A success story amid the rubble of Kathmandu
Two days before the first of the recent earthquakes hit Nepal on April 25, Nicole Rice was realising a dream at the launch of a clothing shop in Bouhda, a suburb of Kathmandu. Rice was one of the founders of Australian Fashion Week and is now a Los Angeles-based doula (birth attendant) and Ayurvedic practitioner. She had gone to Nepal to volunteer at the ROKPA Women’s Workshop, which provides a lifeline to disadvantaged community members, including abandoned wives and mothers.
The workshop is part of an international aid and support organisation and its Nepalese arm also encompasses a children’s home, guesthouse and restaurant. Rice had known about the workshop since staying at the guesthouse in 2013 and, with her knowledge of fabrics and fashion, had immediately seen its greater potential.
“I thought I would get the women to make some baby swaddles for me, so I could give them to my friends and clients in Los Angeles,” she recalls. “I ended up meeting all the women in the workshop, as well as ROKPA co-founder Lea Wyler, and I got to see what they did. The workmanship was impressive [but] a lot of the products I saw, I could find everywhere in Nepal. I told Lea how great it would be for the workshop to have a point of difference.”
Returning to Nepal as a volunteer earlier this year, Rice set about sourcing new suppliers, costing and marketing the women’s products and creating a signature fabric that would set the workshop apart. “In Kathmandu, you see a lot of the same things — same fabrications, same little wallets and coin purses,” Rice says. “So I wanted to have pieces that stand out and that you’d want to buy because you love them.”
Through an Indiegogo.com fundraising campaign, Rice soon had enough money to purchase a new loom; she then set her sights on opening a shop at the ROKPA Guest House in Kathmandu where the latest products could be sold. Three weeks later, she’d accomplished her mission. “I think it might go down in history as the fastest store ever built in Kathmandu,” she says.
“It’s not big but it gives the women the opportunity to display their wares as well as some other pieces that I have bought for the store, such as Himalayan pink salt and Maithili (Nepali folk art) paintings. We did well on opening day and sold out of the dresses that I had the ladies make from patterns I brought from LA.”
But the joy of the shop’s success was overshadowed by the earthquake that struck just two days later. Somehow, the establishment managed to avert the death and destruction that ripped through Kathmandu. The guesthouse served as a haven in the days that followed for the weavers and the little ones from the ROKPA children’s home. Weeks later, the despair that now engulfs the country makes ROKPA’s work all the more urgent, Rice says.
“We are all safe here in Boudha, but Kathmandu itself is a mess. More than ever, the women need the workshop to keep them positive and focused,” she explains.
“Through the workshop, they’re able to clothe and feed their families and send the children to school. And if the workshop can make a profit, the money goes straight into the children’s home so that more kids can be taken off the street. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
Nicole Rice, centre, with ROKPA volunteers and workers in Nepal