Gun Trafficking for Good: How to Get AK-47s Out of Africa

Posted by Tim Fernholz

AK-47 cufflinks

Cufflinks made from AK-47 rifles

This Black Friday, you may want to buy a gun.

The iconic AK-47 automatic rifle, so well designed that we put it on the cover of our magazine, is one of the most efficient tools of conflict ever invented.

Produced by the Soviet Union for its client states during the Cold War, millions of these rifles crowd the world’s war zones—their accessibility, cheapness and reliability helping to fuel chaos and destruction. In conflicts from the Rwandan genocide to Libya’s recent civil war, AK-47s have been the iconic weapon.

What if you could help get Ak-47s out of war zones, and even destroy them?

That attractive premise is the foundation of Fonderie 47, a new social enterprise that buys AK-47s in conflict zones and, with the help of master craftsmen like Roland Iten, turns them into high-end jewelry. A set of cufflinks destroys 100 assault rifles in Africa, a set of earrings, 500.

Purchasing the weapons not only takes them off the continent, but also helps drive up the price for AK-47s, making the existing rifles harder to get. Fonderie 47 hopes that a small but expanding stream of capital from its business can put serious pressure against the spread of these rifles and eventually reduce their numbers significantly.

The social enterprise is the brainchild of Peter Thum, the entrepreneur behind Ethos Water, and partner John Zapolski. Ethos, now owned by Starbucks, sells bottled water with a social mission—some of the revenue goes to support water investment in the developing world. On a trip to Nairobi, Thum saw teenagers with AK-47s, which served as a wake-up call.

“I thought about what the presence of these weapons meant not only for our money and the goals we were trying to achieve but for anybody investing in development or business in Africa,” Thum told Forbes magazine.

The jewelry is out of reach for most of us—a pair of cufflinks runs $35,000—but the high price tag enables the destruction of thousands of weapons. So, far the company has funded the destruction of some 6,000 rifles collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in partnership with the non-profit organization Mines Advisory Group. The company hopes to partner with other governments and NGOs to expand its reach.

“If we can start to draw down some of the numbers and demonstrate that it’s possible and show people what kind of difference it makes in someone’s life that weapons are being removed,” Thum told Big Think, “then we can start to attract interest from other funders, from other NGOs, from international organizations, and ultimately from governments who will see this as a way of facilitating stability and ultimately higher economic activity.”

The idea of buying jewelry is that the shiny thing on your finger or around your neck is somehow intrinsically valuable, not just a nicely-designed chunk of metal. But if purchasing expensive jewelry actually takes weapons out of wars and saves lives, it gives a whole new meaning for the term "precious metal."