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Do good, get rich: social warriors start businesses that improve the lives of African women.

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E. AMINATA BROWN WAS SHOPPING for produce for the first time in the bustling Agbogbloshie agricultural market, the largest of its kind in Accra, Ghana, when her life changed. As her shopping companion attempted to take Brown's heavy fruits and vegetables and pile them in a tin pan atop the head of a girl--only 10-years-old--Brown locked eyes with the child. "I saw a younger version of myself, perhaps if I had been born under different circumstances. I could not turn my back on her and still be a virtuous person." Brown immediately moved to retrieve her goods and peppered the girl with questions. "How old are you? Where are your parents? Why are you doing this?" She was heartbroken by the answers. Brown, 36, a Los Angeles resident who worked in Ghana as a freelance management consultant, knew she had to do something.

In 2000, shortly after her marketplace epiphany, Brown befriended a small group of 12 young female porters (kayayoo) who carry loads up to 100 pounds on their heads or backs in the sweltering heat for as little as $1 per day. A vision began to take shape among them to produce Afrocentric patchwork quilts to export to the United States and Europe to provide a sustainable income, healthcare, and education for the girls and women involved.

Brown invested $30,000 of her own money to launch BaBa Blankets, which makes blankets, duvets, throws, wall hangings, table runners, napkins, place mats, and pillow covers. After locating a site in Ghana for the workshop, she had the interior designed and constructed; acquired the machines, tools, and supplies for training and product development; hired skilled tailors to provide training to the women she befriended. She also paid for healthcare services and offered subsidies to assist with their housing costs.

The blankets are made of 100% cotton and are dyed and quilted by hand. Each blanket is one of a kind and costs $175 to $420. Proceeds are currently used to support 13 Ghanaian women and fund six girls' educations. In 2007, BaBa Blankets contributed $150,000 to the women and girls, and Brown's goal is to support 50 girls' educations by the 2008-2009 school year.

Brown is like many socially conscious African American women who are trying their hand at various microlending and microbusiness ventures to help marginalized women and girls in Africa turn their artisan talents into a livable wage to support themselves, their families, and their community.

Microenterprises are programs or businesses that offer a combination of credit, technical assistance, training, and other business services to disadvantaged people for the purpose of helping them launch small self-employment projects. The participants are usually people who under normal circumstances do not have access to the commercial banking sector. An emerging business trend, these social entrepreneurs are the owners of corporations doing well while doing good--coined a for-benefit corporation.

According to the FIELD Microenterprise Fund for Innovation, Effectiveness, Learning and Dissemination, there are 20 million microenterprises in the U.S. and half of them fit the aforementioned characteristics of serving women (65%), minorities (55%), and low-income individuals (59%).

The Ghanian Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs estimates that as many as 40,000 porters, mostly girls under 18, live in the streets and are vulnerable to child labor, prostitution, and violence. In 2003, the Ghana Statistical Service and the International Labour Organization reported that nearly 46% of these street children had never attended school, and 98% were working. Before she worked for BaBa Blankets, Grace Antor, now a seamstress, worked as a porter. "This business creates jobs for us, and through this work, I am able to feed my family and my children," Antor says. "I have a vision for what I want to do in the future, and this opportunity is helping me to plan and work toward it."

Business models such as Brown's help people in developing countries sell goods with a portion of the proceeds going back to support the artisans,

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Brown was sickened by the plight of women in parts of Ghana. Accra and other big cities such as Kumasi and Takoradi are magnets for adolescent gifts and young women from rural villages who flee their birthplaces because of dire economic conditions, which systemically deprive them of access to higher education, vocational training, and basic income opportunities, Many of them have been orphaned or abandoned.

CHALLENGES ACROSS THE SEA

Brown managed to break even during the first year of operation, and annual net sales have grown from $30,000 in 2006 to $150,000 in 2007. She has accomplished this thanks to the doubling of her production team to about 10 to 12 Ghanaian women, who, from the first day of operation, began earning five times their previous earnings. As the only U.S.-based representative of her company, Brown sells the products primarily at African American festivals and churches, folk art and bedding trade shows, and via the Internet (www.wondala.com).

