Lizzie Wirgau is back in Africa again. As she comes into view of a group of Malawi women, they start to sing as they do every time she visits them. It’s their welcome song for her, she knows, even if the only word she recognizes is when they joyfully add in her name.
Wirgau has been to Africa many times, and her favorite people to visit are those of this group of widows in Malawi. They do their happy holler when she’s near, sing her song, and then she joins them for a dance. Wirgau is special to them because she’s given them a way to reach the world with their talents. She’s given them hope. The women are one of several groups in Africa Wirgau has partnered with for her nonprofit organization Market Colors.
The organization sells the craftsmen’s products online, giving them a worldwide audience for their goods. All of the items on the site, which include a clutch made out of printed African fabric in a pastel purple with trendy gold chevron stripes, bright and woven iPad cases, and rugs you’d find at any upscale, modern home décor shop, are all handmade by craftsmen in Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia.
“It’s our goal to give these craftsman access to the worldwide market … and to empower them to provide for their families,” Wirgau, a Winter Park resident, said.
She purchases a bulk amount of their products, pays the craftsmen at that time and then sells them online. Any profits after that go directly back to Africa and are used to buy more products from the artisans.
Wirgau, 23, a recent University of Central Florida graduate, was inspired after a mission trip to Africa when she was 20.
“You fall in love with the country, the people, the kids … it changes you,” she said. “It’s hard not to feel compelled to make a difference, to do something.”
“When you’ve gone to Africa, met the people and heard their stories, that doesn’t leave your mind,” said Laura Cook, Children of the Nations community representative for Orlando, the organization that connected Wirgau to the widows’ group in Malawi.
And Wirgau knew she wanted to do something, but didn’t know what. On her third trip to the country she was struck by the communities of craftsmen there, including the group of widows who made purses, and an idea hit her. These were items that lots of young Americans would want to buy. And with that, Market Colors was born.
In August of 2011 the organization was formed, and in September 2012 the online store opened. Wirgau said Market Colors is different because it doesn’t give aid, it instead allows those in poverty to make their own money and provide for their families, many of which they are the sole providers for. Before they’d hope to sell their goods to a missionary walking by or to someone from another town visiting. Now, Wirgau buys a hundred or more of their products at the same time.
For more information about Market Colors and to shop at their online store, visit marketcolors.org
“It’s a very important vehicle and almost a lifeline for the craftsmen in Africa,” said Matthew Wirgau, Market Colors’ chief financial officer and Wirgau’s dad. “We know that the need is so great.”
Many of the men and women had no hope before, resorting to working with loan sharks or selling their bodies to put food on the table. It’s a harsh reality that Wirgau says she’s seen and will never forget. There are slums built on sewers, and her meetings with potential craftsmen leaders are often conducted in huts. She hopes that after someone buys a scarf from her online, they’ll think about what they’re supporting. Each of the items sold on their site comes with a card that tells that craftsman’s story.
“[I want people] to realize that there is more, that this is real,” Wirgau said. “And for people to feel like they can make a difference.”
She’s done that with the people who work with her at Market Colors, who are all volunteers. She’s a compassionate leader with a distinct vision, and she inspires passion for her cause in whomever she meets, her father said. Robyn Batts, a Market Colors intern and friend of Wirgau’s, said it’s hard not to get excited about their work when she’s around.
“Her passion is very evident,” Batts said. “Her heart behind it is just very humble.”
Wirgau sees the future with Market Colors helping many more craftsmen, and partnering with them forever. Africa, she said, has impacted her life in ways she never imagined.
“There’s life before Africa, and life after Africa,” Wirgau said. “My heart’s been so changed.”