Fly Tribes Startup Envisions Global Sustainability For Natives

19 Apr

Published in 83 Degrees, 2.18.14

Karina Becerra’s goal is two-fold: Alleviate poverty for America’s indigenous tribes while protecting the environment. Her startup company, Fly Tribes, which is scheduled to launch by June, will get her one step closer to that goal.

Becerra grew up in Colombia and moved to Miami at the age of 14 to pursue educational opportunities. She eventually obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies from Florida International University. From there, she worked for various government and nonprofit organizations to further environmentally focused initiatives. After having children, she started to wonder if entrepreneurship might be in her future.

She travels to Central and South America a few times per year to visit with indigenous tribes and is always amazed at the products they make. While there, she noticed that she has something in common with the women artisans she meets: The desire to find meaningful work that provides the flexibility to raise children while fulfilling professional aspirations.

Becerra always assumed the conservation world was different than the business world until she attended a United Nations event called Women Together. The event celebrated Fashion 4 Development, a social capitalism movement that works with the fashion and beauty industries to encourage the independence of communities across the world for sustainable economic growth. After learning about what companies such as Ten Thousand Villages and Toms One For One are doing, she thought of the idea to apply the same concepts to indigenous people.

The tipping point came when she learned about the University of South Florida’s Masters Degree programs in Entrepreneurship and Global Sustainability while reading Entrepreneur Magazine.

“I thought, this is perfect. This is where I belong,” says Becerra.

Conservation Meets Economic Opportunity

Described as Etsy for indigenous people, Fly Tribes is an online marketplace that provides a means for indigenous tribes to market and sell their products.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), indigenous people constitute about 5 percent of the world’s population yet account for around 15 percent of the world’s poor. There are more than 5,000 different groups living in more than 70 countries.

Mainstream solutions to poverty often come at the expense of the environment, forcing the tribes out of their homeland due to poaching, oil drilling and other side effects of industrialization.

“People think that environmental conservation means no economic growth,” says Becerra. “But, that’s so last century. We can alleviate poverty and protect the environment at the same time.”

Becerra’s premise is that these tribes already know a lot about managing the environment; they’ve been doing it for centuries through things like sustainable fishing and forestry practices. If private businesses and charitable organizations can empower them economically and keep them in their homes, they can continue to manage the world’s most precious resources.

Fly Tribes will offer three initial products: hand-beaded sunglasses, smudge sticks and bathing suits. Eventually it will carry a full line of products — everything from baby food to oil essences to textiles.

Initially Becerra will hold the inventory locally as well as manage distribution. In the long-term, she is working with the nonprofit organization The Environmental Heritage of the Caribbean Foundation to provide handheld devices to the tribes so they can communicate and manage distributions on their own. These devices can be powered from the energy used from cooking with a camp stove-type device called Bio Lite. The Foundation is also monitoring the effects of the concept on the health of the ecosystem to make sure Fly Tribes’ overall goal of protecting biodiversity is achievable.

The Foundation, whose Executive Director Cristal Ange is Becerra’s sister, is also monitoring the effects of the concept on the health of the ecosystem to make sure Fly Tribes’ overall goal of protecting biodiversity is achievable. They work with indigeneous artisans throughout the Colombian Caribbean on development projects with the mutual goal of protecting the local ecology through sustainable economic activities.

The tribes “have a whole lot to offer to the markets of the world if they can only reach those markets,” says Becerra. “By building them an online marketplace, we can help them become leaders in the global game.”

Becerra plans to graduate with a Masters Degree from the Patel College of Global Sustainability at USF in Spring 2015.

Fly Tribes is a charter company in the new business incubator at USF and is taking advantage of their office space and events.

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