In small villages in Nicaragua, as young people work alongside their grandparents creating beautiful pieces of pottery and carving wooden jewelry boxes, they don't realize that an American college student, thousands of miles away, is contributing to their financial stability.
Almost two years ago, Janet Latuga, a marketing student in Fairfield University's Dolan School of Business, launched a business plan that entailed acquiring merchandise from the impoverished artisans in Nicaragua and selling the wares on campus. Using funds received through a grant from the Emily C. Specchio Foundation, Latuga purchased an inventory of vases, candlestick holders, jewelry boxes and frames for $1,300. She quickly discovered, though, that packaging and shipping charges, including taxes and fees, was an additional $2,000.
This was one of the first `real-life' lessons that Janet learned as an entrepreneur. She adjusted the retail price of the craft items and increased the price that Fairfield University students and faculty pay so that the artists could continue to receive a fair wage for their work. Any profits gleaned are automatically given back to the artisans.
Calling upon one of her business professors, Winston Tellis, for advice, Janet formed a business partnership with two families in Nicaragua who work in clay and woodwork. Tellis explained that the artisans are paid in American currency up front for their products. In the small rural communities where they live, with the current exchange rate as $1 = 20 córdobas, they're able to earn a decent living and pay back the loans they received through local micro financing agencies, such as Nitlacan.
Their lifestyle is simple, Tellis said. Food is inexpensive -- a ten-pound bag of rice is about 11 córdobas, and a 10 pound bag of beans is about 12 córdobas -- and families live next to each other in unadorned residences. Tellis said families who are involved in micro-finance supported activities live in houses with tin roofs and cinder block construction. The other artisans live in lean-tos and have homes with thatched roofs, and might use the extra income for their children's tuition and school uniforms.
"The project is one facet of a larger effort to create a self-sustaining sales channel for the handmade craft items and artwork that will benefit and stimulate the Nicaraguan community and economy," Tellis said.
He first visited the country in 2004, when he brought students in his International Information Systems there to investigate globalization and its effects. When Janet turned to him for assistance in spearheading a project for the E. Gerald Corrigan Scholarship she received at the end of her sophomore year, he discussed the Nicaraguan artisans, crafters and weavers.
"I agreed that this would be a great way to use concepts that I learned in my marketing classes and also help families at the same time," Janet said.
Last spring, she and Tellis traveled to Masaya, Nicaragua, to meet with the two families she has worked with.
"It was wonderful because they were more than willing to explain the entire process of how they make their art," she said. "I saw that one person might spin the vase on the pottery wheel and another might paint them. Some people are in charge of digging the clay from the backyard. Everyone in the family gets involved and they do the type of work that they are good at."
Tellis said each piece takes about a week to complete. "There is no mass production," he said.
The oldest and youngest family members are responsible for wrapping the items that are sold to visitors, and the older ones either help to sell, or handle the cash. Because Nicaragua doesn't attract as many tourists as other South American countries, such as Costa Rica, there aren't many people to sell the crafts to, Tellis said. That's where the help from Fairfield comes in.
"Nicaragua has not yet developed its international craft market to the level of other Latin American nations," Tellis said.
As the liaison between the artists and the consumers in Fairfield County, Janet has created a fair trade business that supports these families' sustainability. Plans are underway to ensure that the partnership continues after Janet graduates in June. "I'm meeting with faculty members at the business school this week to talk about having different classes take over the project." She said that this would fit in well with the new Entrepreneurship concentration offered in the Dolan School of Business.
Response to the pottery sales was so great that Janet's inventory is depleted. She ordered new items and plans to have another sale, when the students return from winter break in late January. "It will be just in time for Valentine's Day," Latuga said. She will also continue to sell at off-campus venues, such as the Craft Fair she attended this fall in Farmington.
For more information, visit Latuga's blog at www.nicaraguancrafts.wordpress.com.