Ubuntu: When creating opportunity means giving back

Ubuntu is an ancient African word that means “humanity to others.” It has also been defined “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

It’s also the entirely fitting name for the Mattawan-based nonprofit Ubuntu Goods, LLC, an organization that, through the sale of jewelry, essential oils and other wares, helps both fair trade practices worldwide as well as multiple fellow nonprofits local to the Kalamazoo area, Michigan and throughout the United States.

Founded by April Wagner two years ago — and incorporated in 2016 — Ubuntu has been lending its collectively crafty hands to help with a couple hundred meals here and a few hundred dollars there, benefiting organizations such as Open Doors Kalamazoo, the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, the Eimers Foundation of Detroit and many more across the region and nation.

The idea, birthed at a fundraising breakfast for Kalamazoo's Next Door shelter, stemmed from Wagner wanting to help out, but understanding that the biggest need for folks in need was not just time, but money.

“It was a really tough conversation,” she says. “I really wanted to help these women, but not have to give away my entire life savings in doing it. I have three kids and have volunteered with them at food pantries and women’s shelters, and I really want to be able to give back more locally.

“Around that same time, I had also been looking into selling fair trade products. All of the companies that I researched that I could sell fair trade products for, though, were just helping countries overseas and I had a really big passion to help women right here in the United States. One day, I had the idea, ‘Why not merge the two ideas together?’”

And Ubuntu sprung to life.

Wagner developed a website and began to sell beautiful, eco-friendly jewelry and clothing, as well as homemade children’s toys, most of which was created by women in places like India, Nepal, Uganda, and Haiti where so much craftwork is typically done for wages well below minimum wage. The products sold through Ubuntu help those women make approximately triple the American minimum wage for their craftsmanship.

Hitting close to home

Keeping that local tie-in, each quarter Wagner donates 15 percent of all proceeds to a U.S.-based charity. In the fourth quarter, that charity is the Spina Bifida Association, inspired by a relative who battles that condition.

“It’s all-encompassed giving,” Wagner says. “By purchasing through Ubuntu you are giving to people in poverty in Uganda, helping them to work for a fair wage and then you are also giving to someone in the United States.”

Women in impoverished situations overseas aren’t the only ones Ubuntu has been assisting as it creates work. She’s also contracted with women in a Detroit-area shelter who are helping her with her own line of essential oils and mala bracelets. They work for a fair wage and sell those items on her site to benefit charitable organizations as well.

“Coming from a very traumatic past, my heart goes out to women in women’s shelters, especially because of my own trauma from my childhood,” Wagner says. “I was raised as a child of divorce and I have seen what can happen in (dire) situations and how helpless women can feel when they are put in a situation where they have children and they have to earn an income, but they are coming from a troubled situation.

“Now that I have my own kids and I am able to stay home with them and I feel very blessed and lucky to be in the position that I am with my husband working. I wanted to do something to help them (women in shelters) and I guess that is where my passion for helping, especially women comes in. I feel that they are especially vulnerable when they have kids and not having a place to live, I can’t even imagine.”

Making an impact

In addition to the aforementioned women and specific organizations that have benefitted from Wagner’s vision, other beneficiaries include Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes, Save the Children, Feeding America, The Trevor Project, Bully Advocate Rescue, Rancho Relaxo, March of Dimes and the Animal Rescue League of Terre Haute.

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, for instance, was able to distribute close to 200 meals last year thanks to Ubuntu.

“Ubuntu provides a real opportunity for consumers to use their purchasing power to lend a hand to those in need at home as well as globally,” says Meg Gernaat, communications and marketing manager for Loaves & Fishes. “We are so grateful for their contribution to fight hunger here in Kalamazoo.”

Like most nonprofits, creating the intended footprint and impact is taking time, however. In addition to their work here at home, in year one, Ubuntu invested more than $3,000 in Fair Trade. Thanks to consistent quarter over quarter growth, however, that’s a number Wagner expects to double this year.

“Our overall growth is slow and steady, but each quarter depends on the events that we can attend and the number of Facebook parties we book,” Wagner says. “Friends and family have come from all across the United States to volunteer their time and help spread the word. The support we've received has been phenomenal. I believe when you are doing something that is for the greater good of all, it will succeed, but you have to have patience.”

For those who wish to get involved, Ubuntu provides opportunities for individuals to become brand representatives as well as to host parties where wares can be sold and a minimum of 15 percent of all proceeds goes to an area charity of choice. 

The organization is also looking for volunteers to help out in numerous other capacities and Wagner is happy to discuss those opportunities with anyone.

“We're in this for the long haul,” she says. “As long as we can keep giving a little more each year.”

Wagner can be contacted via the website or Facebook page or by emailing her here.

Ryan Boldrey is a freelance journalist and editor living in Kalamazoo. A Michigan native, he returned to his home state in 2016 after spending a decade working as a writer and editor in Colorado. He spends much of his time traveling to see live music and is an avid outdoor enthusiast.

Artisans and their goods. The jewelry and other goods are sold by Ubuntu to help the artisans and other organizations.
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