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Local Store Helps Global Mamas

Women from around the world help bring business to women in Ghana.

How can an upscale children's boutique in Clarendon help impoverished women in West Africa? One way is to help sell clothing made by women in Ghana, which is just what Cosmo-Tots, located on Wilson Boulevard, is doing.

Women in Progress, a nonprofit organization started by two former Peace Corps volunteers, is a collection of women who participate in all aspects of making clothes. More than 130 women are involved, some of whom dye cotton, some of whom create designs using batik, and some of whom make the clothing. Renae Adam and Kristin Johnson started Women in Progress three years ago after serving in the Peace Corps in the early 1990s. "I was very impacted by my time in Ghana," says Johnson, who now runs the organization in Minneapolis.

THE WOMEN they interacted with in Ghana had been trained in the skill of making clothes, but as Johnson says, "They lacked the infrastructure to continue on." Adam returned three years ago to find out "why nobody was providing day-to-day or month-to-month support," and is still living there today.

It turned out that the women lacked one-on-one personal service. Economic development agencies focus on training, explains Johnson, because larger numbers of people are impacted that way. Because Johnson and Adam wanted to provide more direct interaction with the women they had worked with previously, they were denied funding. After three years, the only outside funding they've gotten is $1,100 from the British Embassy.

Despite lackluster interest from economic development agencies, the organization is flourishing. "The textile industry is put out of business by our secondhand clothing," Johnson explains. So the women who make the clothes need a market in which to sell their clothes. Johnson and Adam have worked diligently to provide such a market here in the United States. They've approached clothing stores like Cosmo-Tots, and the clothes are also sold at Ten Thousand Villages (an online store carrying fairly traded handicrafts) and the Smithsonian's African Art museum.

"Cosmo-Tots has been incredibly supportive," says Johnson. Owner Juliet d'Epagnier and her mother Dot Principe, who works with her daughter, were very responsive to Women in Progress. They held a trunk show last week in which the Global Mamas' clothing line was displayed, and customers could browse through it and order selections. "Dot has been incredibly engaged," says Johnson. "The trunk show was her idea."

"I couldn't be more enthusiastic about it," says Principe. "These women are almost totally impoverished." Now they share the tasks of buying cloth, cutting it, batiking, sewing and merchandising. Women in Progress approached Cosmo-Tots last summer, and Principe jumped at the chance to work with them.

Women in Progress is a member of the Fair Trade Federation, which consists of U.S. organizations that are certified as practicing fair trade. Brooke Olster is a volunteer with Women in Progress who spent time in Ghana two years ago. "I became very involved with the clothing line and its day-to-day operations," she says. "I helped them become a member" of the Fair Trade Federation.

"THE CLOTHING is oriented toward children," says Olster. They do make clothes for adults as well, including dresses and skirts for women and shirts for men. The line also includes tote bags, belts and baby slings for carrying infants. The organization started with fewer than 10 women comprising about two businesses. Now more than 130 women and 30 businesses are involved.

In order to provide education, Johnson and Adam have gotten volunteers from the U.S. and Europe to provide expertise in Ghana. Volunteers pay a fee to go to Ghana and help, and it's been an important part of the business. "It's completely self-sustainable," says Johnson.

In connection with Cosmo-Tots' trunk show, a fund-raising event was held at the Ghanaian Embassy on Saturday, April 8. The embassy donated its space to the event, and Women in Progress did the rest. The event was largely organized by a National Cathedral School student named Emilie Kimball, who visited Ghana last year and has volunteered for the organization since her visit.

Kimball says that the event at the Embassy raised about $24,000, which is not bad for one night. "The money will go into a revolving fund," explains Kimball, 16. "They're trying to sell clothes to retail stores, and the fund will allow them to buy materials in bulk."

"Our market is really growing," says Johnson. In the United States, the Global Mamas clothing line generated $125,000 in 2005, compared to $20,000 in revenue in 2004. This coordinated international effort, largely based on creativity alone, has brought a taste of prosperity and self-sufficiency to women who would otherwise be impoverished. To find out more, visit www.womeninprogress.org or www.globalmamas.org.