Columbia isn’t Vegas — what happens in CoMo doesn’t always stay here. And that’s just fine with a handful of Columbia businesses whose homegrown efforts are having an impact in the world. Whether it’s to South America, Africa or India, their reach extends far beyond the confines of the Show-Me State.
As the Disney refrain says, it’s a small world after all …
Buy One, Give One
BOGO — buy one, get one — is an irresistible attraction to consumers. Columbia Eye Consultants Optometry has taken it up a notch with the Kindsight 2020 program, where customers can “buy one, give one.”
When patients buy a pair of glasses at Columbia Eye Consultants, the optometry practice donates a pair of glasses to a patient in Guatemala. The program, launched in April, is an outgrowth of Dr. James Gamble’s 14 years of mission trips to Chichicastenango, Guatemala, where he has provided optometry services to the native Mayan population at a multidisciplinary clinic.
“We wanted to find a way to do more,” says Jeff Gamble, who, like his father, is a CEC optometrist and has also worked in the Chichicastenango clinic. “We provide full services at the clinic and now, with Kindsight 2020, we can provide more products to make a difference in the lives of these people.”
The Gambles and their colleagues work with former Columbians John and Sharon Harvey, who founded ASELSI (Association for Equipping the Saints, International) 20 years ago in Guatemala. John, a minister, provides nondenominational Bible training and Sharon, a nurse, runs the Chichicastenango clinic.
“There’s a theme in this mission — equip the folks down there and teach them how to perform some of these services,” says Jeff Gamble. “There are no optometry schools there. We teach the lay people Sharon has chosen and then we also go down there to take care of problem cases.”
Every six months, Columbia Eye Consultants will send an optometrist from the practice to work in the Chichicastenango clinic, where they will see 40 to 60 patients a day. Each doctor in the five-man practice is committed to make the trip once every two years. Money for those trips and equipment donations comes from a separate office account the practice funds with a portion of CEC revenue.
“We just decided to take a percentage of revenue to fund this effort,” Gamble says. “Over the years, we’ve been asked to sponsor golf tournaments or softball teams. Instead, we’re taking our marketing money and putting it into something that really matters.”
Kindsight 2020 is a 501(c)(3) organization. CEC has partnered with lens laboratories and frame makers to supply discontinued models and overruns to the program.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” Gamble says. “Some of these people are functionally blind. They can’t work anymore because they can’t see, and they’re so poor, they can’t even afford a $1 pair of readers. So these glasses mean the difference between having a job or not — that’s a real economic impact.”
The doctors at Columbia Eye Consultants — James Gamble, Michael Nichols, Rob Bernskoetter, Jeff Gamble and Christopher DeRose — believe the Kindsight 2020 program is making a clear difference from 2,300 miles away. “And it’s so neat,” Gamble adds, “because it’s homegrown.”
Keeping Art Alive
From its quiet confines on Ninth Street, Mustard Seed Fair Trade brings you the world. The nonprofit boutique offers handcrafted items from 68 vendors in 58 countries, an eclectic collection of jewelry, apparel and gifts that originated in 10,000 villages from around the globe. All products are fair trade, says Executive Director Crystal Midkiff, produced and sold in a manner that complies with the requirements of the Fair Trade Federation to meet a standard of treatment, compensation and environmentally sustainable practices.
“We promote sustainability for artisans and farmers living in developing countries through the direct marketing of their goods,” Midkiff says. “We’re working to alleviate poverty in those nations.”
Mustard Seed deals directly with individual artisans when procuring its inventory.
“I like to deal one-on-one with the artists,” Midkiff says. “I know what Columbians are looking for, and by working with artists from around the globe, we’re able to sell more of their products.”
Sales are the end goal for Mustard Seed’s suppliers, primarily women in rural areas. “There is essentially no other form of income for these people,” Midkiff says. “The money these women make helps pay for schooling, nutrition and clean water. If they’re bringing in an income for their family, their children can go to school rather than go to work. We source from a large number of small communities, which allows us have a greater global impact.”
The artisans use a variety of elements in the work — recycled newspapers and other paper products, homegrown textiles and seeds, grasses and shells. “So they are also preserving their environment,” she says. “It keeps the art alive.”
Vendors must undergo a validation process before Mustard Seed considers selling their products, Midkiff says. Transactions must fit with the Fair Trade Federation’s 12 principles of fair trade. The three-month verification process involves worker recommendations, gathering stories from the villages and authenticating the sourcing of raw materials.
There are challenges in dealing with an overseas supply chain, Midkiff says. Language, sizing and supply can become difficult issues; maintaining product quality is paramount to the store and its vendors’ success.
“You have to be aggressive — buy a lot and buy often,” she says. “It’s tricky to predict the market.”
The unique products have found a market in Columbia. The store, which opened in 2008, has evolved its inventory as business has grown. “In retail, 16 percent annual growth is unheard of,” Midkiff notes. “Last Christmas, our sales were up 49 percent over 2012.”
“We’re a nonprofit, so we’re just covering our overhead right now — paying rent and keeping the lights on,” Midkiff says. “Any surplus goes back into the mission.”
The mission will expand eventually to a scholarship fund and assistance with equipment for producers such as sewing machines. By next year, plans call for an online store to sell signature items.
