Turning Jewelry Into Books

Three Sisters : Trois Soeurs was founded in 2014 to expand the market for artisanal goods handmade in Benin to socially minded consumers in North America and Europe.

In the West African nation of Benin, nearly 90% of the jobs are in the informal sector. Subsistence farming and agriculture, the resale of secondhand clothing, and small scale enterprises such as handicrafts and jewelry are all part of this unpredictable sector. Individual artisans and entrepreneurs lack access to institutions such as banks and other resources that could help them grow their businesses and improve their living conditions.

In 2010, Three Sisters co-founder Marcy Hessling O’Neil was a Fulbrighter in Benin doing PhD research when she met Kastro, a jewelry designer. Kastro explained that by selling to her local market – where the average yearly income was just $750 – she would make very little profit. When Marcy returned to the US she brought some handmade earrings back with her as gifts where they were well-received, and the seeds were planted for what would become Three Sisters.

Three Sisters’ mission is to improve the lives of artisans living in Benin by paying fair prices for their products and selling them to a North American market through its website. The organization also trains artisans on product photography and works with them on product design. Together Three Sisters has six lines using sustainable materials including natural grasses, wood, and cotton. You can meet some of the artisans here.

All of the profits at Three Sisters are invested back into the community through the TS Education Fund (TSEF). Many schools in Benin, particularly at the primary level, are overcrowded and understaffed. Nearly half do not have libraries. Adult literacy is at 30%, which means that among those living in poverty it is quite likely that the parents are unable to read and help with homework. Three Sisters believes in the power of education to break the cycle of poverty, but simply attending school is not enough for many students.

Through TSEF, Three Sisters provides weekly tutoring for children who could use a hand, including some with special needs who are unable to receive the attention they need at school. The organization employs two anthropologists in Benin who visit the students and their families each week. The goal is to improve the likelihood that these kids will complete primary and secondary school, will avoid child marriage, and be better prepared to enter the workforce.

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In the 2015-2016 academic year all of the children in the Three Sisters program passed their grade, some of them going from the bottom of the class to the top. Plans for the 2016-2017 year include a storytelling project where non-literate parents will help their children write a book about their lives. In many cases these will be the first books that the households will own. You can meet members of the TSEF family here.

By making the leap from research to practice, Three Sisters uses the marketplace to empower artisans  and expand educational opportunities in Benin. To learn more about their work, visit their SEA member profile or http://threesisters.org/.

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