By Emily Williams
Africa awaits, and it isn’t as far away as you might think. In fact, it’s just over in downtown Homewood.
That’s where Scott and Jamie Laslo established a storefront for their fair-trade brand Kanzi, which means “hidden treasures” in Swahili. The store embodies the next phase of their work with East Africa. It is a for-profit venture that provides artisans an opportunity to earn a sustainable income to help them care for their families and their communities.
The Laslos met in college while on a mission trip to Uganda. Finding a passion for “the real Africa,” not the one depicted in infomercials, the couple forged a relationship based on non-profit work.
Their first endeavor was Pearl Ministries, a non-profit organization that partners charitable people and churches with an orphanage in Uganda.
“We became friends with a Ugandan couple,” Jamie said. “They’re the reason we decided to focus on working with children and we still work closely with them today.”
The Laslos felt their work becoming stale as the years went on, and the non-profit soon became a jumping off point for bigger things. They wanted to take proactive measures to help people and potentially stave off problems.
“We saw a need to prevent problems before they happen,” Jamie said.
The Laslos started Kanzi in 2010, selling their fair-trade products at kiosks at the Riverchase Galleria and hosting jewelry shows before recently opening their store.
The Laslos have kept a close relationship with the people they’ve worked with in Uganda and visit frequently. While Jamie is landlocked by pregnancy, Scott is traveling to Africa more frequently, meeting with the artisans who create the store’s products.
The store offers a variety of jewelry, accessories and traditional products that could be found at an African market. Beyond the Kanzi brand products, the store also offers products from other fair-trade organizations.
“We have a selection of stuffed animals that are made by a group of artisans in Malawi and we just got these great leather purses from another group in Kenya,” Jamie said. “The beauty of the fair-trade industry is that it is more collaborative than it is competitive. It’s very much like a family. We’ve met other couples at trade shows in New York and we’ll go out to eat afterward and remain close friends.”
Regardless of what brand you pick up in the store, all the products have been purchased directly from the artisans, who are paid regardless of whether their product is sold in the states.
A selection of ornaments at the store is part of the Laslos’ Ornaments4Orphans initiative. Proceeds from the sale of the ornaments benefit partnering organizations like Pearl Ministries.
The Laslos hope to not only deliver great products to the community, but share their message. Resting in one corner of the store is an easel with a painting of the African orphanage in which the Laslos have invested much of their work.
“Scott had that made for me a few years ago,” Jamie said. “It doesn’t look anything like that now. In fact, that part of the facility is used as a vocational school now.”
A portion of Kanzi proceeds benefits Pearl Ministries. While the organization continues to support free education for Ugandan children, the newest push is to get kids out of the orphanage and into homes.
“Most of these orphaned children have a family member who wants them, but they don’t have enough money to take care of them,” Jamie said.
By increasing Kanzi sales, the Laslos will be able to hire more artisans and hope they can provide functional homes for children to grow up in.
“It’s hard to become a successful parent yourself when you haven’t grown up with parents of your own,” Jamie said.
The Laslos plan to incorporate seating areas and children’s play areas in the store for people to relax, converse and learn a little more about “the real Africa.”
“People don’t really know that Africa is the way it is because the outside world made it that way,” Jamie said. “African history isn’t something you learn about in school. I didn’t learn about it until college and even then I only learned about Africa because I took a class that was required for my history major.”
The poverty in Africa is a product of many years of European colonization, as are the borders of the countries that make up the continent today. Villages where different languages were spoken and different cultures observed suddenly were grouped together, Jamie said, which resulted in the political unrest that has hindered countries’ ability to prosper.
“I’ve spoken with (American) kids who had no idea that there were real cities in Africa,” Jamie said. She added that African children don’t know much about American culture, either. She has had orphans ask her why no one in America works in manual labor jobs, believing that everyone in the U.S. works a white collar job and sits behind a desk all day.
“This is a way to bring our two worlds together,” she said. “We started this business because we see something better for these kids than what they have now.”
Scott added that the plethora of products available in the store is confirmation to him that there is a transformation happening in Africa. The difference can be seen directly, he said.
One artisan, Buwembo Yekosofati, or “Yeko,” who owns his own small business, crafts Ugandan-style artifacts such as nativities, ornaments and homestead huts. Lame in both legs, Yeko’s odds were against him as he grew up in Uganda, where the disabled are stigmatized. Thanks to a scholarship to study art in Kenya, Yeko was able to create a sustainable income through his art and even serves as the founder and chairman of Uganda Artists with Disabilities.
“You see that there is a lot more dignity and hope and opportunity in the artisans we are working with,” Scott said. “And what we see is confirmation of transformation and the development that will help bring Africa to its full potential.”
Kanzi is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and the Laslos plan to post extended hours for the holiday season. It is at 2817 Central Avenue in Homewood, behind Little Donkey and across from Iron Tribe Fitness.
For more information, visit kanzicraft.com or visit the Kanzi Facebook page.
This article was modified on Nov. 30 to correct misleadings regarding the date that the Laslo’s began Kanzi and the beneficiaries of the Ornaments4Orphans brand.