The White Lodge (TWL) is a small grass roots non-governmental organisation which creates unique long term development projects in the Central American country of Nicaragua, and then links the results of those projects to Western Europe and the USA. Created by ‘el jefe’ Ben White as an idea in 1999, TWL started working on practical projects in Nicaragua in 2003 and the organisation plans to work in Nicaragua for at least a further 25 years. Ben White talks about the personal nature of The White Lodge.
“It reflects who I am and what I believe in. Despite having a lot of creative ability, I wanted to do something practical with my life which benefited other people – the world really doesn’t need any more media punters, writers, journalists, theorists, commentators, ‘experts’, bullshit politicians or even academics etc - it needs cost effective practical solutions to real social, economic, cultural and environmental problems. After living and working around the world at an early age and seeing the real struggle of daily life for most people, there’s no way I could justify living in an overdeveloped country like England with a cosy life and a cosy career. I’d be cheating myself and the people who I could be helping. Setting up some kind of practical organisation was the only option really”.
And thus The White Lodge was born. Although essentially a practical development organisation, it’s backed by a lot of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, which is rarely seen in the often stiff, murky and official world of international development and foreign embassy culture. ‘El jefe’ talks about the creativity behind the organisation.
“I have a wide variety of creative influences – everything from classic literature to independent travel and foreign cultures to the Manchester music scene of the 80’s and early 90’s, especially maverick independent record companies like Factory (Manchester) and Creation (London) of the same era. Unique film directors like David Lynch are also important influences (which is by the way where the name of the organisation comes from). I see TWL more as a creative organisation, more of a haphazardous 1980’s record company type of affair than a traditional NGO, although without the financial anarchy that plagued such sacred leftfield institutions as Factory! These days I’m also an artist, so there’s no excuse for not being creative!”
Ben White chose Nicaragua as the base for the organisation for many reasons, not least the funky pottery pueblo of San Juan de Oriente.
“Nicaragua was an easy choice – I was looking for a new, up-and-coming tropical country, friendly, laid back etc, and Nicaragua fitted the bill. Ideally I’d prefer to work in S.E. Asia as for me it’s the greatest region in the world for people and culture, but the language difficulty, bureaucracy and bizarre business culture make it very difficult to do anything. And when you throw San Juan de Oriente into the equation, Nicaragua really is a solid option – although surrounded by mediocre countries in a relatively mediocre part of the world, Nicaragua is a jewel, a real jewel. The people, culture, natural world etc are all top notch, and there are so many new opportunities waiting to be explored. Even though it’s 2012 and I’ve been working there for many years, I still see Nicaragua as a blank canvas, and that’s an exciting prospect”.
The White Lodge works in many international development fields in Nicaragua, most of which are outlined below.
Employment : Creating long term employment opportunities for Nicaraguan citizens. Eg. TWL currently gives meaningful employment to approximately 100 to 200 people in Nicaragua, a figure which is actually higher as work often involves other family members and workshop assistants.
Trade & Markets : Opening new markets for Nicaraguan products, esp. ‘Western’ markets, with the aim of increasing trade between Nicaragua and wealthier markets such as Europe and the US. Project eg : The Classic Terracotta project in Europe.
Arts & Culture : Creating long term pioneering arts and culture projects in Nicaragua, inc. specialist research and practical projects. Such projects not only benefit individual artists and their families, but may also promote a specific art or craft or a unique creative culture. Project eg : La Cerámica international arts project which functions all over the world.
Fine Arts : Professional artist representation for internationally acclaimed Nicaraguan artists, which creates opportunities for artists to sell their work in wealthier markets. Project eg : La Cerámica ‘International Masters’ programme for San Juan de Oriente’s master potters.
Product Design & Development and Purchasing : Developing and improving existing products and developing new product lines, especially for the home, garden and gift market in Europe & the US. Purchasing quality crafts such as hammocks for sale in wealthier markets. Project eg : Our Crafts & Interiors project in the Masaya region of Nicaragua.
Small Business Development : The creation of small sustainable businesses in the Masaya region of Nicaragua which are related to the arts, culture and environment. Project eg : The creation of the La Cerámica Museum and Cultural Centre in San Juan de Oriente, and it’s wide range of tourist services.
Practical Infrastructure : The development of a high quality and affordable infrastructure in Nicaragua, which ensures that all projects can be managed in a sustainable manner and new projects can be created with ease. This includes contacts (such as lawyers), services (such as export and packing, graphic design), vehicles and equipment etc.
Policy of Investing in Youth : TWL is committed to finding young and gifted people who have a good work ethic. Such people will always be given priority in all of TWL’s projects. Project eg : TWL’s Programme for Young Nicaraguan Artists & Craftspeople.
The White Lodge is currently working on approximately 12 practical projects in Nicaragua (with other projects in the research and development process, including a major timber project). TWL always treads gently when working in Nicaragua, creating projects which work WITH and WITHIN the local culture and the lives of individual people, rather than dictating outside ideas which are out of sync with local people and culture (nb. I wish the Nicaraguan government and local mayoral offices would follow this example!). After working in Nicaragua for many years, TWL came to realise that once the general infrastructure of the entire organisation was set up (both in Nicaragua and the UK), it only takes around $2500 to $10,000 to set up a new project in Nicaragua, as long as the profits from the enterprise are recycled back into the project to enable its growth and development in the future. TWL’s approach of having a long period of research and development for a project (usually around 2 to 3 years), also contributes to the ongoing success of our projects in Nicaragua and the UK.
