By  on September 24, 2008

Macy’s doesn’t do huge sales in the one-of-a-kind handwoven baskets it imports exclusively from Rwanda, but the business speaks volumes to the people of that country and to the possibility of blending commerce with a humanitarian cause.

“This is not an aid program; it’s basically trade,” Terry Lundgren, Macy’s Inc. chairman, chief executive and president, said at Monday night’s reception in the Herald Square flagship for the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. He was in New York for the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Kagame thanked Macy’s for helping transform what was a small cottage trade — women weaving silk baskets — into a legitimate and growing enterprise in the African nation.

About three years ago, Macy’s started importing the baskets through Fair Winds Trading Co., run by Willa Shalit. She told Lundgren about Rwandan women, many widowed by the nation’s tribal genocide more than a decade ago, weaving elegant baskets to use as barter, sometimes for food. It’s considered a traditional art form. In year one, Macy’s sold $50,000 worth of baskets, and 15 Rwandans were making the baskets. In year three, Macy’s sold $1.5 million worth in just five doors and on, and now 3,000 Rwandans are employed in the production of the baskets.

Macy’s is ready to import other Rwandan products, including textiles and jewelry. Income from the sale of one handmade basket can support an entire family for a month. Products include baskets and bowls generally ranging in price from $30 to $65.

The program, called the Path to Peace Basket Project, is part ofMacy’s supplier diversity initiatives to support minority- and women-owned vendor development.

“Making these baskets has been a tradition in Rwanda for many years in just a few homes, but today, this is a huge step in the development of their lives,” Kagame said.

“Today’s these women have cash. Before they bartered the baskets for a loaf of bread,” Lundgren said. “We could have made a donation, but this is a much bigger idea.”

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