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VOL. 36 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 30, 2012

From Africa, via Nashville, to the world

Red Earth Trading matches artisans, buyers

By Joe Morris

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Most retail outfits, when faced with depleted stock, pick up the phone and order more. Travis Gravette, founder and chief executive officer of Red Earth Trading Co., takes a more direct approach.

“Sorry for the delay, I’ve been out in rural Uganda the last week, but am back in Nairobi now,” read a recent email from Gravette, who founded Red Earth in 2010 to work with artisans in Kenya and Uganda.

The nonprofit’s aim is to help local leaders in these countries, and someday others, connect to outside markets. By bringing the jewelry, home goods and other products of these communities to the larger world, Red Earth can help broker an end to local poverty, Gravette says.

“We’re working to create a brand that makes a difference and can also compete in the marketplace,” he says. “If people don’t buy something because they genuinely want the product, you’re not building a sustainable business – you’re just starting another charity.

“We want people to choose to wear Red Earth because it’s fashionable and made with quality, as well as because it’s a brand that they want to be associated with. The fact that each purchase also makes a difference is a bonus.”

The company’s current line of products is made from new and recycled materials, such as cow horn, camel and cow bone, glass, metals, beads and leathers. Prices range from $5 to $90 per piece.

Gravette’s journeys, both in the business and physical world, began in 2006 when he began Global Support Mission, a nonprofit company working with leaders in developing nations to end poverty. He’d launched the company after a Christmas break in Uganda, where he worked with Bringing Hope to the Family, which operates an orphanage and provides other family-related programs.

“I was a senior at MTSU at the time, studying music business,” Gravette explains. “My heart was broken by the poverty that I experienced, but at the same time I came to realize that local leaders were key in ending extreme poverty. I knew the best thing I could do to help end poverty was to support them, so a year after graduating I started GSM.”

Since then, Gravette’s network of artisans has grown throughout Uganda and Kenya, and he imports jewelry, accessories and a few home goods. The goal is to grow the lines into furniture and apparel over time.

“Our niche is importing quality handcrafted products from developing countries and working directly with the artisans who make them. If it’s a product that can be produced with both those boxes checked, we may one day sell it. We like to dream big,” he says.

The U.S. retail market isn’t what it once was, thanks to the economy. Now factor in the import-export issues and other roadblocks, and Red Earth has its work cut out for it. Still, Gravette says, things are better than one might expect.

“The most difficult thing has been navigating the fashion/retail world, and the cash flow challenges that come with having to produce seasonal cycles,” he says. “That’s been a new experience. We knew that was part of the game, but I think we underestimated how challenging it can be to get ahead.

“We’ve been in Africa with the design team producing the spring/summer line for 2012, so we’re making progress. It’s a challenge to be sure, but that’s part of the excitement of a start-up.”

During Red Earth’s first fiscal year, which ended July 1, 2011, it gross revenues totaled $26,000. That figure doubled in the next six months, and Gravette says he hopes to wrap up 2012 with revenues north of $80,000. He’s set a goal of $1 million by 2015 and he plans to hit that by upping online sales while also continuing to push live events in Nashville and elsewhere that not only move product, but also get the word out about Red Earth.

That’s where he relies on a growing corps of supporters in the artistic community, people like artist Aimee Siegel.

“I am an artist, designer and decorator who happens to be also passionate about social justice issues, so I volunteered to basically help GSM with whatever kind of creative events they were doing,” Siegel says. “I’ve had a lot of experience in event and wedding styling, so, they enlisted me to start doing the centerpieces for the annual fundraiser banquet.”

She also has been to Africa twice, seeing the Red Earth model at work on the manufacturing end.

“Seeing firsthand the incredible effect of what they are doing, in partnership with amazing, local Ugandan leaders, is having on an entire village made me even more committed to their cause,” she said. “I spent several days with the Red Earth team as they worked on their spring product line with the artisans there.

“They already have some amazing designers working with them, so I was just there to give a second opinion on things, and observe what they do and how the process of creating works with the Kenyan artisans.”

In addition to its online sales and special events, Red Earth also is prepping its second year of The Exchange, a program that takes a group of people from the Nashville operation to Africa to learn the entire spectrum of the business, then fans them out across the United States in homes, schools, festivals and others locations to connect Red Earth products with the craft-buying marketplace.

And while these models are built to make the business ever more portable, Nashville will remain home base for the foreseeable future.

“Nashville is an incredible city to be based out of,” Gravette says. “It’s a wonderful city to live in and a great place to run a business. There is such a sense of community and goodwill in Nashville. It’s also inexpensive compared with many other cities. Being centrally located makes it a strategic place to launch tours for live events around the country.”

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