Market offers exotic wares with fair-trade ethos

By Maura Wery

The courtyard in the K-State Student Union is normally a place for students eating lunch, typing on computers or chatting with friends, but yesterday, it transformed into a market filled with brightly colored scarves, clothing, gifts and jewelry, all fair-trade certified.

The two-day market was part of International Education Week at K-State. The marketplace brings in companies committed paying the Third-World artisans who make their products fair pay and a clean, safe work environment. The market opened Tuesday and continued today until 5 p.m.

This year’s vendors included a K-State graduate who sells high quality jewelry from India; Ten Thousand Villages, a national company with a store in Newton, which sells a variety artisan items from 37 different countries; and a Christian fair trade company that offers handbags and scarves.

Several of the entrepreneurs behind the companies said that for them, the reward isn’t proceeds but the people they are helping with each sale.

Kate Von Achen, owner of Awava, is one of those entrepreneurs. The Kansas native sat in front of her table Tuesday wearing a green, purple and red apron with a rooster sewn on it — just one of the many everyday fabric items in bright colors and busy prints her company sells. She also sells things like lunch bags, pillow covers, placemats, cloth napkins and a clothing line. The designs were created by fellow Kansan and designer Margie Hogue and was featured at Kansas City’s Fashion Week this past September.

Von Achen said working on her master’s program prompted her move to Uganda five years ago. During her time there, she experienced firsthand the conflict in the area and connected with local women affected by the violence. Von Achen said that once the conflict died down, she wanted to help these women rehabilitate both themselves and their cities. To do this, she helped women create sustainable products for fair trade through her master’s program.

“I wanted to teach them how to make utilitarian products,” Von Achen said. “Everything we sell is useful.”  Von Achen said that she also wanted the products to be as “eco-friendly as possible.” All her products use recycled or local materials like bark cloth, cow horns, recycled sterling silver and banana leaf.

Von Achen points to a set of earrings. She said that the spheres, which are comparable to earrings sold in mall stores, are made from recycled banana leaf and sterling silver. 

The biggest gain that Von Achen can give these women is a living wage in an area of the world where this is rare. The Ugandan women who help create the products for Awava will receive an ethical price for their items, Von Achen said. They also will have a clean, safe and gender-equal workplace.

“A lot of people assume fair trade is just about equal pay,” Von Achen said. “It is but there are more things we strive for, like gender equality, a democratic workplace and environmental stewardship.”

In order for her company to thrive outside of Uganda, Von Achen came back to the United States to help sell Awava’s products. She has been back only five months and said it is “life changing every day.” She misses the chaos of Uganda and hopes to go back within the year to build partnerships with other communities in Uganda. Von Achen said she isn’t sure when she will return to the land that originally inspired her fair-trade company, but she does make one promise: “I will always go back.”

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