Nutrition may seem a luxury for impoverished communities, yet a couple of social entrepreneurs are trying to improve the standard of living for those in China with fiber. Except to clear things up this has nothing to do with dietary fiber but rather yak fiber.
Shokay was founded by Echoing Green fellows Carol Chyau and Marie So. The duo met at Harvard Kennedy School while doing their Master in Public Administration in International Development. Together, they sought an ambition of promoting social enterprise in Greater China. This led to a trip to Yunnan where they realized a need for poverty alleviation. At the same time, they noticed a strength unique to residents which was an abundance of resources, yaks to be exact. Of the 14 million yaks in the world, 13 million are found in China. These animals typically live in colder conditions such as the Himalayas.
Families from the village generally lived on $400 annual income with limited access to education or healthcare. However, each family owned about 30-40 yaks. It seemed like there was an opportunity waiting for these villagers to use their resources but there was not enough knowledge or means to tap market opportunities.
Then came Shokay, a social enterprise that sells clothing and accessories made with yak fiber from the villagers to international markets. Yak fiber is considered a premium fiber whose softness is comparable to cashmere. Shokay currently has a network of Tibetan herders from the villages in China to hand comb the fibers from their yaks and earn direct income. The company also employs a network of female knitters from rural areas of China who can benefit from fair, steady income through knitting the products. Shokay takes it a step further to improve the lives of the villagers by planning to reinvest profits in areas that need development based on conducted household surveys.
Shokay’s success did not come easy. “In the beginning, we knew very little about yak fiber or of the textiles industry. We searched everywhere for experts to help, from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, yak experts all over China, to the Esquel Group, one of the largest cotton manufacturers in the world,” explains the founders.
Shokay currently distributes their products internationally and can be found in 10 countries. “We have come a long way, but we also have a long way to go.”
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