Ester LaPollo

Meet the Mompreneur® of the Month:

Ester LaPollo

Lompoc, California

Mother of 4 kids (a boy and three girls), ages 2 to 20

My Biz:Mama Afrika, a fair trade company specializing in African art and handicrafts.

My Mission: Mama Afrika’s mission is two-fold: 1) To support the poor in Africa through the sale of high-quality African wares made by women’s cooperatives across the continent, and through donations to non-profit groups which assist women and children. 2) To teach about Africa, its people and the problems facing them. Our objective is to be the leading fair trade company specializing in African art and handicrafts, eventually trading in every African country and later branching out to other members of the pan-African community, like Haiti.

My Heritage & History: I was born in Eritrea (in East Africa), where my Italian-American father met my mother while serving in the Army. We moved when I was 5, and I have lived in Germany, France and the U.S. Growing up, I was regularly reminded of the opportunities I had compared to the family members we left behind in Africa. I like to joke with American friends that when their mothers were using that old line ‘‘Finish your dinner because there are starving children in China”, my mom used to say “Don’t waste food, because (insert aunt or cousin’ name here) is suffering in Eritrea because there weren’t enough rains this year.” I got a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in International Studies, and then went back for a Master’s where I also focused on Africa. Between that and my cultural background, I guess you could say I was very well prepared for what I didn’t know would lie ahead… Mama Afrika.

Divine Inspiration: Before coming up with my business idea, my intent was always to work for a major non-profit organization, or perhaps for the United Nations in an attempt to make an impact in Africa and other regions of the world where people are suffering major development issues. I had a final job interview (I’d unofficially been offered the position already) for what I thought was the job of my dreams. You know, that one that you think about when stuck in a library in graduate school at 3 a.m. when “normal people” are sleeping? Well, the night before my interview, I had a dream where I was called to do what I’m doing today: Sell, Help and Teach. I turned down the job and began working with women’s cooperatives in Africa.

Start-up Steps: I began a massive letter-writing campaign to anyone who would listen, telling people my plans for my new company and my goals to support African women through selling, helping and teaching. I contacted ministers of trade, directors of various regional African organizations, various international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and an array of people who were recommended to me by friends or professional acquaintances (diplomats, professors teaching in Africa, etc). I asked if they knew of any women’s cooperatives or small local non-profits that they could put me in touch with. I must have sent 100 letters in the first year. I wrote to those whom I thought might not necessarily have the answers I was looking for, but who were likely to re-route my request to the right person. Somehow, I started to receive replies from people I hadn’t even written to, from countries I hadn’t written to. The Minster of Trade in one country would forward my letter to his cousin attending school in Germany, who would share the information with a classmate from another African country, who would mail a copy to a sister who was a cooperative member in yet another country… and she would reply to me. It was absolutely amazing! As I built my reputation as a woman who did business fairly and who had a sincere desire to improve the lives of African women, word spread and our “family” grew. We now trade in over a dozen African countries, and buy and sell products made by thousands of women in all four corners of Africa.

How Women’s Cooperatives Work: All of the cooperatives I trade with are women-owned groups who often work at home or in small groups around their normal daily chores. They then bring their products to a central “collection point” where they are paid, and items are inspected for quality; then the products are grouped and shipped to me. This “collection point” can be either a specific location—like a small building—or just the “village square” where under the shade of a large tree, women bring their wares and receive payment or meet occasionally for training sessions. There are male members of the cooperatives, since some things such as carving are traditionally done by men. But those men belong to cooperatives which have at least 80% female membership and are run and managed primarily by women. Other than doing some minor detail work to help their mothers on occasion, children do not participate in the labor. Since I am bilingual in English and French, I am able to communicate directly with all of the cooperatives. There is still some translation needed as many of the women only speak their native languages; but there are always at least a few with whom I can talk or write to directly. This business has turned out to be the perfect fit for my background and passion. I now can’t imagine doing anything other than this!

