December 30, 2009

Shoppers have power to make a difference

As published in The Erin Advocate

After urging people to shop local recently, I was reminded that there are sometimes good reasons for shopping foreign.

It was at the Erin Rotary Club Pasta Dinner, held last month at the Hillsburgh Arena, an event to raise money for a big screen TV and a Wii Sports video game at the nearby Meadowview Place Seniors Home.

There was a display of hand-made jewelry from the Lacan Kwite group of women, who live in a refugee camp in Gulu, Northern Uganda. Proceeds from the sale were shared, with 25 per cent to Rotary, and the rest to Paper Bead Works, which imports the beads, assembles the jewelry and markets it under the name "KWITE essential BEADS".

It is difficult to imagine the stress of living in a society torn by 20 years of civil war: homes and farms burned, children abducted to become soldiers, widows caring for orphans, shortages of clean water and many people dying from diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS.

"They are a resilient group facing huge difficulties," said Toni Andrews of Guelph, who is helping the women find a wider market for their products. "The way that people just keep going is amazing."

She encountered the women while visiting the area with her husband Rick, who was working on a US Agency for International Development project. Sitting on mats under a mango tree, they were cutting discarded paper into thin strips, rolling them, then applying glue and varnish to create colourful, sturdy beads for necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

While inexpensive by North American standards – I bought a pair of earrings for $12 – the revenue is significant for people who are struggling to improve their lives. The money is managed as a trust fund by an aid agency, and the women decide how it is used – often it is for school fees or bus fares.

"Their main hope is for a better future for their children," says the brochure. "The Lacan Kwite group is not waiting for charity to bring them out of abject poverty, but rather they are eager to work and develop beading as an important source of family income."

The jewelry is available at Karger Gallery in downtown Elora and the Surroundings store on MacDonell Street in Guelph. More information is available via email:

The enterprise brings to mind the Fair Trade movement, which originated partly as response to Free Trade, with the goal of helping the people in developing countries who produce goods for the world's wealthier countries. Getting a fair price helps them develop their economies, reducing dependence on foreign aid.

"It makes moral sense," said Heidi Matthews, who helped get a Fair Trade project started at St. John Brebeuf Church in Erin more than 15 years ago. They sell coffees, teas, sugar and cocoa products at the church door once a month.

"It was a social justice initiative," she said. "It seemed like a really important way to ease some suffering in the Global South."

The Nova Scotia cooperative Just Us! that supplies the products had sales revenue of $6.5 million last year, an indication of the concept's growing popularity.

The product range through other channels has expanded to include wine, cotton, spices, soap, rice, fruits and flowers. For information on the criteria for certification, go to