Celebrating economic, political and social achievements of women since the 1900s, March 8 is a day for women worldwide to be applauded, respected and inspired.
Now an official holiday in more than 20 countries including Afghanistan, China, Russia and Cuba, and celebrated by women globally, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the revered International Women’s Day.
Making a difference by thinking globally and acting locally, students at Niagara College are doing their part to make an impact by implementing the project Fair Trade Niagara. The project works directly with co-operatives in South Africa, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Canada to teach women how to be successful entrepreneurs and establish sustainable businesses.
It is just one of the many projects implemented by members of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) at Niagara College, a program that empowers students to create economic opportunities in their communities by teaching others essential business skills, ethics and environmental sustainability. With 84 active members on the SIFE Niagara team and through its partnership with the college’s International Department, students are not only making a difference, but are also applying skills they’ve been taught in the classroom.
"I joined because it was a way for me to get involved and apply the theoretical knowledge I’d learnt in school to real-world applications," says Samantha Hunter, a fourth-year International Commerce and Global Development student and project manager for Fair Trade Niagara.
She travelled to South Africa for three months in 2009 to work with emerging agricultural and soap-making co-operatives in some of the poorest areas of the Western Cape province, teaching them basic business skills.
"There was an 88 per cent unemployment rate at the time, and people were living on less than $2 a day. A lot of them had never been in a classroom and had never had a formal style of teaching. It was beyond them to understand why I’d take the time out of my day to teach them," says Hunter.
"They all took it in and really wanted to make sure they understood so they could implement the marketing initiatives that we’d taught them. They were very excited to have that assistance because they’re not used to it."
In its sixth year of operation, Fair Trade Niagara has directly had an impact on more than 300 individuals, generated over $475,000 in economic opportunity and increased the awareness of international co-operatives, resulting in a 180 per cent increase in profitability.
The program works to create independent and sustainable businesses in the home country that are able to function without outside assistance once the training is complete.
Fair Trade Niagara regularly imports products from the various co-operatives and sells them at local stores in the region. Products include arts and crafts, jewelry, scarves, bags and coffee.
"We target a lot of small businesses that specialize in Fair Trade, crafts and handmade items. That’s added value to the business and to the entrepreneurs and creates sustainable income for both," says Sarah Bernard, outgoing president of SIFE Niagara, and graduating student of the Event Management graduate certificate program at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus.
Michael Evink, incoming president for SIFE Niagara, and first-year Sales and Marketing student at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, says he has learnt "so much this year alone."
"It’s not about showing up to class and going home every day. It’s about taking those extra hours a day to learn something that can really pay off in the end."
Evink says he hopes to participate in an international placement to work with one of the co-operatives.
"The powerful international connection these students have created with women in developing countries is a great way to showcase a positive story of what students are doing in Canada to help others in need while also gaining valuable hands-on experience to become future leaders here at home," says Jaime Szegvary, communications consultant for the charitable organization Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship (ACE), under which SIFE Niagara operates.
ACE works with more than 50 university and college campuses across Canada to provide students the opportunity to apply the information they’ve learnt in the classroom to real world economic, social and environmental issues in their community. Not only is the experience rewarding for the students involved, but also it has significant benefits for them because major corporations consider them favourably for recruitment once they graduate.
For more information about ACE’s programs, visit www.acecanada.ca.
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