Paying It Forward
The old adage says, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Today’s small-business reality mandates the helpful go one step further — invest in that fisherman and watch his business grow.
That’s the model Humanity for Children is pursuing through its microfinancing projects in East Africa.
Headquartered in Columbia, Humanity for Children is an international organization dedicated to improving quality of life for children in Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. That quality of life depends on the children’s parents finding work or the means to get a business off the ground. Micro-loans offer the financial resources needed to create small profitable businesses within the community.
“These loans are not handouts,” says Executive Director Kathryn Morgan. “They’re a ‘hand up’ — short-term loans that are repaid, with interest, so that others in the village can use that money again to begin other new businesses. Because they recycle the money over and over, families and entire villages get a chance to improve their standard of living.”
Morgan, a real estate agent with House of Brokers, volunteers her services as do all stateside Humanity for Children workers. “There is no paid staff in the U.S.; only those working in East Africa get paid,” she says. Morgan is a Fulton native who became involved with Humanity for Children when it began in 2006 while she was living in Seattle with her husband, architect Brian Morgan. When the family decided to move back to mid-Missouri, Morgan moved the organization as well.
Humanity for Children’s microfinancing projects run the gamut of small businesses — beekeeping, a hair salon, crafting cooperatives, welder’s training, marketing agricultural crops and raising livestock. Communities form local cooperatives and applicants submit their business plans to the co-op. Loans can be as little as $250 or as much as $2,500. The cooperatives charge interest on the loans — currently about 5 percent — that goes back into the co-op account to grow the amount available for other startups. Those who start livestock operations must also give the purchased animal’s first offspring to a neighbor to help build additional herds.
“They pay it forward,” Morgan says. “We’ve had great results so far. Out of 20 projects, only one has been unsuccessful.”
Most of the financed startups are located in Rwanda; the exception was a loan to purchase a corn milling and hulling machine for a group of Masai women in Tanzania, recipients of Humanity for Children’s largest loan to date.
“We debated the ethics of loaning money for such a project,” Morgan says. “Would this change their culture? But they came to us with the idea for two years in a row. They really wanted to do it and it has worked out really well.”
Women usually provide a good return on investment for the microfinancing projects, Morgan says. Humanity for Children’s first micro-loan went to a woman who used the $250 loan to buy chickens and start a poultry and egg business. She has earned enough to buy a house and send her children to school.
“Many of these projects are headed by women, and they are accountable,” she says. “These startup businesses help women contribute to their families in a way they haven’t before — it changes the dynamic.”
As the mother of two young children, Morgan’s travels to Africa are on hiatus; she last visited in 2007 and 2008. Her executive director duties are more administrative these days, she says, making arrangements for volunteers such as the group that left Missouri in early June. The volunteers visit the charity’s various projects, pitching in where needed and offering advice when asked.
“Mainly, though, we just listen,” Morgan says. “Our lives are so different from theirs. They know their community and culture, what works and doesn’t work. We’ve learned so much from them.”
Humanity for Children encompasses five efforts: microfinancing, school-to-school partnerships, church-to-church partnerships, medical clinics and education assistance.
Reinventing The Toilet
When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took on the Third World problem of waste disposal and sanitation, who knew that part of the solution might be lurking in a southwest Missouri manufacturing plant?
ClearStak did. The Woodstock, Conn., environmental engineering company manufactures electric components for the multifuel furnaces produced by MFA Oil’s AgFuel Energy Systems. When the Climate Foundation called on ClearStak to join its team in the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent The Toilet Challenge, the engineers knew just where to go to buy a carbonizer.
AgFuel Energy Systems, formed in 2011 by Columbia-based MFA Oil Co., is a furnace manufacturer that offers high-capacity, multifuel furnaces used in agricultural, commercial and industrial heating. The furnace the Climate Foundation purchased was modified by ClearStak to burn human waste as a component of the biochar reactor the team demonstrated in March at the Reinvent The Toilet Fair: India.
The fair featured 40 exhibitors promoting innovative products and solutions for waste disposal. “Our was the only working prototype at the fair,” says Dustin Dover, AgFuel director of operations. “We had a working model to show how a biochar reactor actually works.”
The reactor processes solid human waste in three stages. A dryer lowers the moisture content of the material, which then moves to the carbonizer — AgFuel’s modified furnace. The carbonizer pyrolyzes the waste, releasing half the carbon as syngas suitable as a free energy source while charring the remainder. Above the carbonizer, a catalyst cleans the exhaust by oxidizing gases. Heat from the carbonizer and catalyst passes through an internal heat exchanger to produce electrical energy to power the belt dryer and augers.
The sterile biochar produced by the process can be used for odor filtration. “It’s a lot like charcoal,” Dover says. Added to soil, biochar attracts and retains moisture as it enriches the earth.
Poor sanitation is a killer. According to the Gates Foundation, the lack of basic facilities contributes to 2.2 million deaths around the world each year, primarily in undeveloped countries where the resources to build and maintain sewer infrastructure are scarce. The Climate Foundation team’s village-scale biochar reactor can serve a population of 2,000 to 5,000; the cost of the system is about $80,000, Dover says.
The system will undergo field tests in Nairobi, Kenya, later this summer, Dover says, to make it more sustainable in operating off the power grid.
“Our goal is to provide the solution.”