INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of PETER & JOHN
Malnutrition. War. Sanitation. The permanent life-threatening challenges faced by those at the bottom of the pyramid are of course acknowledged as tragic, but seldom is action taken by innovative businesses and conscientious customers to do something about it. After having respectively visited some of the most dangerous areas of Africa, entrepreneurs Peter Thum and John Zapolski noticed the ubiquitous presence of assault riffles in war zones. In addition to threatening the lives of thousands on a daily basis, it hindered the ability of these particular areas to experience socio-economic growth. In a stroke of genius, Peter and John founded a business that would bolster the destruction of AK-47s in Eastern Congo and simultaneously raise awareness by transforming them into high-end state-of-the-art jewelry pieces sold in the United States.
I feel like we need to start with some background information regarding the presence of AK-47s in Africa — can you give us some basic facts?
Peter: It is estimated that there are somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred million AK-47-type weapons that have been produced globally. Some of the obvious implications of the presence and use of these weapons include killings, injuries, and crime. And most of the victims of conflict are women and children. However, there are also the more subtle implications for social and economic behavior that hinder stability, growth, and development. This arms issue affects people and societies across the continent, but its profile as a very serious issue is low.
I’m curious. How did the concept of Fonderie 47 come to you?
John: I went to Africa in order to meet entrepreneurs working to create businesses in their respective economies. I was amazed by the people that I met, but was also shocked by the amount of uncontrolled weapons in relatively controlled areas. In addition to being a security risk, this hinders the ability to bring in venture capital or develop schools: a large portion of the budget often needs to be spent on security.
Peter: During a trip to Africa to visit water projects, funded by Ethos Water, I met kids around the projects who were armed with assault rifles. Being around people with guns anywhere is a wake-up call, but a little kid armed with a weapon like that was unnerving. It made me think about the implications for not only our programs, but for the continent as a whole.
When John and I met at the TED Conference in 2009, we shared these experiences and agreed to try to do something. How could we put this issue on the front pages and get people motivated and moving to engage on it in a lasting effort? The basic idea was to take this iconic destructive object and transform it into beautiful, artistic, enduring pieces of wearable art. Objects that would be handed down from one generation to the next — that would alter the definition of what is noble and the concept of legacy. In turn, the sale of each piece would fund the destruction of more weapons back in Africa.
Earrings by Fonderie 47
What does the process look like, from collecting the rifles to having someone in the United States wear one of the pieces?
John: Our initial pieces are made from weapons that were removed from Eastern Congo, destroyed, brought back by Peter and me, and that underwent a metal conversion process. We then gave the metals to incredible designers, such as Roland Iten and Philip Crangi in New York, who went through a lengthy process of creating something exceptional out of them: precious metals, earrings, rings…
Peter: When the client purchases a piece, he or she knows the specific number of weapons destroyed for that particular piece. For example, this ring by Philip Crangi is not only created to include converted metal from an AK-47 and bears the serial number of that gun, but it also funds the destruction of 75 guns back in Africa when sold.
Fonderie 47 ring by Philip Crangi
And it’s great that the money helps support programs to destroy weapons. Do you work with NGOs?
John: Yes. We now work with the Mines Advisory Group, a UK-based non-profit that focuses on small arms and assault weapon destruction. Fonderie 47 supports their efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they work with governments to destroy weapons collected in times of conflict. We will expand to work with more NGOs over time.
Was it a conscious decision to create a venture that produces jewelry with a positive impact? That industry is usually not associated with ethical practices!
John: You know, our fundamental motivation is to retrieve and destroy rifles from Africa. We are not trying to compare ourselves to other players in the jewelry industry. That said, I see your point: some people have removed items of value from those regions and generated a lot of destruction in the process. We are focused on removing destructive objects.
(*note: For information on the jewelry industry’s use of “conflict diamonds,” check out this NY Times article.)
What are your hopes for Fonderie 47, both as an organization and as a vessel for change?
John: People want to start businesses in Africa, but the environment is not conducive to entrepreneurship; security risks play a key role in preventing those conditions from developing. Bringing attention to the issue of weapons and showing people that they can be positively connected to their elimination will, we believe, provide tangible change. From a branding perspective, we will become a larger force in terms of our market share and a catalyst for philanthropists and foundations who might not have invested in finding a solution for this problem.
These mechanical cufflinks fund the destruction of 100 AK-47s in Africa
How did founding Fonderie 47 fit into your personal career trajectory?
John: I’m not sure that it did fit. [laughs] My background was as an entrepreneur, designer, and business executive working around innovation. After traveling to Africa, the problem of weapons stuck with me and kept me up at night. Doing this was one of the most difficult things that I’ve had to do: I got malaria in the process, changed where I lived, and spent a lot of cash. As difficult as it was, I can’t think of anything more rewarding.
Peter: With Ethos Water, I had the business experience of creating a venture that generated positive social change. Fonderie 47 allows me to use all of that knowledge and experience in a new way. On the one hand, the structure of Fonderie 47 is the same as that of Ethos Water, and the desire to offer people something better is consistent between Ethos and Fonderie 47. On the other hand, the issue is more complex, as is the business, and the things that we make are a lot more exciting.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to the success of Fonderie 47?
Peter: There are three ways in which your readers can help.
1.) Become a customer.
2.) Contribute financially through donations to our nonprofit. They can contact us at email@example.com to find out how.
3.) Pass on information about this article through your social network, and let other friends know about Fonderie 47. Help them to help us too.
I have to ask, Peter. Now that Starbucks will start selling alcohol, are you considering the creation of Ethos Wine or Ethos Beer?
Peter: I’m not commenting on that one, but I may have a beer at Starbucks in the future.