s SLE Product and Design Manager, Unurzul Dashzeveg (“Unuruu”), local trainers and Snow Leopard Enterprise participants from various communities to work on new product ideas and exchange experiences.
“We talked about everything from pricing to designs”, Gina says. “It was impressive to see how many of the participating women have really become empowered through this program. They’re turning into strong, independent businesswomen.”
Still, saving snow leopards remains the driving force behind Snow Leopard Enterprises. “Most of our participants are part of this program in order to make a living. However, beyond creating economic opportunities, what makes Snow Leopard Enterprises unique is that it ties these opportunities to the conservation of snow leopards. Our participants are learning how to make and sell products, but they’re also learning more about the cats and why they, too, need a place to live and food to eat”, Unuruu, who had organized the summit, explains.
One young participant, Munkhtugs Lojdoo, gave Gina a particular jolt of inspiration: “Munkhtugs had only joined Snow Leopard Enterprises just over year ago; and she had heard of the program as a way to help snow leopards, whom she had always loved, and as an economic opportunity. Now, she can use her passion for the cats to make a sustainable income and help to provide schooling for her four children.”
New Pet Products
Working together for a week, our team, the trainers and the participants came up with several new product ideas. To tap further into the growing natural pet product market, they decided to start producing additional cat toys. “We already have our felted mice. Now, we’ll also start making fish and snakes for cats to play with”, Gina says. “The cool thing about those new toys is that they are designed to be made with felt scraps that are left over from the creation of other products. Up to now, participants threw those scraps away, but with these new toys that Sharon designed, they have a use for them!”
Besides the toys, pet beds are also going to be added to the product line, giving cats (as well as small dogs and other furry friends) a comfortable and stylish resting place that helps their wild cousins survive!
We will share more stories, photos and videos from this Snow Leopard Enterprise “Design Summit” in the coming weeks. While the new products may need a while to become available, you can browse a wide range of existing products from Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan right now. A fresh shipment arrived just a few weeks ago, so almost everything is back in stock!