On a dusty street in Kampala, Eddie Bbira sets up his makeshift art studio, a folding table covered with sheets of bright pink paper and a rainbow collection of crayons. While he works on a more advanced piece – a vibrant acrylic painting of a fish on cloth made from tree bark – his young students try their hand at mastering the colors, forms and techniques that give life to art.
Life in Uganda’s largest city is not easy. Most of the students in Bbira’s studio are homeless, orphaned by the civil violence that has gripped the east African country for two decades.
A world away, another group of students crowds around a table in an effort to give life to art. These are undergrads at NC State who have launched a project to help Bbira and other artists in some of the poorest parts of the world.
A Lasting Impact
The organizer, Caldwell Fellow Alex Martin, started the effort as a way of completing a homework assignment.
“I was supposed to do work related to hunger,” he says. “I could have joined a canned food drive, but that doesn’t have a lasting affect.”
Instead, Martin called Philip Dail, the director of advising and admissions in the College of Textiles. Dail and his wife, Sara, operate a shop in Cameron Village that sells “fair trade” merchandise created by artists like Bbira in 15 countries worldwide.
An Idea is Born
Martin visited the store, called Beleza (Portuguese for “exquisite beauty”) and then checked out the Web site.
“They were trying to sell merchandise online but nobody was buying,” Martin says. “An idea was born overnight.”
Martin, a Hamilton Scholar majoring in business administration and international studies, recruited five students from across campus to help revamp Beleza’s online sales efforts. The team includes students majoring in graphic design, computer science, biomedical engineering and chemical engineering.
Every Friday the team meets in a computer lab at the D.H. Hill Library to build an eBay store featuring high quality photos and descriptions of the merchandise, which ranges from silver-plated jewelry from Turkey to silk scarves from India.
Passionate About Fair Trade
Dail, beginning his 40th year as an educator, is excited by the students’ innovations. He opened the shop in 2005 after helping a Peace Corps volunteer – a former student – market some handcrafted scarves for the women of a village in Madagascar.
He’s passionately committed to fair trade, the concept of paying a fair price for merchandise created by artists in the developing world.
“I am so absolutely determined that people who have such passion for art and beauty find a market for their work,” he says. “When you go in the store, it’s like an art museum.”
Martin, too, is inspired. He plans to build on the experience with Beleza to find a way to combine fair trade practices with micro-lending to entrepreneurs in developing countries.
“There’s not a lot of work in this area, but if you could unify the two, you could help people build skills that go beyond handcrafts to things like product development,” he says. “It’s tricky, but this could really help bring people out of poverty and help save the next generation.”
Students volunteering on the project include include chemical engineering major Tracy Hendrick, computer science major Christian Stith, biomedical engineering major Lindsay Stribling, graphic design major Ijeoma Onuh and engineering major Tomer Shvueli. Follow their blog.