Start-up spot: A start-up with a conscience

Bartrz connects African artisans with worldwide consumers.

An artist at work. (photo credit: TAMAR APPER)
An artist at work.
(photo credit: TAMAR APPER)
While most start-up companies have found success in their design to improve the rather mundane frustrations of Western society (mazal tov, WhatsApp and Viber!), some actually go a step further, improving the quality of life for people in need. Bartrz is one such start-up.
Its founder, Tamar Apper, uses technology and the work ethic of the start-up culture to create opportunity and economic growth for the small village of Ko-Swazi, Zimbabwe. Through the Internet, Apper is able to provide village craftsmen with an expanded customer base, otherwise completely inaccessible to them. As a result, the artists are able to increase sales and make a fair, decent living.
In the long term, Bartrz seeks to bring these craftsmen one step closer to overcoming the poverty which has plagued the region.
“Bartrz aims to provide craftsmen with a steady living so they do not have to live in fear, wondering where their next meal is coming from. The craftsmen can use our website as a platform that will boost sales, thereby enabling them to create a better future for themselves while using their own skills and talents.”
Apper, a passionate young immigrant originally from Los Angeles, is a go-getter with strong moral inclinations.
She, along with many other young Israeli innovators, seeks to take start-ups in the direction of bringing about social change. “As someone who grew up in a strongly Zionist family, I believe that Israel has the innate historical responsibility of being a ‘light unto the nations’ and moral leaders, by using our technological innovation for humanity’s benefit.”
In addition to being a pioneer in the world of social start-ups, Apper is among a small but growing number of female start-up owners. “The start-up world is visibly devoid of women. I participated in a three-day startup program at the Technion[-Israel Institute of Technology] and they were proud of the fact that 20 percent of participants were female. Although this is progress, 20% is not enough.
“I believe women have a lot to contribute to start-up culture. We bring a different perspective than our male counterparts, because we usually see the world differently and have a natural need to help others. This spirit enhances social innovation and brings positive energy to the field. I see the lack of female influence as a weakness in the startup world of today, and as an opportunity for future development.”
Apper’s inspiration for Bartrz came about precisely the way she described, as a need to relieve the widespread destitution she witnessed while backpacking through Africa. Throughout her trip, she was saddened by the famine and desperation she saw across the continent. At the same time, she was impressed with the artistic talents of many of the villagers.
“As a backpacker, we took part in typical tourist activities such as safari and scuba diving, and saw different small villages that were both quaint and beautiful. However, the cities in Africa are full of rampant poverty.”
She witnessed the devastating situation firsthand.
“Children were begging and selling outdated currency to unsuspecting tourists, and people were unable to afford a bunch of bananas at 25 cents each with their meager $100 a month salary. I wished I could help, but all I could do was buy their products like a good tourist.”
That all changed when she crossed the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and entered the small, charming village of Ko-Swazi. “Zimbabwe was the peak of poverty; yet, the local villagers produced the highest-quality crafts. Oftentimes, craftsmen would trade tourists their work for old clothing, which is extremely valuable for them. Shockingly, street salesmen would even approach a tourist, asking to trade the clothing right off his back. I couldn’t help but think that these crafts were worth far more than an occasional decade-old T-shirt, if only people were aware of these products’ existence and had a simple way of [accessing] them.”
The intricate hand-carved wooden bowls, serving utensils, salad tongs, plates and hand-woven bowls are certainly worth much more than old clothing. The wooden products feature lively carvings in an exotic African style, incorporating designs such as elephants, zebras and giraffes, all masterfully chiseled into each unique piece. The woven bowls are also handmade and feature elaborate African patterns.
Bartrz customers are able to customize the color, size and carvings on their particular piece. In addition, since Apper seeks to keep the company transparent, she remains in constant contact with the chief of Ko-Swazi through the smartphone she purchased for him. This enables him to keep her updated with the current events of the village, which she publishes on a blog so customers are able to remain connected to the artists and residents of Ko-Swazi.
Furthermore, in order to maximize the benefit to the villagers, she donates 5% of all profits to build a preschool. This way, the children can receive an education at an earlier age, while mothers are able to work if they wish to.
Based on size and customizations, Bartrz products sell between $8 and $80. This remedies the situation in which often artisans were unable to sell their products at such prices due to the lack of customers. As a result, they often opted to trade for clothing instead. Sometimes they were able to sell within this price range, but it was dependent on the rare occasion of a tourist stumbling upon their work. The inconsistency of this occurrence killed their chances of providing a stable living for their families.
However, every time someone buys a product from Bartrz, it buys a family dinner for the next few days, which makes a huge impact on both the emotional and financial security of the artist and his or her family.
While Apper is starting with the village of Ko-Swazi, her long-term goals are far more ambitious. “In the future, I hope to see us having a working model which can be incorporated in other villages with similar needs and talents.”
Apper’s company is in its beginning stages, but if her long-term goals are realized, she feels the possibilities may be endless.
For a tiny village overwhelmed with widespread economic devastation, Bartrz is one small initiative contributing to its growth and success.