Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Give Fair Trade

This holiday season, there's a movement underway to get people to buy fair trade. It was initiated by Global Exchange, but they've now teamed up with the Fair Trade Federation, religious groups and others to spread the word.

They are asking people to take the fair trade pledge which involves buying fair trade and getting involved in other ways, such as joining a Fair Trade listserv. A number of us have been featured in their blog. You can get to the Venture Imports blog, and to all of their other wonderful information, by clicking on this link:


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Mlambo Brothers Create Stone Sculptures

Taurai Ralph Mlambo grew up in Honde Valley in Zimbabwe. His father taught him how to sculpt, and now he carves with his two younger brothers, Tichaona and Elton. It is fitting that their favorite carving is the “ukama,” which means “family” in Shona.

The Shona pieces are created out of serpentine stone which ranges in color from brown and caramel to black and green. This natural variance in stone color, as well as the creativity of the artists, ensures that each piece is completely unique.

To create the pieces, the brothers first go to the bush to search for the most beautiful stones. I have asked them to find particularly colorful stones because a striking stone really sets a piece apart. To an untrained eye, the stones they find might not look like anything. In the bush they are white. If you were to dump water on the stone, however, you would see a glimpse of what it would become once it was polished because when the stone is wet, you can see its natural colors.

After choosing their stones, the Mlambo brothers chip and chisel the rough shape of the piece using simple hand tools. Then they begin the task of sanding, using finer and finer sand paper until at last they wet sand the piece to make it as smooth as possible.

When the piece is fully formed, they warm it by a fire before coating it with Cobra wax polish. They continue to add the wax to the piece as it cools. I'm no geology major, but something about warming the stone allows the wax to sink in and to bring out the natural colors of the stone.

Often the artists like to leave part of the sculpture in its natural, unpolished state. This gives a nice contrast to the piece, and also alludes to the work that went into it.

Zimbabwe’s political situation has made it difficult for many of its citizens to survive. The unemployment rate in 2009 was 95%, the average life expectancy 47, and 68% of the population lives below the poverty line. Selling sculptures has allowed Taurai to provide for his wife Constance and son Emanuel.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Blood Diamonds in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe is again making the news for less-than-favorable reasons. The Kimberley Process watchdog, which aims to end the trade of "blood diamonds," has failed to reach consensus on whether to allow Zimbabwe to trade the diamonds being mined in its Marange Fields.

Last year the Kimberly Process documented brutal abuses of workers in the mine by Zimbabwe's military. There are complaints of forced labor, including children as young as 11 being forced to work. Some 200 miners have allegedly been killed and others are being tortured.

De Beers executive director, Jonathan Oppenheimer, has an interesting quote in the article below where he says that Zimbabwe has no "overt conflict" and has a "legitimate government."


I imagine the distinction he's trying to make is that the sale of diamonds from Zimbabwe might not actually be fueling a war. The Kimberly Process is a joint initiative by governments, industry and civil society to stem the flow of conflict diamonds - "rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments."(http://www.kimberleyprocess.com/)

If I'm understanding correctly then, child labor may be used, people may be forced to work the mines and may be abused while there, and hundreds of people may be murdered in the mines. The fact that this alleged abuse and slaughter is done by the country's military and not by a rebel movement means that, as far as the Kimberly Process is concerned, Zimbabwe could be in the clear. So if the government initiates or turns a blind eye to the torture and murder of people, that's OK. If it's done in concert with the government, rather than against it, everything's cool.

The other interesting thing about this statement is that Zimbabwe's government might be considered a legitimate government. The definition used by the Kimberley Process of a legitimate government is one that would be described as such "in relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions insofar as they remain in effect, or in other similar UNSC resolutions which may be adopted in the future, and as understood and recognized in United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 55/56, or in other similar UNGA resolutions which may be adopted in the future." Whew!

Zimbabwe has a power-sharing government and half of that government was legitimately elected by the people. However, that "half," Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has no control over the military, security or police. He's the figurehead that Western governments like, but don't trust, thanks to the uneasy feeling that Mugabe is still the one actually in control. So this is the government that is considered legitimate. No one is torturing or killing in the mines in an effort to oust this "legitimate government." They would likely be killed themselves if they tried!

So now the Kimberly Process is faced with a case in which blood is being shed on the diamonds, but not in a way that contradicts their definition of a conflict-free diamond. Thus they are at an impasse. Meetings resume in Saint Petersburg, Russia in mid-July.

Meanwhile Zimbabwe's government has accused the West of trying to stifle its economic development. They plan to sell their diamond stockpiles regardless of the decision made by the Kimberley Process. They have arrested a human rights activist for "peddling falsehoods" about the mine, and a judge has denied him bail.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The World Cup

I'm enjoying the World Cup coverage. Having spent some time in South Africa, I'm especially enjoying the locale.

