Monday, January 10, 2011
ave maria bead co.
A while back, I briefly went over a project that I am working on with some of the women of my village where we are creating links between a crafts group here in Uganda and local small businesses stateside. While the project is still in its very early stages, I am excited to report that a lot has happened in those few short months.
Sometime in November, Ave Maria Bead Co. (their choice, not mine) sent its first shipment of paper bead necklaces to Hair Artists in Columbus, OH. I have to admit that I was initially just hoping to recoup the costs that I had sunk into the start-ups involved, and have a bit of profit leftover to give the women of the group. In a very non-Peace Corps move, I had put more than a full month’s stipend into the cost of the materials and shipping, and I was starting to feel the pinch as the holidays approached. Fortunately, my concerns were completely unwarranted, as sales with our test-shipment outstripped even my wildest expectations. We earned not just enough to overcome the start-up costs, but also about $1,000 in profit, which, even when divided amongst the 10 group members, is hugely significant considering the median national income is about $400 per year.
Distributing the money to the women in early December was one of the biggest highlights of my service to date. Each had earned a different sum based on what they had made and sold, so I called them into a private room to confidentially give them their share. They marched back, heads held high, and received their money with very dignified thanks and handshakes. Only my counterpart, Margaret, seemed to be throwing all solemnity to the wind as she helped translate and distribute. However as soon as they left an immediate cry of joy rose up, and when I had finally finished I saw that the singing was accompanied by plenty of dancing out on the veranda. Everyone was talking animatedly about the type of Christmas they were now going to be able to have.
Not surprisingly, the group has grown exponentially in the month since that morning in December. The number of necklaces we have for our next shipment is almost triple what it was for our first, and the group itself has expanded to now include about 20 women, a handful of young girls, and now even a 10-11 year old boy named Douglas who is trying to earn money to pay for his own school fees. Even my friend Emma, a 17 year old secondary school student too proud to defy the strict gender roles of Uganda, has gotten in on the act. According to him, he hasn’t officially joined the group, but has taken the title of “Team Manager” for his family of about 10 women and girls who all work diligently on making necklaces in their free time.
Success, however, has come at a bit of a price. It may not seem like a problem, but I am legitimately concerned that the group is now making too much money. The last thing I want is for people to start diverting resources away from secure, local means of income in order to invest more fully into a project that I cannot guarantee will be able to continue indefinitely. Ideally, we will be able to take this money and turn it into other, sustainable projects. I am working with the group to think of ideas on how they can invest their new income into their futures instead of just “eating it”, as the local saying goes. The boon in production has also created the problem of finding new avenues for sales. The Ugandan market is already heavily oversaturated with these products, but I have some ideas on how to tackle this.
My hope is to turn this into as much of a business as possible, giving sales people in the states the opportunity to earn a profit for themselves while still assisting to support the artisans here in Uganda. In short, converting Ave Maria Bead Co. from a charity organization into a fair trade business. While it is against Peace Corps policy for me to make any profit, I think that allowing equally hardworking people outside of Uganda who do their part to do so is the way forward. I feel very strongly that enterprise, and not charity, is the best tool for sustainable development. Now I just need to find those people…
***Special thanks again to my Mom, my Aunt Elle, the women of Hair Artists, and everyone in Columbus who has helped support Ave Maria Bead Co. I wish you could be here to see what that support has meant for the people of Kisoga!