Having lived in Nairobi for eight years with his parents, who are Lutheran missionaries, Schmalzle had a heightened awareness of the desperate poverty in Kenya and felt compelled to do something. His primary motive and driving passion in creating the business is to offer African artists a viable way to escape the poverty trap.
"Seeing that kind of abject poverty – if that doesn't move you to want to do something to change the situation, then I don't know what will," Schmalzle said.
His business, Village Market Imports, will provide artists with micro-loans to buy materials and equipment so they can expand their business and lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. According to Schmalzle, without a small loan, these artists can't make enough money to take that extra step into self-sufficiency and independence. As such, Schmalzle's primary goal is to offer them the opportunity to help themselves instead of relying on handouts.
Schmalzle will pay the artists the fair market value for their goods, provide them with access to U.S. markets and create demand within the markets. With a private investor already in hand to help with start-up costs, Schmalzle has lined up interested vendors and will begin initial distribution this summer. He will continue market research throughout his first year, testing garden centers, universities, churches, grocery stores and malls. He plans to have a kiosk at every Lutheran university, including Wittenberg.
The idea for the business came during his freshman year after he brought a suitcase filled with handcrafted bracelets, bags and artwork from Kenya to the United States, and sold them in Wittenberg's Benham-Pence Student Center to raise money for the international student club. When he sold everything in his suitcase, the light bulb went on.
"I saw that there was a huge market for these crafts," he said.
"It has been such an exciting process: taking an idea and developing it, looking at every possible contingency and angle," he said. "I could not have done it without my Wittenberg professors."
He said his experience at Wittenberg helped him discover and develop his business skills and turn them toward a greater good. He believes that this kind of philanthropically motivated business offers one of the best ways to create real change and eliminate poverty. All profits from his business will go toward expansion of the business and to fund micro-loans to pay artists' start-up costs.
The concept of micro-lending – the extension of small loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional loans – was put into practice in Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank. Yunus saw it as a way to help individuals get beyond subsistence living. In 2006, Yunnus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development through micro-credit.
"If the idea is good enough to win a Nobel Peace Prize, then it's good enough to be in my business plan," Schmalzle joked.
As Schmalzle prepares to leave after graduation for Africa, where he will spend the summer months searching bazaars and markets for interesting artwork, jewelry and crafts, he reflected on the path that brought him to where he is today.
"I have had so much support from so many, and things have fallen into place so perfectly that I can't help but wonder sometimes if it wasn't divine intervention," he said. "I do know that I couldn't see myself doing anything else."
Written By: Gabrielle Antoniadis
Photos By: Robbie Gantt
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