It seems everywhere I travel, from South America to various countries in Africa, there are always pick-up games of football/soccer. Sometimes the balls are makeshift, usually the goals are.

One of the most interesting places I saw a pick-up game was in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. Rurre is a small town in the Bolivian rainforest. My time in the rainforest was already eventful, as I saw capybara ("Rodents of Unusual Size," the largest in the world), had to run through the rainforest to escape the storm (falling branches and poisonous bugs added to the drama), and tracked wild boar (it was only later that I read about how vicious they can be! Naive? Perhaps).

I had read in the guide book that you should always schedule a couple of extra days in Rurre, because you never knew if you were going to get out. The runways at the time were unpaved, and if it rained too much, planes were not allowed to land. Being that Rurre is in the middle of the rainforest, it rained a lot. Most flights were cancelled and visitors could spend days waiting to depart.

The day of my flight arrived and I got bumped from one flight after another. The crowds around the one room airport were restless to say the least. Finally a select few, myself included, were taken by bus to the runway. Here the wait continued, potential passengers fretting over their missed connections.

And then...the workers moved the cones, pulled out a basketball, and an impromptu game of soccer started up, right in the middle of the runway! A pig wandered out of trees in the distance. A motorcycle stood at the ready to clear out any wildlife (it drives the runway before planes arrive to keep it free of animals). And the game continued until the plane was about to arrive, the cones were put back and we were rushed onto the plane that raced away ahead of the impending storm.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Corrective Rape" in Southern Africa

The BBC hasn't posted many articles on Zimbabwe lately, but today they had the following article about two gay rights activists being arrested:


Mugabe has said that homosexuality is un-African. Homosexual acts are illegal in most African countries. Many Africans also feel that homosexuality is a threat to the African way of life. Recently I heard this same argument (homosexuality being un-African) in a very disturbing piece on ESPN. Below is the article and video about "corrective rape" occurring in South Africa.

http://http//sports.espn.go.com/espn/e60/news/story?id=5177704 (please keep in mind that this is for mature audiences)

I'm very excited that the World Cup is being held in South Africa. Perhaps some of the attention on the country will also bring attention to the crime happening there. South Africa has the most reported rapes per capita in the world (Interpol). It is estimated that nearly half of of all women in South Africa will raped (Interpol).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pricing: The Dollars and Sense and What Would Happen if I Die

What goes into the price of a product?

First and foremost, we pay the artists a fair price for their labor. We buy the materials they need to make their products. Some of our artists pay rent for a place to work, so that gets covered. We also pay for the other costs of running their businesses including transporting the pieces to port, packaging materials, etc.

After the pieces are made, we have to pay to get the pieces to the US. Since the stone pieces are so heavy, we almost always ship by container. Shipping often doubles the price, sometimes even more. If we shipped in less-than-container loads, shipping could easily quadruple the price.

(On my first trip to Zimbabwe, I picked out a small sampling of pieces, no more than two boxes. When I got back to the States I asked them to ship them to me. They said it would cost $600. That was 8 years ago. This is why I ship by container; otherwise prices would be much higher than they are right now!)

The type of product I sell influences the warehouse space I need to pay for. The earrings don't take much space at all, but the stone pieces take quite a bit of space. Then there's more packaging material, all the costs associated with running a business (utilities, etc. etc.), plus the money it costs to pay someone to pack all of the boxes and actually run the company. Granted, at this point I'm the one who does most of this, and I'm very cheap labor, but as we grow, we need to pay someone so that we can keep up with demand and get orders out in a timely manner.

Sometimes there's the cost of a rep commission or other marketing charges. Then the pieces need to be shipped again. And after all of that, the store needs to put their mark-up on the piece so they can keep their lights on, too!

So all of the money doesn't go back to the artist?

No, but they are paid first and are paid a fair wage. Keep in mind that a fair wage in Kenya is very different from what would be fair in the US. The price structure allows us to pay them a fair wage now, and one that they can rely on in the future should we sustain the business over time.

It's the last point, the sustainability point, that I need to remind myself of. It is very important to me that this business is sustainable. I want Venture Imports to be a viable business so that no matter what happens to me, my customers and the artisans with whom I work will be OK. There are lots of good reasons why people get out of business (family issues, etc.), but should anything like that ever arise for me, I want to make sure that someone else could pick up the reins and the company would still run smoothly.

Right now the only person I'm not paying the correct amount of money to is myself, and I'm OK with that, but the company's sustainability should not hinge solely on this sacrifice.

