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Friday, Dec 2, 2022

Imwe launches second year of Rwandan handbag sales on campus

Mercer marketing students Lauren Odom and Alex Porter advertise the bags sold through the Rwanda Project. Photo provided by Alex Porter.
Mercer marketing students Lauren Odom and Alex Porter advertise the bags sold through the Rwanda Project. Photo provided by Alex Porter.

Mercer University prides itself on its ability to teach students how to change the world by developing programs like Mercer On Mission, a focal point of the "Research that Reaches Out" ethos. One Mercer On Mission trip led to Imwe, a small business founded in 2021 that sells bags made in Rwanda to Mercer students.

The Mercer On Mission trip to Rwanda, coordinated by the faculty of the Stetson-Hatcher School of Business, has created a link between six women and a receptive market in Macon for the goods that they produce in their home country of Rwanda. 

The venture started when Mercer On Mission approached six women who were affected by the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Their hand-crafted bags are sent to the United States with the Mercer students who travel to Rwanda. The women have a contract with Mercer who then sells the bags on their behalf.

Due to the saturation of these types of bags for sale in Rwandan marketplaces, this program allows the seamstresses to have a better chance at selling their work. Mercer’s involvement with these women is a lifeline for their work. Because their work is unique in Macon, it can be sold for a higher price and have a greater demand.

Mercer marketing students involved in Imwe set up "pop-up shops" at the top of the University Center steps many times throughout the semester. They also sold their goods at the Macon Cherry Blossom Festival, allowing them to open up to a larger market of buyers. 

The bags range from $15 to $38 and there is a wide variety of styles and patterns to choose from within that price range. 

Since last year, the supply of bags has increased dramatically. According to a member of the program, Emma Drash ‘23, last year’s supply was just 160 bags. Because they had previously signed up to sell at the Cherry Blossom Festival, they had to cut down on how many pop-up shops they put on last semester to ensure that they would have enough to sell outside of Mercer’s campus. 

Recently, the organization has remodeled a space in Rwanda that will provide the women with an area that is designed specifically for making the bags. As a result, Mercer has over 1,000 bags in stock, which is a testament to the quality of the products that are being produced. With a higher supply has also come a steadily-increasing demand for the product.

“People aren’t buying it because it is new, people are buying it because they want it,” Drash said.

At a recent pop-up shop, there was revenue in excess of $1,000 made from just those three hours of selling bags. According to Drash, that money was roughly equivalent to a month’s pay for one of the women before they became involved with Mercer.

Drash is quick to point out that the credit does not lie solely with Mercer. The women of Imwe are talented and committed to their craft; Mercer is just the middleman for them.

In addition to selling bags for them, Mercer students have also worked to make the store and products more desirable to the public in Rwanda. Methods like making their goods visible from the street and encouraging the sellers to interact with the customers have already begun to provide financial benefits.

The main focus of Imwe is to improve the lives of women who have faced extreme challenges as a result of the Rwandan genocide. Today, the students involved in the project have a personal connection to those women and are able to stay in contact with them through social networking apps. Mercer On Mission has provided a way for students to improve the world for the betterment of people they would have not known otherwise. 


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