They’re simply made, sturdy and colorful. But the "eco-clutch" handbags for sale at the University of Mary Washington bookstore are much more than fashion accessories. They are one small step out of poverty for women in Siete de Abril, a wretchedly poor village in Honduras.
Thanks to the bookstore and an enterprising group of UMW students, their professor and volunteers, the women are joining the ranks of Third World entrepreneurs.
It began with Rachel Mason, a UMW senior who journeyed to the Central American nation last year with Students Helping Honduras, a relief agency founded at UMW. While visiting Siete de Abril, which means 7th of April, Mason taught some of the villagers to make clutches out of recycled potato chip bags and soda labels. The women then began selling them to SHH volunteers to buy food and medicine.
At that same time, Shawn Humphrey, a UMW assistant professor of economics, was working with SHH on micro-loan opportunities for the villagers.
"We thought it would be a great income-generating opportunity and fit with our La Ceiba mission," Humphrey said. La Ceiba is a student-run micro-financing initiative. The handbag project is one component and has been evolving since Mason first came up with the idea. "I had seen some similar projects at a green festival and I learned how to make the bags," Mason said.
She taught the women to make them and brought some back to sell however she could, "by e-mail, through Facebook, the [UMW] Ecology Club, parents weekend." That approach was difficult, she said, and her involvement ended when she left to study in Brazil.
SHH volunteers Peter Bergen, a student at the College of William & Mary, and Ashley Cameron, now a UMW sophomore, were eager to help when Humphrey asked. "We spent the summer restructuring the program into a system of purchases, receipts and incentives," Humphrey said.
At first, villagers were selling bags to student volunteers who make several trips there each year with SHH. But that became unwieldy and competitive. A larger goal was to expand the customer base to create a sustainable stream of income.
Now, "We buy the bags up front. The women are not allowed to sell them to volunteers. We’re the middleman. We buy only the export-quality bags," Humphrey said. That allows the market to dictate what’s sold. Fourteen women make bags in three sizes.
"This is a really good project for them because there are no other opportunities for them to make money," said Cameron, an economics major who first traveled to Honduras last summer. "I enjoy getting the experience and seeing the bags selling, knowing how it’s helping the women." Cameron is the student intern at the bookstore overseeing the project.
Humphrey said the bookstore takes only enough to cover expenses, also handling online sales, packaging and shipping.
Erma A. Baker, assistant vice president for business services at UMW, learned about the bags from a student who had just returned from Honduras. "It occurred to me that here was an opportunity for a partnership between the bookstore and students so that we could support their efforts," Baker said.
She talked to Humphrey and Cathy Underwood, the bookstore’s manager. "It’s working beautifully," Baker said, though there are some unusual aspects. "In a retail operation, you usually have a lot of control over delivery dates."
With a supplier in Honduras, "You get the product when you get it and the quantity, sometimes you’re not quite sure" what’s coming.
Still, "We see it completely consistent" with the goals of the store "knowing that what they are doing is supporting a humanitarian effort." She said the arrangement is a first for the store in Lee Hall.
"It’s off to an incredible start," Humphrey said. About 30 bags have been sold (prices range from $15 to $30) and we’ve got a second order in."
Humphrey says other items–picture frames and large bags that would fit a laptop computer–could be added. "This is a way to open up a market that otherwise would be prohibitive for them to enter."
La Ceiba also provides loans for village women to start their own businesses. They’re learning basic principles of finance, lending, repayment, and even the consequences of default. A savings program is also in the works.
For students, Humphrey says, "Even though they may fail here and there It’s a great learning experience."
Eco-clutch bags are available online at: store313.collegestoreonline.com/ePOS/form=cat.html&cat=202&store =313 Students Helping Honduras, studentshelpinghonduras.org
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
La Ceiba, named after a deep-rooted tree native to Honduras, is a student-run nonprofit micro-finance institution. It is affiliated with Students Helping Honduras. Each student is responsible for bridging theory and practice in one aspect of the process, such as management, law, marketing, economic theory or client research.
With a population of 6.8 million, Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America, with high unemployment and extraordinarily unequal distribution of income. It was ravaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which caused about $2 billion in damage and killed more than 5,000.
Add to the country’s troubles a military takeover of the government in June that ousted President Manuel Zelaya.