And the Band Plays On

10/21/2011 06:13 pm ET | Updated Dec 21, 2011

Back at the start of (RED), I used to refer to our team, our partners, and our growing cadre of inspired consumers as "a crazy band of fearless warriors" for believing that simple items like t-shirts and iPods could help eliminate AIDS in Africa. (RED) has since raised roughly $175 million for women and children impacted by HIV/AIDS in Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Ghana, and Rwanda.

Sometimes crazy and fearless is the only way to move the needle when the status quo is unacceptable. I first learned this lesson some dozen years ago, as part of another band of warriors for Africa -- a rag tag coalition fighting for passage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). With an unusual cross-section of allies from the public sector, business community, civil society, and regular voters, we managed to pass into law an initiative that conventional wisdom and the head of the U.S. Senate at the time had declared dead in the water.


That was back in 2000. Today I'm returning from Zambia with reason again to be grateful for Mark, Marty, Rosa, and the others with whom I joined arms to push forward a trade agreement that gave some of the poorest countries in Africa access to the U.S. market.

Lingering local challenges, American agricultural subsidies, questionable customs rulings, and uncertainty about the law's renewal have stunted the full potential of this effort in some areas. However, AGOA has lifted many on the continent out of poverty with jobs, capital, and overall economic growth.


AGOA has quite literally been a lifeline for businesses in countries like Lesotho and Burkina Faso. Here in Zambia, its impact is key for a company like Tribal Textiles, which employs roughly 100 men and women in Mfuwe. On the outskirts of the South Luangwa National Park, visitors can see for themselves the intricate hand-design and painting process that yields beautiful table linens, bed spreads, upholstery meterage, and kids' room décor.

Even when electrical outages mean the stitching studio has to switch to manual sewing machines, the Tribal Textiles team soldiers on. Their business is balanced between retail sales (primarily to visitors from the several safari camps in the area) and wholesales exports. Exports to the United States would be cost prohibitive were it not due to the duty free treatment these items receive under AGOA.


I'm here in Africa preparing to launch a new way of shopping for benefit called OBene. For every item sold, purchasers will get to direct at least 10 percent of the price to the charity of his or her choosing. OBene's initial collections will encompass unique, mostly hand-made, design-forward objects gathered from around the world.

Thanks to AGOA, Tribal Textiles will be among those featured. Let us hope that the law is renewed. For the hundred plus workers at Tribal Textiles (and the families who depend upon their income), this kind of collective commerce matters tremendously.

Click here for more information on Tribal Textiles and their active support of health and education in the Mfuwe community. Click here for the latest on AGOA. And, of course, OBene welcomes you to join our band. Get fearless. Get good.