It wasn't easy getting started. Ghana's frequent and often unexpected power outages affect the ability to produce merchandise on a regular schedule. To address this, Brown purchased a generator. Another problem: In Ghana's cash-based economy, credit is not as integral to small business development as it is in the United States. Consequently, BaBa Blanket's lease agreement as well as its machines and equipment must be paid in advance. This puts tremendous stress on the company's cash flow and hampers its ability to invest in longer-term business and social-development initiatives. The ever-increasing freight charge for shipping the products abroad, which is currently about $3 per pound, is another challenge.

THE PAYOFF

BaBa Blankets is on track to clear $300,000 in sales by the end of 2008, as a result of implementing a new training production, and marketing plan that includes the acquisition of new sewing machines, the expansion of its online presence, and the relocation of the business to a larger--about 3,000-square-feet--production house on the outskirts of Accra. Brown says the girls and women of BaBa Blankets have gone from making an average of $1 a day to seamstresses and businesswomen working in a collective that brings in $1,000 to $6,000 per month. "This work has enabled the women to start saving money in the bank, whereas before they didn't even think that they had a right to enter a bank," says Elizabeth Bansah, trainer and former BaBa Blankets production manager. "Now they have a plan and a purpose for their money and they have a way to work toward it. I know that they will go on learning and continue to prosper."

IMPULSE BUY

Sabina Zunguze, 47, shares Brown's commitment to and passion for uplifting and empowering indigenous African women through business. Her life-changing moment occurred in 1997 during a trip from Akron, Ohio, to Harare, Zimbabwe, to visit her family. While shopping at a local market in South Africa, she happened upon a group of women selling jewelry and other handicrafts. She was impressed by the exquisite intricacy and unique beauty of their designs and their superb artisanship. Zunguze knew the women's work would be well received in the United States, so she bought $5,000 worth of jewelry for resale, which included about 300 sets of necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. "The merchants were thrilled," Zunguze says. "The jewelry I bought sold within a few weeks of returning home for more than $11,000. I knew I was on to something."

She returned to Harare, using the profits from her sales to buy more jewelry to sell. During her second purchasing trip, she included a stop in a Kikuyu village in the Ngong Hills region of Kenya to expand her product line. There, she established a purchasing-and-shipment arrangement with the women. During her next trip to Zimbabwe and South Africa, she began to see the positive impact her large purchases were having on the lives of the artisans, many of whom, she says, were previously swindled by other exporters. She became determined to increase her support of them in a way that was financially feasible for her and would also help prevent their future exploitation.

BRANCHING OUT

Zunguze's husband encouraged her to open her own store, and though she was already working full time while managing a home and four children, Zunguze resolved to do just that. "If you want something done, give it to a busy person," Zunguze jokes. In 2002, she began attending workshops at the local women's business center in Salt Lake City for marketing, management, and QuickBooks. She also got coaching from the Small Business Administration and joined professional organizations.

In 2003, she launched Beautiful Options USA L.L.C., with an investment of $5,000 to buy wholesale jewelry, art, and handicrafts directly from women's production groups in Africa and then sell them from home, at conferences, trade shows, fairs, and on the Internet. By cutting out the middleman, Zunguze is able to pay the women a fair price for their goods, about $10 for a necklace that costs about $4 to make, for example. That necklace would be sold for $20 each to wholesalers here. "I clearly label all of my products to show the name and location of each women's group that produced them." Zunguze says. "This way, customers have a connection with the artisans."

According to Mudunwazi Baloyi, chief director of Global Bilateral Economic Relations at the Departent of Trade and Industry in South Africa, the craft sector offers the opportunity for creative expression and preservation of African heritage. "It is also an accessible industry with low entry barriers in terms of skills and capital requirements. It cuts across many industries such as tourism, manufacturing, clothing, textiles, etc."

FORGING PARTNERSHIPS

Annual net sales in Zunguze's first few years of operating the store part time averaged about $30,000. In May of 2007, she quit her statistician job with the county of Salt Lake to concentrate on the store full time. Net sales for 2007 rocketed to approximately $100,000. Her current goals include hiring office staff and field representatives to sell products at more trade shows, forging collaborations with other importers, and developing jewelry-making classes at her store for African refugee women in Salt Lake City. Her long-range goal is to design a workshop series to help indigenous African women develop fair-trade market opportunities, help them build their own microenterprises, and continue to provide design assistance. "I'm thrilled to uplift the lives of dozens of African women and give back to my homeland," she says.
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Article Details
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Author:Lee, Elaine
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:May 1, 2008
Words:1758
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