Alum's import business supports Africans

Jennie Nichols with artist from Zimbabwe

The Republic of Zimbabwe is a developing, land-locked country in Africa, home to a dangerous political climate and deteriorating economic conditions, according to the U.S. Department of State. It is also a country in which "the behavior of the military or police is not always predictable or rational."

Zimbabwe is not a country to which many Americans venture these days, yet to Jennie Fennema-Hengeveld Nichols '01, Zimbabwe is home to the artists and the stone sculptures she sells through Venture Imports, her company based in Grand Rapids, Mich. So Nichols makes a trip two or three times annually to the country that is slightly larger than Montana, where she has seen firsthand police extortion, and where 60 percent of the population is unemployed and suffering in poverty.

"The idea behind the company is to buy from developing countries and sell to North American markets as a way of providing employment for the people in the developing countries," Nichols said. "Since tourism dropped off in Zimbabwe, the artists have no one to sell to over there, and there is a demand for the artwork in North America."

An economics major with a minor in third-world development, Nichols said her classes, projects with professors Evert Vander Heide and Roland Hoksbergen, and an Interim trip to South Africa with professors John Apol and Marlin Baker, shaped in her a belief that she could do something to help.

"Capitalism, if done correctly—with morals—is a really good way of helping people in developing countries," she said. "You can exploit the people, but you can also just make the personal choice that you will pay them a good wage and still make a viable business here and help them."

Nichols started the company in 2001 after she graduated from Calvin. With some money from her uncle, Jim Fennema, Nichols went to work researching and building the infrastructure for Venture Imports. She settled on stone pieces from the predominant tribe in Zimbabwe—the Shonas—and she lined up art galleries and small stores stateside to sell the art pieces.

She made her first trip to Zimbabwe as a buyer in 2002 and now works with about 200 artists who make original stone artwork and variations on traditional sculptures for Venture Imports. Nichols said she spends between $15,000 and $18,000 every time she orders, including freight costs, which is enough for nearly 100 Zimbabwean families to live on for a year.

Jennie Nichols with artist from Zimbabwe

Building a business in a country that is so unfamiliar and unpredictable has made her appreciate her education and background. It has also helped her build respect and appreciation for the culture and struggles of Zimbabwe.

"My education at Calvin really reinforced how to integrate my faith into everything I do," Nichols said. "I face a lot of ethical decisions, and this job has really taught me to trust. The Zimbabweans are a wonderful and generous people, but my experiences in Zimbabwe are often very stressful because I really realize how much is out of my control. Due to the political situation, the corruption, and the skyrocketing inflation, the rates and the rules change constantly. It's a difficult thing for me to have my life and all of my money tied up in the country that was recently ranked the worst country in the world in which to invest. I really have to trust that if God wants this to happen, he will make it happen."

In the coming months and years, Nichols said she will look to expand her business into other developing countries in Africa, Central and South America—not a long shot for the woman Zimbabweans call "Rudo," which to the Shona means "love" or "generous person."

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