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posted: 7/19/2013 1:08 PM

Conant grad launches e-business to help African artisans

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  • Sonny Tai teaching American football to the children from St. Martins School.

      Sonny Tai teaching American football to the children from St. Martins School.
    PHOTO BY Collins Ochieng

  • Then-First Lt. Sonny Tai in Afghanistan, 2012.

      Then-First Lt. Sonny Tai in Afghanistan, 2012.
    PHOTO BY Senior Master Sgt. Kim Frey, U. S. Air Fo

  • Sonny Tai and Judy, in her 10x10 home in Kibera.

      Sonny Tai and Judy, in her 10x10 home in Kibera.
    Courtesy of Sonny Tai

  • Sonny horseplaying with children at the school in the Kibera slums.

      Sonny horseplaying with children at the school in the Kibera slums.
    PHOTO BY Collins Ochieng

  • Judy making necklaces and bracelets outside of the Tabitha Clinic.

      Judy making necklaces and bracelets outside of the Tabitha Clinic.
    Courtesy of Sonny Tai

  • A child plays in the trash heaps outside the Kibera Primary School.

      A child plays in the trash heaps outside the Kibera Primary School.
    Courtesy of Sonny Tai

 
Submitted by Sonny Tai

Walk into any Marine Corps recruiting office, and you'll likely read a poster: "Some people wonder all their lives if they've made a difference. The Marines don't have that problem."

For me, Marine Capt. Sonny Tai -- 2004 graduate of Conant High School, 2009 graduate of the University of Illinois in Urbana, and, starting this fall, MBA student at the University of Chicago -- my passion for making a difference extends beyond my four-year active duty career.

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My passion for Africa stems from my formative years -- I lived in South Africa for six years with my mother and younger sister after my father passed away. Seeing the disparity between the haves and have-nots, I resolved to one day do something about it.

While stationed in Afghanistan, I reached out to the nongovernmental organization Carolina For Kibera, a participatory development nonprofit founded by former Marine Officer Rye Barcott in the Nairobi slum of Kibera.

Kibera is one of the most densely populated urban slums in Africa, where the average person subsists on a mere $39 per month. Sanitation and garbage collection services are virtually nonexistent. Sources of clean water have been established by several NGOs in the area, but many residents still have to carry 10 gallon jugs a significant distance through difficult terrain to supply their families.

After my active duty period ended in April, I finally had the opportunity to visit Kibera. I planned to volunteer with the Tabitha Clinic run by Carolina For Kibera, but since I didn't have medical expertise, I quickly found my usefulness to be marginal.

I lived among the people, mingling with them. During this time, I met Judy, who was creating paper bugle necklaces from scrap magazine paper. I sat down next to Judy, learned her craft and helped her assemble some of the beads for he paper necklaces.

Judy dreamed of sending her son to trade school, but could not afford the 30,000 Kenyan shillings (about $375) in school fees. I promised I would find a way to help, so I advertised on the University of Chicago Booth School of Business Class of 2015 Page:

"Guys, I'm currently in Kibera, and I met a lady who would love to send her son off to school, but cannot afford the fees. Would any of you be interested in buying some of her bracelets and necklaces?"

Over the next four days, over $800 of orders poured in from Chicago Booth students. Inspired by the response, I resolved to expand the project, as there are many women and youths in Kibera who craft beautiful handmade jewelry to scrape together a living.

Unfortunately, there is no market for these goods in Kibera, since most Kibera residents are mired in abject poverty. They can scarcely afford rent, food and school fees, let alone jewelry.

These artisans market their goods to the occasional traveler, but foreigners usually don't come to Kibera. It's perceived to be unsafe. Trash and sewage runs throughout the street, and people live in sardine-line conditions.

The only foreigners I saw in Kibera were the ones working for NGOs and the occasional slum tourism group escorted by armed guards.

So myself, Carolina For Kibera and my classmates at the Booth School of Business have launched an e-commerce business, a nonprofit jewelry store named "With Love From Kibera," designed to economically empower Kibera women and youths by opening access to Western markets.

One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to Kibera, which will allow Kiberan artisans to buy food, send their children to high school, pay rent and in some cases, obtain antiretroviral HIV medication.

The website is www.with-love-from-kibera.org. Like it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/withlovefromkibera.

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