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Turning Crafts INTO Tools for Survival

It was a crisp afternoon last December when classmates Francesca Peterson ’03 (right) and Malisha Richardson (left) met in Oberlin to discuss their start-up alternative fair trade organization: Illuminating Nations Through Offering an Opportunity (INTO).

In a few days, the pair would be off to Urbana, Illinois, sharing INTO’s vision with 20,000 people at a convention of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Friends since their freshman year, the women had forged a bond as members of a local church and the Oberlin women’s basketball team.

“INTO was started our senior year,” says Peterson, who majored in history and Third World studies. While spending a semester in Ecuador, she met a group of church youth leaders, one of whom shared his personal vision for developing a company that would export goods to the U.S. as a way of supporting indigenous communities.

Artisans could sell their crafts at a higher price in America than they could locally, he argued, while still offering a fair market value to U.S. consumers. Intrigued by the idea, Peterson brought some products home to test their marketability.

“When Francesca asked me to start the business with her, I was hesitant,” recalls Richardson, an economics major. “Of course I wanted to start my own company, but I wasn’t sure about a nonprofit. I prayed about it, and agreed to do it because it was about helping people.”

The pair got to work after graduation, at first using the College’s computer labs and library until they could find office space. Financial backing trickled in, allowing them to begin buying crafts for resale.

The women returned to Ecuador last year to collect pieces from artisans in Comuna Cofan Dureno, an Amazon rainforest community struggling with a depressed tourist industry, pollution, and deforestation, and Peguche, located in an economically unbalanced region in Northern Sierra. Back in the U.S., they sold the crafts at workshops and presentations for service and outreach boards. Peterson returned to Ecuador again in August, taking along a report of sales and offering tips on how artisans can enhance their products for the U.S. market.

“Laura Chapal, an older artisan in Comuna Cofan Dureno and mother of 10, mentioned how she can hardly afford salt to cook with,” says Peterson. “As we continue serving families like the Chapals, we pray that INTO will one day be funded enough to insure these families a solid income source. Our mission is to provide an opportunity for these families to take their own step up.”

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