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News Philanthropy in fashion 3/21/2016

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Fashion merchandising students work to help Kenyan nonprofit improve lives

Joyce Tannian of Water Is Life Kenya shows students some of the items that are made by Maasai women participating in the nonprofit organization's program.

For fashion merchandising major Maria Finnegan of Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, her Merchandise Planning course this semester is providing the opportunity to add a philanthropic aspect to what could have been a typical class project.

Students in the FASH330 class, led by Abigail Clarke-Sather, assistant professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, are given a semester-long project in which they calculate selling percentages, price margins, monthly sales and more, while working closely with and making final recommendations to real companies. 

But not all the real-world opportunities being offered to students are with retail businesses. One is Water Is Life Kenya (WILK), a small nonprofit organization dedicated to working with Kenyan communities to help them get access to clean water, generate income and improve lives. 

Joyce Tannian, WILK’s founder and executive director, spoke to the class on Monday, March 14, about her firsthand experience with the Maasai community in southern Kenya, located near Mount Kilimanjaro. Tannian explained the importance of infrastructure projects such as pipelines and rainwater harvesting, which help women and girls avoid making 10- to 15-mile journeys to the nearest water points and then carrying the water on their backs all the way home. 

Working with WILK, Tannian said, Maasai women create homemade jewelry and beadwork from waste paper, earning income for their families. The women are paid higher wages than average in Kenya and often use that money to help pay for their children’s schooling and household expenses. 

In turn, the organization uses profits from the business to construct infrastructure that provides more people with access to water near their homes in remote areas.

The jewelry work has been so successful that the women’s company reached a deal with Disney from 2011-15, where the latter bought hundreds of thousands of paper beads in bulk.

Fashion merchandising students examine some of the beadwork that Maasai women in Kenya create from recycled waste paper.

“Expired maps, cruise line brochures, princess initiations … all this paper being stored in warehouses can be converted into paper beads,” Tannian explained to the students.

Tannian also showed the different types of jewelry and beadwork, including bracelets, handbags and necklaces, as well as lanyards that were used by U.S. Embassy employees to hold their ID badges. While these crafts are beautifully decorated, there are challenges when it comes to design errors, she said. 

“I’m dealing with ladies that are always super proud of their work, so it can be a challenge to ask for revisions or changes,” Tannian told the class. 

The project will allow the FASH330 students to develop pricing methods and analyze competitors, giving the students who chose Water Is Life Kenya for their project additional firsthand experience with the jewelry.

“I was really excited for Joyce to speak to our class about the company,” Finnegan said. “I am really looking forward to the pricing project, as it will not only help me in my field of study but also has the potential to help Water Is Life Kenya grow.” 

Senior fashion merchandising major Kathleen DiBari, from Pennsauken, New Jersey, also called the opportunity an exciting one, especially because of the potential benefits to the Maasai community. The nonprofit, she said, “not only provides people with clean water, but the organization also helps many women pay for their children’s education.” 

Water Is Life Kenya is also holding a fundraiser on Saturday, April 23, when it hosts the second annual Water Walk at the Newark Reservoir off Old Paper Mill Road near the UD campus. The walk-athon will raise money for clean water projects in Kenya.

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A class of fashion merchandising students is helping real-world companies, including a nonprofit that brings income and clean water to Kenyan villages.

Students in a Merchandise Planning course in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies are assisting real-world companies this semester, including a nonprofit that helps bring water to remote Kenyan villages.

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  • Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies
  • 211 Alison Hall West
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-8714
  • United States Fashion Industry Association