****The following is an article that I wrote to hopefully be published in celebration of Peace Corps' 50th anniversary.****
I arrived in Kisoga, Uganda under a fair amount of uncertainty. The organization I was assigned to had been operating for ten years, and was essentially the philanthropic arm of a Catholic Parish in Italy. Over those ten years, Mirembe Maria had sponsored hundreds of children’s school fees, built dozens of buildings for both local individuals and the Catholic Church, founded several conventional and vocational schools, and funded countless other similarly minded ventures. Funding began to dry up with the global recession, and so I was brought in and given one task: better the economic well-being of the people of my community. It was straightforward enough, but still had no idea how I was possibly going to accomplish it.
As I integrated into Kisoga, I sat down and spoke with hundreds of individuals about their lives, their problems, and, most importantly, their goals. While people’s lives are as diverse here as anywhere else on earth, there seemed to be a very common theme in terms of their goals and most immediate problems: money. People needed money to feed their families, to buy their own land to farm, to send their children through school, to open their own businesses, and to pay for things like medical treatment and their other necessities.
It was not exactly a revelation for the ages. The question of, “how?” still loomed larger than ever, but it was a start. I looked deeper into my community for the solution. I wanted to know the types of things people were already doing, and to see if a fresh perspective might take a stale idea to new heights.
It wasn’t until my sister, Jenna, called me from Ohio that the project finally started to come together. She had told me that she seen a booth in her university student union selling African handicrafts for charity. When she told me the prices these items were fetching, I couldn’t believe it. I immediately remembered that I had spoken with a handful of women who used to be part of a group that made beaded necklaces out of recycled paper, but had stopped because the local market was completely oversaturated and profits had been nearly impossible to come by. It seemed that, if the right connections with people and businesses back in America were be formed, the paper beaded necklaces could make an ideal product to export.
I believe that, far from being at ends with it, the private sector is one of the best tools we can use for development. I knew that similar programs with craft sales had already been put into practice; after all, that was how I had the idea in the first place. I thought, however, that if we could draw on ideas from businesses as opposed to charities, we might be able improve upon their models. First of all, nothing would be given away. Group members would buy all of their own material up-front, pay for their share of shipping and handling, and would earn only as much as they were able to sell. I hoped that these measures would discourage corruption, infighting, and opportunism while building a base of real business knowledge and encouraging hard-work and quality products. I had also decided to encourage any retailers who would support us to make their own profits on our goods. In this, the goals were to provide an incentive to push sales of our jewelry as well as promote expansion into shops and even regions where we might not otherwise have a presence. All of this, I hoped, would combine to build a better, more economically sustainable business.
Things were slow in the beginning. While dozens of people in Kisoga expressed interest in forming the group, less than ten initially joined. Of those, perhaps only four showed anything in the way of commitment. Meanwhile, I had only found one American business that was interested in picking up our products: a salon in Columbus, Ohio that my aunt owns and operates with my Mom.
We pushed ahead anyway, and before long Ave Maria Bead Co. sent a shipment to the salon. That first package contained just a small number of basic necklaces and a flyer with a photo and a brief explanation of our group. I was terrified that the product wouldn’t sell and that these women, who had put their trust in me, would be rewarded with only the loss of their time and money. Less than two weeks later, however, we received word from the salon. The necklaces had sold out, back orders had been placed, and some of the customers wanted to carry our products and retail them in their own businesses.
Just a few months have passed since that first shipment, but Ave Maria Bead Co. has continued to grow by leaps and bounds since that point. The group grew seemingly overnight from its original nine members to now over forty. They have elected their own leadership and make their own rules and regulations. Another big development has been every member’s enrollment to their own mobile banking account. Savings accounts have long been perceived as inaccessible by so many in this area, but this new technology has changed that. It will give our members not only a safe, secure way to send, receive, and store money, but will hopefully encourage a culture of savings and financial responsibility.
The retail side in America has grown just as quickly as the production side, meaning more profits for everyone involved (everyone except me, of course!). Volume and revenue continue to increase. There are even two regional teams now, one in Ohio and one in Mississippi, who are dedicated to sales and distribution. Our products can be found in seven retail locations, and this number is growing all the time. The customer experience has also evolved as all jewelry now comes with a tag identifying the artisan who made the piece. The card also points buyers to a web page where photos, stories, and letters from the artist can be found.
The success of Ave Maria Bead Co. has been exhilarating for everyone involved. Our retailers in America are happy to help out a cause they believe in, while still making some profits for themselves. Many of our customers have sent encouraging words supporting our products and our goals. Our group members are better off financially, but they also take immense pride in knowing that they have earned their own money and have not taken any handouts. Some have even begun to move into their own ventures, taking with them their skills, knowledge, and new found self-confidence. As for me, I am just happy to have been a part of this. To have helped create something, watch it grow, and continue to work for its future.