Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on earth.
The main economic resources of the beautiful Indian Ocean island, 250 miles off the coast of Africa, are tourism, agriculture, textiles and mining.
Textiles are the most important when it comes to creating much needed jobs quickly. That’s Eugene Havemann’s business. And — from his new base in Westport — the South Africa native is doing all he can to give the nation a boost.
Years ago at university in Pietermaritzburg, Havemann made money by selling t-shirts on campus. That led to a career in the garment industry. He started a company, and has helped build one of the largest factories in Madagascar.
Three years ago, he focused on the US market. As that business grew, he realized he needed a physical presence here.
He and his wife Debby researched the best places to live. They looked at the West Coast, Colorado, Texas and Georgia.
But Havemann realized it was important to be near New York. With 4 kids though, they did not want to live in the city.
The Princeton area was beautiful. Realtor Janice McGrath took them all over New York state and Connecticut.
When they came to Westport, Eugene and Debby knew they’d found the right spot.
Compo Beach, Longshore and the Saugatuck River were all attractive. But the schools really amazed them. They were particularly intrigued that Staples High sponsors teams in rugby, water polo and field hockey — all sports their children were familiar with from South Africa.
“This is the place,” the couple decided.
In addition to the core business (www.madagarments.com) and his online www.arete-retail.com, the Havemanns opened a brick-and-mortar shop here. Westport, they believe, complements their brand identities.
Arete — the Greek word means “excellence of any kind” — just popped up at 123 Post Road East, across from Bank of America. It’s filled with intriguing baskets, bags, smock dresses and hats. Towels, home decor and leather belts will be added soon. Most bags and hats are made of raffia, a strong, malleable and high-end palm tree leaf indigenous to Madagascar.
In that country of 26 millions, Havemann says, only 550,000 people are formally employed. Arete provides a platform for women artisans to market their goods in the US.
Every basket sold provides enough money for a woman to feed a family of 6 for a week.
Response to the Westport store has been excellent. At least half of the people who walk in buy something. Most don’t even know that their purchase supports people halfway around the globe.
The Havemanns have only been here a few months. But they’re building a business. The schools are wonderful. The family has met other South Africans in town, and people from all over the world.
Plus, Havemann — who has lived in two gorgeous countries — says of his new home town, “Westport is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”