05/24/2013 12:42 EDT | Updated 07/24/2013 05:12 EDT

New Canadian online marketplace seeks to aid artisans from developing nations

TORONTO - Hedvig Alexander sits in a quiet coffee shop steps from Toronto's bustling financial hub, a markedly different landscape from the war-ravaged nation where she spent seven years.

But despite the vast physical distance currently separating the Ontario resident from Afghanistan, her connection to the country has perhaps never been stronger — and her clothing of choice offers a tangible reminder why.

Alexander delicately smoothes her Afghan-made azure blue blazer, with old coins fastened in place of buttons and a colourful cotton print adorning the inner lining. Through her newly launched site, she is looking to bring similar goods created by artisans in Afghanistan and other developing nations to North American consumers.

Alexander is founder of the Far and Wide Collective, an online marketplace for items including clothing, jewelry and home decor made by craftspeople in post-conflict and emerging economies.

A native of Denmark, Alexander spent 15 years working in development in conflict zones. She established Building Markets in Afghanistan, which helped stimulate the local economy by encouraging foreign businesses to support local goods and services.

"What we want for these artisans is an income," said Alexander, whose husband, Chris, is Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan and current Conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering.

"We need them to be able to make a sustainable life for themselves and their families and to be able to grow the Afghan economy. That's what needs to happen. So I think the market access is specifically what's missing — and it's not only in Afghanistan."

Far and Wide Collective currently includes 32 individual artisans or small craft businesses, and features items starting from $15. Alexander said they aim to showcase works crafted entirely or predominantly by hand and by fair trade standards.

Prospective consumers can peruse the online listings which include small ceramic bowls from Uzbekistan, floral bangles from India, striped baskets and satchels from Kenya and embroidered clutches from Pakistan. The site also features mini-biographies on the artisans and small businesses who comprise the collective.

Goods are purchased at the asking market price, and Alexander said artisans are paid in advance to ensure they don't hinge on whether the site manages to "sell something tomorrow." The collective partners with organizations and NGOs on the ground to offer assistance to artisans where needed. Any profits netted by the Far and Wide Collective will be reinvested to help artisans expand their businesses, source new products and develop networks.

"I'm only a small company, but I'm hoping if I do it and I show that it's viable, others will do the same," Alexander said. "I hope maybe I can be a catalyst for bigger change for bigger companies that have more muscle and more money."

The focus on socially conscious consumerism has undoubtedly heightened in the aftermath of the world's worst-ever garment-industry accident: the April 24 collapse of a factory in Bangladesh which claimed more than 1,100 lives. The tragedy shed light on the poor working conditions within the country's garment industry and sharpened attention on the manufacturing practices of brands which sell affordably priced products.

Alexander said the success of Etsy and other online marketplaces featuring handmade goods shows there's a clear interest in such products as well as a more ethical, environmentally feasible way of shopping.

While everyone may not be able to spend large sums on such goods, even standalone purchases like a scarf, earrings or a bag can have an impact, she noted.

"I'm certainly not expecting people to buy everything from (the site) because I also realize the prices are higher than where some people may shop," said Alexander, 40. "I think that if we can get people to buy one or two items once in a while, that's a long way.

"If even five per cent of Canadians feel like this in the next five years, that's going to make our business work."

Alexander said in development, the struggle against extreme poverty, lack of education and poor health are all very difficult challenges to fix. But the mother of two sees the ability to aid artisans — particularly women — to sell goods and earn an income is a goal within reach — and she has seen the evidence firsthand.

Shugufa Yousofzai grew up as a refugee in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. During Afghanistan's first parliamentary election in 2005, Alexander said she was working for the United Nations and Yousofzai applied for a job to work with her, and later followed her to Building Markets.

Alexander returned to Kabul in November and said Yousofzai is now 26, married with a child and has her own jewelry business.

"For me, she is what's possible in Afghanistan," said Alexander. "This shy, timid girl, and six years later, she's this very confident, empowered girl who runs her own business...who sort of defied all the things we think that Afghan women can't do."