Overseas Connection: A Life’s Work and a Dream Realized
All businesses evolve over time as focuses shift and priorities sharpen, and African Market Baskets™ is no exception. From its modest beginnings in the basement of his family home in Schenectady, New York, to its current thriving state in a modern warehouse stacked from floor to ceiling with handmade Bolga baskets, founder Steve Karowe has ridden the highs and lows that define the very nature of the import market.
It all began with a dream, and a goal, of starting his own business right out of school. During his college days at Oberlin, Karowe was inspired by a company that was importing alpaca clothing from South America and selling the garments on campus. Impressed by the quality of their imports and by how much demand there was for their products, he saw a great opportunity to merge his love of African culture with his desire to start an importing business of his own. At the heart of it, there was, and always has been, an emphasis on fair trade and forming meaningful and long-lasting relationships with artisans; it’s a connection rooted in trust, admiration, and respect.
In the intervening 35 years, that seed of a dream has since blossomed into shipping multiple massive freight containers every year, each loaded up with thousands of baskets. But it all took shape in a much simpler and more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants way. His early trips abroad brought him to eastern and western Africa, as well as to southern Africa. While traveling throughout the continent, Karowe would pack up suitcases full of hand-carved pieces of art, bringing back whatever he could to the States, while shipping back what he could not squeeze into his luggage. With only limited funds, it was his enterprising spirit that propelled him forward, embracing the spontaneity and adventure along the way.
Once back in America, from his improvised home office in the basement of his family home, he began the tireless work of calling retail stores, museum gift shops, and assorted small retailers that might be interested in the little gems that he was finding overseas. And thus, the name Overseas Connection was born. In this not-so-distant time, without cell phones or the internet, Karowe would travel cross-country in his trusty Acura again and again. He stopped in small towns and metropolises alike, thumbing through the yellow pages to arrange appointments with store owners and museum shop purveyors. The tens of thousands of miles driven and the countless trade shows attended were the hard-won foundation of what was to come.
A Move West and Expanding Horizons
After relocating to Colorado in the early ’90s, the company grew steadily, and Karowe expanded his sights to now include percussion instruments from West Africa. This new avenue offered a broader horizon and music stores throughout the country noticed the consistently high-quality djembes and handmade percussion items that he imported directly from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. Overseas Connection also became the sole importer of Kangaba™ djembes from Mali, which are expertly-carved in a tradition dating back hundreds of years, and are lauded for their exquisite woodwork and unparalleled sound.
Overseas Connection still imports and sells percussion instruments today. Yet, where the drum workshop was once the bustling focal point, now market baskets from Bolgatanga have come into the picture boldly and brightly over the last 15 years. In much the same way that Karowe established intimate relationships with artisans and drum makers during his formative years, it is the connection with the weavers of Bolgatanga that informs every basket woven and every basket sold.
What was initially just selling a few baskets here and there to complement percussion sales, African Market Baskets™ has since grown into selling thousands of baskets weekly, lifting the company to new heights and strengthening the local economy in northern Ghana. A source of deep happiness and pride for Karowe, the brisk sale of baskets has also allowed him to give back to the communities of Bolgatanga. His non-profit, Every Basket Helps, provides school supplies, mosquito nets to prevent malaria, a new weaving center, and annual healthcare to thousands of weavers and their families in the Upper East region of Ghana.
From the early days of building the business out of his family basement to countless trips to Africa to work directly with artisans, to driving across the US in inspired feats of youthful dedication, to outgrowing three warehouses over the years, to navigating the unpredictable challenges of importing, and to expanding into non-profit humanitarian work, Karowe continues to embrace it all, a wondrous tale still unfolding.