Joe Demin created a worldwide market for the Mlabri Thai hill tribe's hand-woven hammocks. His company, Yellow Leaf Hammocks, helps marginalized ethnic groups leverage their artisan talents to foster cultural, environmental, and economic sustainability.
“"Hammocks?” That’s the most common response when I tell them that I have a world-changing hammock company. I guess it’s so unexpected.”
When Joe Demin was in Ko Lanta, Thailand, he realized his life would never be the same. “I stumbled upon this hammock woven by the Mlabri tribe, and heard the story of how hammock weaving had brought civil rights to the tribe and created a micro-economy that also brought the Mlabri together with the tribe that previously enslaved them.” He cajoled a cabby to drive him 600 miles to visit the weavers in their remote jungle village, where he “was blown away and inspired.” Joe returned home to his finance job and found he could no longer continue with his previous life.
The Mlabri hill tribe is one of the most vulnerable groups in Southeast Asia. Since the last century they’ve battled exploitation, death threats, malnourishment, malaria and displacement. As a hunter-gatherer society, the Mlabri were devastated when the land around them was claimed and deforested. Impoverished, without citizenship, and enslaved by opportunists, their future appeared bleak. At one point, there were only 300 Mlabri left. But by cleverly leveraging their weaving skills and making some good business deals, the Mlabri increased their economic power and were able to attain citizenship and civil rights.
Hammocks have been their salvation, but slow sales during Thailand's tourist offseason means Mlabri weavers have had to resort to the same slash and burn farming that has destroyed much of their land.
Joe founded Yellow Leaf Hammocks to create an international market and a consistent revenue stream for these economically challenged artisans. “People have come to associate social enterprises as organizations with a one-for-one model, or one that builds wells or schools,” says Joe. Through the sale of hammocks, his company has helped the Mlabri maintain their cultural identity, preserve their land, eradicate social inequalities, and enjoy an unheard of level of prosperity.
In Thailand, hill tribes earn 86% below the Thai national average. Hammock weaving provides the Mlabri a 651% increase in income over toxic farming, with weavers earning in one week what their entire family would have earned making hammocks in a month. This frees their children—almost all of whom worked alongside their parents—to go to school. The venture now supports 100 weavers, with the goal to increase that tenfold in the next 3 years.