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Back to the Foundry: Can a Jewelry Company Really Prevent Conflict in Africa?
by Tim Fernholz
Thum destroys a rifle in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last week, we told you about Fonderie 47, a social enterprise that sells jewelry made from AK-47s and funds programs that destroy the weapons in Africa. Fonderie 47’s founders, Peter Thum and John Zapolski, hope that reducing the presence of the now-ubiquitous assault rifles in Africa will in turn reduce conflict, which undermines economic development efforts.
In the comments, many readers had questions about whether their model would work, suggesting that getting guns out of Africa isn’t the best way to help, or that this is the wrong way to go about it. We’re big proponents of skepticism when it comes to social enterprise and good works in general—talking about social impact isn’t the same as making it—so GOOD got in touch with Thum and presented your concerns to him.
Several readers questioned whether funding the destruction of these weapons would actually increase the price of the weapons and help keep them out of the wrong hands. Some readers wondered if raising the price of the weapons would simply benefit arms traffickers.
“That’s a normal, natural question for people to point at,” Thum says. “What we’ve learned is that the average price of an AK-47, which can act as a proxy for assault rifles in general because they represent about 70 percent of assault rifles in Africa, is about $130 in Africa and $570 in worldwide. The reduction of supply of cheaper, older weapons in Africa means that the replacement cost is about $340 more.” That, in turn, will help make it harder for people to obtain the rifles.
Thum’s company funds NGOs like the Nobel Prize-winning Mines Advisory Group, which destroys caches of small arms like AK-47s as well as other discarded munitions, including landmines. Local governments, developed nation donors like the United States, and international institutions typically fund projects like MAG’s, and Fonderie 47 is trying to supplement its donations with a steady stream of funding from the enterprise. That’s especially important at a time when many developed countries are looking to cut foreign aid under budget pressure.
Fonderie 47 doesn’t just show up and start buying guns from random people, Thum says. The weapons they destroy are collected by governments or the United Nations during post-conflict disarmament. “There are weapons that are located at a government facility which is in a location where they can be readily stored and destroyed,” Thum says. “Then there are weapons that have been collected somewhere, usually in a place near a battlefield, they haven’t been transported, people are fighting… they end up getting locked up in a container and they have to be dealt with [through] a weapon destruction workshop to cut them up.”
If the NGOs that governments hire to destroy these weapons don’t have the resources to do it, they wait around for the next group of people to come take them. Destroying them eliminates that possibility, making the reemergence of conflict more costly.
Readers also wondered about the price of the jewelry sold by Fonderie 47, where a pair of cufflinks can run $35,000. There’s a pretty small market of people who can spend that much on an accessory—wouldn’t a mass-market product allow the company to scale better and do more good?
Thum admits the jewelry, sold through its website and at private events, is “exclusive in price,” but says that’s by design. “We wanted the things that we made to in and of themselves be art,” he says. “Jewelry and art, those things are acquired by people with significant resources and influence to change things. We wanted to get leaders interested in what we were doing and make things that made people think, we felt that making pieces that were exceptional with this material would change the way that people thought about this material, not making things that were mundane or specifically engineered to achive a certain price.” The market for products made by Fonderie 47 is between 90 and 100 billion dollars around the world, Thum says, so he is confident that there is room for his company to produce significant sales.
Other readers felt like targeting guns was a waste a time of when Africa faces so many other distressing development problems.
Thum’s previous social enterprise, Ethos Water, helped fund water development projects in Africa. While visiting project sites in Kenya, Thum saw people carrying AK-47s and realized, as many development professionals have, the inextricable link between development and security. MAG’s website highlight’s a quote from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan: "There will be no development without security and no security without development."
Finally, some readers wondered why Thum’s company was focused on violence in Africa and not in the United States.
“I would be curious to see what would happen,” Thum says. “If I were a reader, I would pose the same question again. It’s a good one. The discussion that they’re having about what we’re doing is precisely one of the outputs we’re hoping to have for what we do. Actual discussion of this issue has been so rare as to almost be immeasurable. If we were to provoke someone among your readers to want to do something about this in their own way, that would be even better.
Photos by Martina Bacigalupo courtesy of Fonderie 47
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