Calvin Grads Business Is In Africa

May 14, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — While many companies seek out overseas sourcing for its ease and cost effectiveness, the savings Venture Imports sees from its offshore sourcing might not be worth the risk to other companies.

“Zimbabwe has been very stressful,” says Jennie L. H. Nichols, owner and operator of Venture Imports. “The people are wonderful. It’s just that the government is corrupt.”

Venture distributes tribal artwork in the United States. The sculptures Venture currently distributes are carved by Shona artists of Zimbabwe from verdite, serpentine, leopard rock and opal.

The pieces vary from six inches to six feet, and vary just as widely in price. Nichols said it is rumored that one of Picasso’s strongest influences was the simple imagery of Shona pieces.

Last year, most of Venture’s pieces were found in 25 galleries and shops on the Lakeshore. This year, with pieces in major galleries across the nation, Venture Imports hopes to have sales top $100,000 for the first time.

Its first major show is next month in Milwaukee, with shows later in the year in Washington, D.C., and Denver.

Three years ago, Nichols started the company with seed money from her uncle, Jim Fennema. She had just graduated from Calvin College with an idea for a business model that would serve both her and some of the world’s neediest people.

“We had wanted to do something in the developing world and try to help people there,” she explained. “In my studies at Calvin I came to believe that one good way to help was through capitalism, except with morals and not trying to get every last cent out of a person.”

Using contacts she developed in Calvin’s Third World Development program and study in South Africa, Nichols spent the next six months researching products that would have a viable American market with a worthwhile markup.

Her trip through South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe producec leads along the way from missionaries and the Internet. Lou Haveman from Partners for Christian Development proved particularly helpful.

“He was very helpful in telling me about the local people,” Nichols explained. “I eventually found the Zimbabwe people on the Internet. When I arrived there I talked to them on the phone from the airport and was like, ‘Pick me up, I guess, please.’”

Nichols began working with a local representative for some Shona artists, but had misgivings about her first contact.

“There is a lot of racial stuff going on over there,” she said. “She was white, and he was black. I ended up not really trusting her or feeling like she was being good to the people we were buying from.”

But her original contact’s assistant, Alfred Kudziburira — a premier Zimbabwean sculptor — decided to strike out on his own. Nichols and Kudziburira soon formed a bond on which the company has thrived.

“I don’t know how I could have done it without him,” she said. “He speaks English better than most people, he’s very honest and has a grasp of what we need on the U.S. side.

“On this last trip, a lot of the artists were really impressed that a white woman and black man could work together so well. It’s going on three years now. Normally, this doesn’t work out over there.”

It has not been all smooth sailing.

“I’ve been stopped numerous times at police roadblocks,” she admitted. “They get suspicious of blacks and whites traveling together.

“Often they are just looking for a bribe,” she said. “But I’ve met a number of people, mostly people working with aid organizations, who have been thrown in jail overnight on trumped-up charges.”

In April 2002, Zimbabwe was declared a state of disaster. Aid agencies estimate 7.8 million of the country’s 13 million people need food. Health officials say an average of 2,500 people die from AIDS each week, and a third of the country is infected with HIV. Unemployment is currently at 70 percent and inflation is over 200 percent.

The Zimbabwe dollar is worth practically nothing and the government has banned foreign currency. Thus people must carry briefcases of money.

Gasoline is a also serious problem, with shortages at gas stations causing lines hundreds of cars long. Luckily, a black market fuel supply was available.

When Nichols was in Zimbabwe in April, the situation had improved.

“I’m waiting to see how it turns out,” she said.

Venture makes two purchases a year, spending around $15,000 each time, enough for 100 Zimbabwean families to live on for one year.

This summer, Nichols intends to scout out sources in Bolivia and Panama.

 

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