Within a year of traveling to the community of Gulu, Uganda, Concordia student Thomas Prince launched Beads of Awareness, a social business with friend and business partner Laura Schnurr. Their intention was to raise awareness about the conditions in Uganda and aid the country’s development.
“We want people to [look at the beads] and say, “this comes from Uganda, what’s going on in Uganda?,'” says Prince, who explains that the African country is facing rebuilding in the aftermath of a 20-year civil war.
Prince experienced this situation firsthand after spending the summer of 2009 rebuilding the community of Gulu with the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program. While working in the Northern Uganda community, Prince grew close to the native Acholi people.
Before he left, a local business owner approached him with jewelry made from recycled paper beads. He wanted Prince to bring the beads back to see if there was interest for such a product in the Canadian market.
Upon his return to Montreal, Prince, who is studying anthropology and economics at Concordia, showed Schnurr the collection. It consisted of about 50 or 60 necklaces and a couple hundred loose beads.
“Immediately I thought it was some of the most beautiful [jewelry] I have ever seen. It was very unique,” says Schnurr, who is majoring in International Business at the John Molson School of Business. The beads themselves are made from reused paper and coated in a waterproof varnish.
“A lot of people think they can’t go out in the rain with the [beads] because they’re paper, but it’s not true &- they’re fine in water,” Schnurr says.
The unique quality of the beads made Schnurr believe that Montreal would in fact have a niche market for the products. But what really grabbed her interest was the possibility of creating a socially responsible business.
Schnurr describes BOA as a combination of international development and social awareness and as an alternative form of globalization. Their goal is to raise awareness about Uganda in Canada, with the jewelry acting as a conversation starter.
Schnurr acknowledges that not everyone buying their jewelry is going to be interested in the human rights aspect. But, with the product made by an Ugandan woman and not a machine in a factory in some unknown city, it puts a face on the product. The idea, Schnurr says, is to get Canadians thinking about not only the country of Uganda, but primarily the people.
For Prince, the rebuilding that Uganda needs isn’t just housing projects like the ones that he worked on in 2009. Instead, the country requires a redevelopment of infrastructure to help the country become self-sufficient, something BOA is aiding by working with women’s groups and child soldiers. As well, it is creating jobs for people who would otherwise be in a difficult position to enter the job market.
BOA is also involved in development projects in Uganda, donating 20 per cent of their revenue to funding underprivileged schools which do not receive government funding. Long-term goals for BOA include microcredit initiatives for Ugandans to build their own businesses and aid in agricultural production. The aim is to help Uganda have sustainable food and become self-reliant.
Being green is also an important part of BOA’s mission. The gift boxes, product tags and flyers all come from recycled paper.
BOA is trying to become fair trade-certified through TransFair, a major Canadian authority on fair-trade businesses. The procedure is long and costly but BOA is hoping to be fully certified in the next two to three years. In the mean time, BOA is satisfied by providing living wages for their craftswomen that are matched with wages at a fair trade-certified women’s co-op in a similar region which also produces handmade beads
Currently, BOA is trying to market their product to local stores and events taking place in Montreal, as well as setting up an online shop.
To purchase a necklace, bracelet or a pair of earrings, and help their efforts in Uganda contact either Prince or Schnurr via their website: www.beadsofawareness.com.