Fair trade and how my business is run around it: I initially set up and still run Mama Afrika to be a fair trade company. Fair trade amounts to respect for the producer. And this is done in the following ways at Mama Afrika:

· I pay a fair living wage to the men and women we buy from. We have in fact, never haggled a price.

· I donate 10% to African non-profit organizations, which work to improve the lives of women and children. A couple of examples are groups working with genocide survivors in Rwanda and dance troupes which perform in villages in Ghana to teach about health issues and environmental issues. We’ve even purchased wheelchairs and rebuilt homes.

· I include informational letters with every product, telling people about the country of origin, traditional use, and a little about the organization that will receive a donation.

· There are no middle men involved. I buy directly from the producers.

· Before trading with any new cooperative, we work together to ensure that they have mechanisms in place, such as savings funds, childcare and other programs that assist the women—a way of investing in their communities and each other.

· When orders are placed, the women who are in most need, sick or who have other special circumstances are asked to fill them first. Then, they assign the work to others in the cooperative.

· Finally, Mama Afrika takes every opportunity possible to teach about fair trade and its benefits for the poor and the consumer.

Staying True to My Vision: Over the past 9 years, it’s been tempting to want to “branch out” when opportunities arise. I have received many requests for products over the years and I’ve decided many times not to ask the cooperatives to produce them. For example, we have never asked women to weave 100 identical blue baskets because blue is the trendy hue of the year. They weave what their heart desires, and we’ve never been disappointed yet! Nor have I been willing to ask women in one country to learn to produce items that aren’t indigenous to their culture. We don’t ask our “sisters” in Ghana to make Zulu-style beadwork for example. They could easily reproduce the look with very minimal training; but it isn’t the style which is traditionally made in Ghana. So, we buy Krobo beads from Ghana because the Krobo people have their own style of design and materials there. And we buy the Zulu work directly from the Zulu in South Africa, although it is much more costly. I’ve lost potential orders because people didn’t understand that I wouldn’t be OK with “faking it”; but that is alright with me because it’s far more important that each piece we sell helps teach about the true history and culture of the people it comes from. It has been tough to refuse large wholesale orders for the sake of principle, but I’ve managed to remain true to “who” Mama Afrika is. She still sells fair trade, high-quality traditional wares made by women’s cooperatives. She still gives 10% after the sale to help African women and children. And, she still teaches about Africa and issues facing her people. A simple formula not worth drastically changing.

Work/Family Balancing Tricks : I don’t have any secret formula, I’m afraid. I think it really depends on what you do and what your family looks like (marital status, ages of your kids, etc). But, here are a few things I could never make it without:

· Waking up early and working while the rest of the world sleeps

· Being incredibly organized

· Loving Mama Afrika like she were a member of our family

· Having a husband who is supportive of my goals. (A couple of years ago, he volunteered to take care of our baby and home-school our 8 year old, while also telecommuting from home–so that I could accept an invitation to be a guest speaker at an event in Europe)

· Eating dinner together as a family almost every day. Seemingly unrelated perhaps; but it’s where you find out what you can tweak to make life better for everyone.

Best Advice to Newbies: If you do these three things, you’ll be well on your way to success:

1- Do what you love! It’s the most important rule ever, trust me! You are going to find yourself at 2 am, with a child who just got sick on your slippers, a conference call in a few hours and wonder how on earth you will ever pull it off… loving what you do will help you be able to put that moment into perspective.

2- Write a business plan. Pat and Ellen here at discuss the importance of a business plan often. Don’t be overwhelmed at the thought of it. It doesn’t have to be fancy. You can even find templates online that only require you to fill in the blanks. Do it, and update it; it’s among the best advice I ever got. Thanks guys!

3- Believe in yourself, even if it feels like it’s impossible. My family and friends thought I was nuts when I told them what I was going to do. But, I can’t imagine what magical life I’d have missed if I had hesitated to accept this call. I have no magic wand, no fairy dust and no secret team of experts in my pocket… if I can do it; so can you!

Check out her shop in our Mompreneur Marketplace at Mama Afrika