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SANDY BANKS

They came with hope, left with unsold wares

January 22, 2008|SANDY BANKS

In a near-empty exhibition room in a Santa Monica hotel, Dorothy Tarro packed up her table of unsold jewelry, purses and statues Monday afternoon for the long trip back home to Kenya.

She had come to the World Women Trade Fair at the Doubletree expecting to find thousands of enthusiastic, free-spending shoppers in the market for the porcupine-quill bracelets, beaded belts and wooden bowls made by rural Kenyan woman as part of a project to promote self-sufficiency.

But during the two-day fair, she and partner Lucy Njenga sold only a few hundred dollars worth of goods -- not even enough to pay their hotel bill, much less cover the $4,000 they spent on airfare to get here. Last year the two women sold $10,000 in a single day in Canada. This time, they will return empty-handed to dirt-poor villages where women rely on the sale of their crafts to feed their families.

"There has been so much devastation in my country," said Tarro, speaking of Kenya's recent civil unrest, which has left husbands dead and women abandoned. "For a country at war, I would like to bring back good news. Instead I am coming home with boxes."

The World Women Trade Fair was billed as a rare opportunity for women living in Third World countries "to access the global economy and American dollars."

Organizer Margaret Galabe invited grass-roots groups from dozens of poor countries to Santa Monica, with its "thousands of locals, international tourists, famous celebrities shopping for . . . folk arts and crafts from around the world."

Between 3,000 and 5,000 customers were expected to attend, she told the women and local newspapers.

But the near-empty hall Sunday and Monday spoke of broken promises and crushed dreams.

Only a few hundred people -- if that -- wandered through the hotel meeting room, and most were admiring, but not buying, the embroidered coats, jewelry, purses and textiles made by women so poor and uneducated they had to be taught to write their names to sign their wares.

"This is the worst I've ever attended," said Heike Weber of Anat Design Center in Damascus, who has spent 10 years helping Syrian women sell hand-embroidered textiles to raise money for education programs there.

She and her daughter spent almost $6,000 getting here and sold only $500 worth of goods. "That's $5,000 out the window," she said. "That would have paid for 10 buses to take 200 village kids to school for a year."

Estelle Ratanga from the tiny African nation of Gabon spent more than $3,000 to bring hand-painted dolls in traditional garb -- which were snapped up at her last trade fair in Paris. She left in tears, without selling a single one.

It wasn't hard to find the fair's promoter. Galabe was the elegant-looking woman in the glittery heels wandering around using pictures from Oprah's magazine to show the women the finer points of craft display and marketing.

"It's not the point of how much money they make here," she told me. "This is a stepping stone to bigger markets. That is why I invited them."

She told me she did plenty to promote the trade fair -- e-mailed press releases to local newspapers and sent thousands of fliers to local churches, businesses and community groups. She spent $6,500 to rent the room and let some vendors slide on the $500 cost for a booth. By my calculations, that's still a profit when your ad campaign consists of e-mail and fliers.

Hard to know whether she's incompetent, inexperienced or insensitive. A native of Cameroon who now lives in Palmdale, she said she works as a consultant with businesses trying to tap emerging markets in Africa. On Monday, she blamed her troubles on a few rabble-rousers among the vendors, whipping up hostility.

But I can't help feeling they were set up for disappointment. How hard can it be in a city like Santa Monica, in a region teeming with immigrants on a weekend celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., to loosen Angelenos' purse strings?

A few sophisticated vendors did OK.

Mothers2mothers -- which helps HIV-positive mothers in South Africa and has grown from a budget of $100,000 to $11 million in four years -- knows what sells to Americans. The group did a brisk business in low-priced beaded necklaces, cellphone holders, belts.

Others, like Jane Kiunsi from the Federation of Associations for Women Entrepreneurs Tanzania, didn't fare so well with the woven baskets she brought to sell. Kiunsi, wife of a university professor, spent $2,000 on plane tickets, took an 11-hour road trip from her village to the airport, then flew for 24 hours to get here. Taking unsold baskets back "will make the women feel like failures," she said.

"I think I won't tell the women my story, because it is so disappointing," she said. "My job is to build them up, not to let them get discouraged."

Although the trip will cost her heavily, it wasn't a mistake. It was her first time in America, and she was touched by the kindness of strangers.

"I didn't know what people feel for Africa, how much they want to help," she said Monday as she packed up. "They walk by and I tell them about the women . . . maybe they don't even need a purse. They are buying out of sympathy."

I left clutching a woven basket filled with trinkets; wearing a necklace made of animal teeth, with a beaded cellphone holder swinging from my hip.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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