Ellen Clauss and Randy England of Aya Fair Trade won this year’s TecBridge Business Plan Competition in the collegiate division. So what’s happened since?
Following the competition and their graduation from Marywood, Ellen and Randy travelled to Ghana for two weeks to begin establishing the company’s manufacturing process and workforce.
They stayed at what is called a guest house. While it was spacious enough for them, it lacked access to regular plumbing. A make-shift garden hose was the only way to try to shower with its unclean water. For the whole trip, they were lucky if they had more than one large meal a day; regular meals of any sort or large portions are not the norm in Ghana.
Taking on malnourishment, dirty water, and a different continent’s native diseases, both were ill on and off for the fourteen days. At one point, Randy was admitted to a simple hospital room to recover from flu-like symptoms. His sickness was the worst of it, but Randy also recalled the separate ailment that was sitting in a small hospital room with no air conditioning or distractions for the better part of a day.
But, that didn’t stop them from experiencing a huge Ghanaian marketplace, with vendors packed elbow to elbow and fabrics stacked high on tight tables. They chose fabrics for their head seamstress, Julie, who helps create the model purses for the new seamstresses and makes purses herself.
“Julie is awesome. We gave her fabric and the samples for the purses one day, and, by the next morning, she’d already made a bunch of the new purses, ready to go,” Randy said of Julie.
But Julie and the makers in Ghana are not without their working condition issues either.
There is electricity in the workshop, but it goes out more often than anyone would like. When that happens, rather than being able to sew effectively with two hands, the seamstresses must manipulate their machines manually and the fabric simultaneously; it is much harder to make a great purse in the dark one-handed.
Whether made in light or darkness, each of these new purses is fitted with a QR code for a child whose education benefits from a purchase. There are about thirty-five children who initially will be featured and supported through the sales.
While Ellen and Randy’s trip to Ghana was far from a typical American “business trip,” it was certainly a productive and important trip for both of them. It gave them new life perspectives and a chance to truly develop what Aya Fair Trade means to them and what it can mean to Ghana and the world.
It also identified a whole host of issues to work through. Electricity has to be maintained in the workshop for high-quality products. They have to look into incorporating in Ghana as well as in the United States with international trading and taxes. Making sure the right children’s educations are being paid for and that seamstresses are properly compensated are just some of the other issues they will face.
But they are ready for the challenges ahead and are excited for what they can do.
“We care about people first. We want to help people to be happy, to have a good education, and to provide a high quality product. The money will eventually follow. We never want it to be the other way around for us,” Ellen said.
So where are they now? Aya Fair Trade is currently live on Facebook with updates, and their store is selling their assortment of bags and totes. Stay tuned for more stories of their success and challenges as TecBridge follows their entrepreneurial (ad)venture and many others.