I also sell to stores whose owners and managers sacrifice a great deal as well (I know! I've visited many of you and talked to you at all hours of the day and night!). They need to mark the product up, just like I do, so that they can keep themselves in business. Even stores that are completely volunteer-run have to pay rent and utilities.

In my opinion, this is good. When we're all taking care of our businesses, we're ensuring, as much as possible, that we will continue to be able to buy from the artisans for years to come.

I like working with stores for many reasons. I am continually impressed at your dedication and the amount of work you do! You are marketing your businesses, educating customers, sweeping floors, running reports, and on and on. I love that we're all playing a part in helping to keep people employed all over the globe.

So why are you raising prices?

As I alluded to earlier, I always have to keep three things in the back of my head, especially when making pricing decisions:

1) How does this affect my artisans?

2) How does this affect my customers?

3) How will this affect the long-term sustainability of the company (and the long-term relationship with my artisans and customers)?

When I took over the Kisii stone line, I found that there were some pieces that cost more than my sale price. This is partly because of the great cost of shipping. Obviously this is not sustainable and would quickly put me out of business, leaving the artisans with no orders and the customers with no product!

There were some pieces for which the demand was not terribly high. They were tying up dollars and warehouse space leaving me less able to buy better selling products. I dropped those pieces. I also worked on ways to make the process more efficient - ways to cut shipping costs, etc. When I'd exhausted those ideas, I had to raise prices to a level that will hopefully still be good for the customer, but also allow me to continue buying from the artisans.

What difference do preorders make? Why do you like talking to store owners so much?

Well, there are lots of reasons I like talking to store owners and managers! I love getting feedback, and I want to give you the best selling product ever so we can keep this thing going!

But specifically regarding the preorders and/or ordering patterns of customers, this is huge for me. One of the hidden costs involved in pricing is the cost of unsold merchandise. As I mentioned before, to keep prices low I have to order by container load so that the cost of shipping will be spread out over a large number of pieces. The more pieces I can fit into a container, the lower the shipping cost per piece will be. But the more I fit into a container, the more I have to pay up front and the longer it takes to ship.

While shipping by container load helps keep prices low, it also causes a lot of problems. It takes a long time for the artisans to make that many pieces (we're working on ways to cut this time down, but inevitably hand-made products will take some time to make). I pay for the pieces 6-8 months before I ever receive them. That means I have to order what I think I will sell 6 months to a year in the future.

Of course I look at my reports of what I sold last year, but for some products (new products for me like the Kisii stone), I don't have a lot to go on. Since I have limited capital, I have to do my best to order only what people will want in 6 months to a year. If I know that stores are loving one particular piece more than others, I'll spend more money to load up on that piece. That way I don't waste money and warehouse space on products that don't sell, and artists aren't wasting time making pieces we don't need.

Of course I know that store owners/managers don't always know what's going to happen with their stores 6 months from now either, but the more information I have, the better decisions I should be able to make.

Will it ever get easier?

I sure hope so! :-) And I believe so, too. The more business we do, the more often I'll be able to order. If I'm continually ordering containers, then we won't have to wait for one piece to be done before we ship a container. For example, nativities take a long time to make, but they can't get bumped to a spring container, because we really need them for the fall. If I had a container coming every month, I wouldn't have to hold up a container for one piece like that.

And the longer history I have with a product, the more data I'll have to make decisions.

If we to continue to grow, there are a number of efficiencies I hope to take advantage of and pass on to my customers.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mugabe hosting Ahmadinejad and the North Korean Soccer Team

Mugabe and his allies have been experiencing asset freezes, travel bans and additional sanctions put on them by the EU, the US and other individual nations. Now Mugabe's side of the power-sharing government is reaching out to other leaders, leaders with dubious records.

Ahmadinejad is visiting Zimbabwe, opening a trade fair in Bulawayo. Will they discuss exploration contracts for the uranium deposits believed to be in northern Zimbabwe?


I feel bad for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his side of the government. He is not subject to the same restrictions as Mugabe's clan and has been lobbying Western countries for money. I would imagine it will be difficult to get more money if Mugabe is still perceived as the man in control and is hob-nobbing with Ahmadinejad.

Speaking of questionable bedfellows, Zimbabwe is hosting the North Korean football (soccer) team in preparation for the World Cup in South Africa. I did a little research and found the following:


Mugabe extended the invitation to host other nations, but North Korea is the only one that took him up on it. Once again, not all Zimbabweans are thrilled about this, especially since it was the North Koreans who helped train the Fifth Brigade that carried out the Gukurahundi massacres shortly after Mugabe took power in 1980.