The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


'God's love is what they pass on'

Fair trade is a mission for a Wittenberg University grad, students and faculty

For 26-year-old Jacob Schmalzle, growing up meant giving back. As a child he lived in the Republic of Kenya, where he shared God's love alongside his ELCA missionary parents, Robert and Denise Schmalzle.

Kenya — a country of 39 million bordered by the Indian Ocean, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania — quickly became Schmalzle's second home. For 12 years, his family served with ELCA Global Mission and the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church, "building new churches and developing many outreach programs, including a nursery school, a sewing school for unwed mothers, AIDS support groups [and] wellness education clinics," Schmalzle said.

"Every other year," he added, "our family returned to the United States from Kenya to share the exciting story of Lutheran missions."

In Nairobi, Kenya, Mary and Joy Mwikali
In Nairobi, Kenya, Mary and Joy Mwikali make jewelry for Village Markets of Africa, a venture begun by Jacob Schmalzle, a graduate of Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, with help from the school.

Over the years, Schmalzle's global perspective grew, changing his life. Then during his freshman year at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, he had a light-bulb moment. "I was often asked by family and friends to bring home unique gifts from Kenya," he said. "So many people started asking me for 'treasures from Africa' that it was impossible not to see the potential for a business model."

Working with Wittenberg's international student organization, Schmalzle began selling gifts in the school's student center. He then took advantage of independent study opportunities with Wittenberg's business faculty to develop a comprehensive business plan for a fair-trade venture. The willingness of faculty to take a personal interest in his education helped him apply what he learned in class directly to his business plan, he said.

Schmalzle quickly realized his plan could help "create employment for people to work their own way out of poverty with pride instead of relying on charity."

By the time Schmalzle graduated from Wittenberg in 2007, the foundation had been laid for Village Markets of Africa (VMA), a mission of the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA partner. This fair-trade effort develops "Christian partnerships between concerned consumers in North America and artisan cooperatives of the Lutheran church in Kenya, both working for global economic justice," he said. Those partnerships help artists provide life necessities for their families.

Patricia Wakare weaves locally grown
Patricia Wakare weaves locally grown sisal into handbags for Village Markets of Africa, a fair-trade effort that helps artists provide for their families.

That's the point of fair trade, Schmalzle said, adding, "[It] eliminates exploitative middlemen and ensures that artisans are paid a fair price for their work up front."

VMA also has profit-sharing, he said, with artists receiving a portion "in the form of grants for production upgrades, microcredit loans to facilitate growth and job-training to improve their production capacity."

Today VMA's handcrafted clothing, accessories, jewelry, home decor and religious gifts offer consumers an "alternative way to shop that directly shares God's love with our supplying artisans," he said.

Calling a recent visit to a wool hat and scarf cooperative humbling, Schmalzle said, "[We] bought them a loom to develop their production abilities and they've had great success. ... They spent their profits to develop a training program for women in their community to [join the] cooperative. I feel truly blessed every time I meet with our producers.

"I want people to understand the importance of missions, fair trade and even how VMA's church and school fundraising models provide a meaningful way to raise money while supporting [ELCA Global Mission]. When other companies outsource to sweatshops, that exploitation is passed on down the ladder. [When] we empower producers through fair trade, God's love is what they pass on to others. ... There could be no greater reward."

Jacob Schmalzle (center) joins with
Jacob Schmalzle (center) joins with Wittenberg University friends in Kenya, who have supported the mission of Village Markets of Africa.

Last year Schmalzle began collaborating with Wittenberg's new entrepreneurial-driven platform for business development. Known as WittEntrepreneurs, the program "strives to not only teach the fundamentals of entrepreneurship to every Wittenberg student but to allow them to actually experience the ins and outs of running a business," reads the description on the website.

Wittenberg's support is designed to expand VMA's impact and give students the chance to explore the challenges of running a real business, said Tom Kaplan, Ness Chair for Entrepreneurship and director of WittEntrepreneurs. So the university hosts the VMA warehouse on campus. Students manage inventory and order fulfillment for more than 200 fair-trade products.

It's a natural fit, said Schmalzle, adding, "VMA's fair trade mission is very much in line with Wittenberg's effort to mold young leaders who are ready to hit the ground running and be a positive change in the world."

And it all began with a Wittenberg student. "Jacob's commitment to service, not as a hobby but as a calling, is what Wittenberg fosters in its students," Kaplan said. "The things we're trying to teach our students about entrepreneurship — as Jacob clearly shows — cross over into all parts of their lives."

Wittenberg has played an active role in the beginning and continuation of VMA, Schmalzle said. "Knowing that my alma mater is encouraging our future business leaders through our fair-trade model gives me hope that our impact will continue to grow," he added. "On a larger scale, [providing] a sustainable and culturally appropriate way for people in developing countries to work their way out of poverty continues to be my inspiration and my motivation for sharing the story of Village Markets of Africa with the world."


Robert Schmalzle

Robert Schmalzle

Posted at 1:05 am (U.S. Eastern) 3/29/2012

Please visit Village Markets of Africa at their new website: www.villagemarkets.org

And help spread the word with your friends on fb:  www.facebook.com/vmafairtrade

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