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Third World crafters go online

August 14, 1998
Web posted at: 4:00 PM EDT

by Sharon Machlis

(IDG) -- Daniel Salcedo, who holds a doctorate in operations research, claims he "was a geek before it was cool." But he also has long been passionate about the developing world, serving as a Peace Corps director in the Dominican Republic and doing other nonprofit work throughout Latin America.

"I was always having to choose between my head and my heart," he said.

Now he has merged the two.

With grants from the World Bank and U.S. government, among others, Salcedo co-founded a project aimed at helping Third World craftspeople sell their goods on the 'net.

"What we're talking about is reaching out to the far corners of the world," he said. "Once you get on the Internet, the distances evaporate."

Head to some islands off the coast of Panama -- where many of the Kuna Indians live without electricity or phone lines -- and electronic commerce may seem an unlikely endeavor. But Kuna women are among those participating in the project, and their traditional "mola" appliques are for sale at

Participating artists with limited access to the Internet can check for orders periodically or sell their goods to resellers in countries with better access.

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Internet lessons

PeopLink staff, interns and volunteers bring computers, modems and video cameras to the craftspeople, explaining how to use the Internet to send information about their wares and receive messages about orders. They have visited artists in South America, Africa and Asia to find goods for their site.

PeopLink keeps a small inventory at its Kensington, Md., headquarters, and orders are shipped from there. Eventually, the organization hopes to set up a system where orders are filled from the country of origin, cutting costs further.

Building the initial electronic-commerce site was fairly straightforward, said technical coordinator Ted Johnson, also a former Peace Corps volunteer (in Cameroon) who later did database development work at Motorola, Inc. Now the challenge is to market and promote the site amid so many thousands of others on the World Wide Web. Once people find the site, about 2% of visitors actually place orders.

Purchase deals vary widely, but PeopLink says it generally pays craftspeople about 20% more than the going rate for exported products. Once items are sold, profits are also shared with the producer.

"I think it's excellent," said Aaron Hirsch, consultant and research assistant for the World Bank's Infodev program. Infodev, which funds information technology pilot projects for the developing world, gave seed money to PeopLink.

"It's one thing we're watching very closely. Everything's in place," Hirsch said. "It's not easy. It's a new medium; it's a way people haven't shopped before."

The Internet is attractive because it costs little to update or change a catalog once a system is in place, said PeopLink project manager Kimberly Dinn. A full-color catalog can cost $200,000, she said.

The Asha Handicrafts Association, an organization for craftsmen in India, hopes half its sales will come from the Internet eventually -- although, so far, there hasn't been any revenue via PeopLink, said Executive Director Lucas Caldeira. "[PeopLink] also made many producers computer and Internet literate, which is a wonderful thing," he said.

"In spite of my Peace Corps background, my heart really is in the private sector," Johnson said. "The commercial world is something that the nonprofit sector can't ignore."

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