It is hard to believe that we are starting on our fifth cashmere collection season. The years are really beginning to blur together! I moved to Kyrgyzstan in late 2010 with my family and after a period of language learning, research, and social networking, we collected our first cashmere in the spring of 2013. At the time, people were shearing their goats and the fiber was being sold to middlemen, who in turn sold it to traders who sent it on to China. The price being paid to the shepherds was a flat rate based on weight, rather than quality.
Our plan was to purchase combed fiber instead of sheared—this leaves the protective guard hair on the goat’s body while also preserving the length of the cashmere. We weren’t sure how readily people would adapt to this change, so we did our best to make it as easy as possible. We made combs and had them available in each village, we passed out brochures explaining the key quality characteristics of cashmere that we were looking for, we held demonstrations for how to comb goats, and we were prepared to buy the fiber at a premium price since we were buying direct and not through middlemen.
The first two weeks that we traveled around the region to buy cashmere were pretty slow. But as word began to get out from the early adopters about the great price they had gotten for their fiber, there was a rush of volume as people started combing. We had a specific goal for our volume that year to meet the minimum amount for the commercial processors to work with our fiber in Europe; we surpassed that goal by over 30%.
Before the season began, we created a network of village coordinators to help us increase the chances of being able to collect the fiber. Involving someone at a local level was essential for our success; in many rural places of the world, new endeavors don't get far without direct involvement of the community. This was true in our experience too. Our most effective coordinators know most everyone in their community and they put their cell phones to great use by constantly calling, reminding, and ensuring that once combs were finished being used by one household, they were passed along to the next.
Each week that we came by a village, the coordinators would have people prepared with their bags of combed fiber. As we drove down the streets we would open each bag and check the quality and cleanliness of the fiber—the less guard hair there was, the better price they got. After looking at the fiber, we would weigh it and pay immediately for the fiber. It is particularly satisfying seeing young children run up with their fiber and walking away with a smile, proudly holding cash in their hands.