Our development work in Nicaragua constitutes approximately 40% of the work of The White Lodge. Once a project is largely finished in Nicaragua, it then enters the next important stage which is our central infrastructure. This stage is the bridge between our development work in Nicaragua and the final part of our work in the UK, Europe and the USA, and constitutes approximately 15% to 20% of the work of TWL. This unglamorous stage in proceedings involves a mass of practical work – national and international paperwork; packing and shipping by air and sea; storage and warehousing; vehicles; managing our bases in the UK (Kent) and the US (Florida) etc. Once this work is done, our projects then start up in the UK, Europe (and in the US), where The White Lodge turns its development work in Nicaragua into professional enterprises and small businesses.
With the international development stage over, TWL then enters the scary world of business and commerce. The general development model favoured by TWL is to turn its projects in Nicaragua into successful enterprises in the UK, Europe and the USA (and also Nicaragua), and then re-invest 100% of profits back into the projects in Nicaragua. The White Lodge currently runs approximately 12 to 15 enterprises / sales and marketing projects.
Romney Marsh Art & Craft Gallery : Located in the unique environs of Romney Marsh in South Kent, we have a permanent display of approximately 200 La Cerámica pots and lamp bases, and you can also view our other exclusive crafts and interiors. We also hold special annual events such as a Nicaraguan pottery weekend in summer and a Christmas weekend in November. Click on the Visit Galleries section to learn more.
The Whitstable ‘Beach Hut’ Gallery : Part of the Whitstable Harbour Village retail project in North East Kent, this extension of our main gallery is a fun weekend enterprise. Although quite small, we have a good selection of affordable ceramic art and lighting, woodturning, hammocks & deckchairs, guitars and even our floor tiles. Open April to December on weekends and bank holidays. Click on the Whitstable section to learn more.
La Cerámica Gallery (The International Masters): This is the gallery and project name we use for high end art and craft shows around the world. The gallery was created to represent the leading international ceramic artists in San Juan de Oriente in the UK and beyond. The artists in question are Gregorio Bracamonte, Miguel Maldonado, Luis Gutierrez, Enmanuel Maldonado, Ben White and the Enmanuel & White partnership. As well as purchasing world class ceramic vessels, collectors can also work with Ben White to commission specialist vessels from any of the artists above. The project is also set up to work with museums and cultural centres, mainly by the (joint) curation of specialist exhibitions; and we also tour the project at outdoor art and ceramic shows in the summer in Europe. Click on the Visit Galleries section to learn more.
Clay Boutique Website : The new Clay Boutique website was launched in late 2011, and consists of a beautiful online shop / gallery and many additional features like short films, newsletter, artist profiles etc. The new site is certainly the best online resource in the world with regards San Juan de Oriente. You can also learn about all of The White Lodge’s projects in detail. Although the online shop is UK based, we send items all over the world. We also intend to launch the website in Europe and the United States in the coming years.
Regional Tour : Although our regional tour is much smaller than in previous years, we still participate in events in Kent, Sussex and London to promote and sell our projects and products. This tour takes place late April to mid-December, and includes Christmas fairs. We no longer travel farther afield to general (non-art) shows around the UK. View our Events page to learn more about our regional and other tours.
Enmanuel & White Tour : Ben White and Enmanuel Maldonado participate in leading art and craft shows in the UK, Europe and USA. Visit the Events and Enmanuel & White sections to learn more about this world class ceramic art and creative partnership and the associated tour.
Classic Terracotta : You can view and purchase our top quality pre-sealed terracotta floor tiles at our base on Romney Marsh. You can also purchase online, and we also participate in tile trade shows in the UK. We can send the tiles anywhere in Europe via pallet courier. Visit the Classic Terracotta shop to learn more.
The Luthier : You can view and purchase our beautiful handmade acoustic guitars at our gallery on Romney Marsh. You can also purchase online, and we also participate in guitar retail shows in the UK. Visit The Luthier shop to learn more.
Ebay : We also back up our Clay Boutique web-site with a few specialist shops on Ebay, mainly to cover the more commercial side of things (ie. our floor tiles and luthier supplies). However, we don’t promote La Cerámica and our other crafts on Ebay and never will. As a rule I can’t stand Ebay, but it brings useful traffic to my website.
Advertising, PR & Publications : Starting in 2012, we will also be backing up all of our projects with a greater amount of advertising and PR. This new addition to our sales and marketing approach will include written articles, press releases, advertising in quality magazines, the production of documentaries and short films, and the publication of our own exclusive art and craft literature.
Nicaraguan Businesses : Starting in 2011/12, I’ve also started to develop various small businesses in Nicaragua. These include the new gallery in the Enmanuel & White studio in San Juan de Oriente; special exhibitions and general promotion at foreign embassies; and a range of micro-businesses which raise funds for personal living and infrastructure costs.
This diverse selection of enterprises and sales & marketing projects continues to support the work of The White Lodge in Nicaragua, and all of the projects above are in the process of expansion.
After nearly ten years of working in Nicaragua, I’m phenomenally proud of all of my work and projects. Despite many achievements, probably the greatest is that all of my work in Nicaragua has been done with no official funding, which proves that you don’t need huge EU, UN or similar grants etc to achieve great things in a developing country. Even though The White Lodge is still a fledgling organisation, it’s moving in the right direction. The main aim of The White Lodge is to change people’s lives, and even at this early stage it’s achieving that core goal. I’ve certainly proven that you don’t have to go through life taking care of number one, and one of my main personal motivations for creating the organisation was to prove this point, to set an example to people. As for the future, I hope to improve all of the current projects and make them more professional, and staff and funding permitting, I hope to create more exciting projects in the coming years.