BANGOR, Maine — When 27-year-old Bryan Watkin was young, his family spent summers in Jackman. There he learned creativity, self-reliance and rural living. Now he’s using those skills to bring the style of another culture to America.
WearAfrica is a company that both tells the story of Africa and brings artisan jewelry and crafts to online buyers.
The pieces are not telling stories about Africa as a whole but about individuals, tribes and villages.
With the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington D.C. this week, WearAfrica entered in the marketplace at the right time. The summit’s focus is trade and business with Africa. The first of its kind, the summit ran from Aug. 4 to 6, with 50 African nations represented.
Watkin, a Jackman resident, donates 20 percent of the company’s earnings back to different grass-roots groups within Africa. He never set out to be a businessman. He simply wanted to share what he felt was special about Africa: the story of people and their culture.
He buys African jewelry and artisan pieces such as cow bone necklaces and bracelets, placemats, knives and masks directly from those who make them, and he sells them exclusively on his website, WearAfrica.org.
“You have a knife, not only do you know it’s from Zambia, it’s from the Lunda Kingdom area. It just starts a story. People all the time [say], ‘That’s a bracelet I’ve never seen.’” Watkin said. “It just opens up people talking about something other than war in Africa. It’s a conversation piece.”
He hopes the pieces he sells through WearAfrica will generate thought and conversation about Africa’s diverse culture, not the wars going on there.
“What is Africa? It’s the people,” Watkin said. “They are beautiful no matter where they come from. The people are as friendly as it gets. Like Midwest-type friendly — extremely friendly.”
Watkin spent two years in Zambia as part of the Peace Corps before heading to South Africa for four months. He has traveled back two times since WearAfrica’s inception but hopes to travel quarterly once the project gets off the ground.
While in Zambia, Watkin met volunteer Katherine Roberts, 29. The two remain friends, and Roberts is impressed by WearAfrica’s business model.
“When a person can work to generate a life for their family, fulfillment and empowerment is equally created. WearAfrica is based on paying the designer a fair price for their work. I believe good business models, like WearAfrica, are the new ‘aid’ for Africa,” Roberts said.
Twenty percent of WearAfrica’s earnings go to projects in Africa — 10 percent of the earnings he donates go to Peace Corps volunteer projects and the other 10 percent to grass-roots groups throughout Africa. He chose these groups because the money goes directly to them for use in specific villages, which doesn’t always happen with a big organization, according to Watkin.
“Being on the ground and seeing firsthand that sometimes a lot of money can go to waste when you get too big, when the organizations get too big. Little of your money goes to the actual physical use,” Watkin said.
From these experiences, Watkin geared WearAfrica towards placing donated money with people who can help African communities as those villages and tribes see fit.
Watkin has a passion for being on the ground, or “in the bush” as he calls it, figuring out what those movements forward are, a connection that was fostered in the woods of Maine.
Ryan Kenny, 29, another Peace Corps volunteer Watkin worked with, cites this passion as a strong character trait of Watkin.
“His passion was palpable. Passion for Zambia, the Zambian villagers he was working with, his projects, learning the culture and language, and Southern Africa in general. It is a trait that not every volunteer has, but it is one of those that separates the mediocre volunteers from the great ones,” Kenny said. “I think this same passion was the spark for WearAfrica.”
Having grown up in a military family that traveled often, Watkin’s cites his time at his family’s cabin in Jackman with no running water or electricity, as his first connection with rural living.
He finds most of his products in rural African areas working with tribal communities.
Although Watkin spent his Peace Corps time in Zambia, he buys his products from artists across Africa.
When choosing where to donate funds, Watkin looks specifically for organizations working with disabled people, orphans or women that need support.
One of the projects WearAfrica recently supported is the Holland Disabled Association. The organization had built a school for the disabled. However, with physical impairments some of the children had no way to get to the school, according to Watkin.
“No kid in Africa, no kid, unless you might live in a city, takes a school bus to school. Anywhere in rural Africa you walk. [An] uphill both ways type of thing, miles and miles and miles,” Watkin said. “Some of these handicapped people just simply can’t do that.”
When the school was built, there wasn’t enough money to build housing for the students and teachers to stay at the school. So WearAfrica decided to pitch in.
“This is a boarding house that allows them access to education and to prove to the world that they aren’t lame ducks, so to speak,” Watkin said. “They excel very quickly with access to some sort of education.”
After volunteering with Watkin, Roberts returned to Zambia and worked with the HDA. She said during her time she met many capable, intelligent, hardworking people who would rather work than “be handed free aid.”
“If the western worlds would allow Africa to step up in the industrial setting, we would start to see major changes in the health of those in African countries,” Roberts said. “WearAfrica is directly opening up dialogue for westerners to feel good buying a product actually made in African countries by people who choose to work hard for what they have refusing to take free aid sometimes offered.”
Even though online sales only began in May, so far business has been on the rise. Watkins is searching for more African products to showcase. With future growth of the company in mind, Watkin plans to never lose sight of the reason he started the company — the work on the ground. If the company does grow, as he plans, Watkin hopes he can leave his job as a house painter and spend most of his time in Africa.
“I’m hoping, in the future, this [WearAfrica] is going to be more or less running itself, and I’ll just be living in Africa sourcing the products, visiting where we’re supporting, starting projects,” Watkin said. “Let’s say we became a million-dollar company, I wouldn’t want to stop giving to the people on the ground. I wouldn’t want to say it’s way easier to write one check to a big corporation than 50 checks to smaller ones. Take the time out of your day and still stay focused in a way that I consider to be sustainable.”