Social entrepreneur Lunga Bechtel decided to leave Mozambique for his father’s home country, the United States, after his junior year of high school. Leaving was part of the plan. Leaving a year before high school graduation was not. Senior year of high school might seem an inopportune moment for a move around the world. For Bechtel, it felt part of a natural cycle.
The son of a wildlife conservationist and a rural development specialist, Bechtel’s childhood was segmented by his father and mother’s everchanging work assignments, first in his mother’s home country of Swaziland, then in both capitol and countryside of Mozambique.
“Instead of waiting to graduate, I just said, I am ready now,” said Bechtel.
It had been, after all, three years in the same spot.
“I was ready for a new challenge, a new culture, a new experience,” he said.
Fast forward another Bechtel lifecycle or two, and the Millersville University (Pa.) graduate is the founder of Vona Vision, a social enterprise centered on Mozambican arts and crafts selling to U.S. and European markets.
The idea for the business, said Bechtel, emerged sometime in 2015. On trips back to Maputo, Bechtel would visit nearby arts markets. He wanted décor for his new home in the States.
“I am very passionate about African identity, African culture,” explained Bechtel. “Every time I would go home [to Mozambique], I’d look for cultural art. And every time I’d go back, I’d see all the potential that is there in the art and for the African identity in general,” he said.
“A lot of people come to Mozambique to enjoy the culture. It became my goal to take it to the rest of the world.”
In Bechtel style, he adds, “I didn’t want to wait.”
Vona Vision sells Mozambiquan batiks, paintings made using wax. Each batik is hand-made and depicts an aspect of Mozambican society, culture and custom.
The art in its finished form is the first of two primary social goals for the startup. Vona Vision uses the art to increase awareness of African identity outside the continent.
“Through global travels and experiences…[I] have learned that there are misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about modern African identities,” said Bechtel. “Culture and identity about Africa have been tainted. [I] want to share with the world a new perspective and tear down the misconceptions. I want to shed a new light, a new bridge, so the rest of the world can come interact with Africa in a positive manner,” he said.
The second mission of Vona Vision is to positively impact the lives of Mozambican artists by offering livable incomes and increase market opportunity.
“Trade, not aid,” summed up Bechtel.
The Vona Vision team, which includes Bechtel and two of his former high school classmates, Josh Lush of the U.K. and Átila Cézar, of Mozambique, work directly with artists to secure high-quality fabrics and dyes to ensure long lasting, top-quality products.
Recently, the three business partners started holding workshops for the artists to increase financial literacy.
They are only getting started, Bechtel said, rattling off a long list of possibilities for future products and social initiatives.
It seems Vona Vision is a part of Bechtel’s life that will not be cycling through anytime soon.
“People ask me why I went to school for a political science degree if I had no interest in working for a campaign or running for office. For me, it’s about the bigger picture, seeing how countries are organized…how people are empowered.”
He continued, “I always knew I wanted to empower others through my own resources, through business.”
Bechtel credits this perspective to his upbringing.
“We were always in the district that needed help, because that’s where my parents were being stationed by their jobs,” said Bechtel.
He has fond memories of the many children he met and played with in villages throughout the country.
“I grew to have a soft place in my heart for people who are underrepresented,” he said.
Now, living in Lancaster, Bechtel is thousands of miles from Mozambique but only a short drive from his father’s hometown of Carlisle. He believes he has found the place and the platform to put his passion to work.
Since fully mobilizing operations in November 2019, Vona Vision has continued to gain speed, shipping dozens of batiks to customers throughout the United States and Europe. The business utilizes Etsy, an e-commerce website for handmade goods, as well as arts markets and events in the Lancaster area.
To learn more about Vona Vision and to follow along as they look to scale, visit www.vonavision.com.
Bechtel first learned of MEDA’s work through interacting with individuals from the MEDAx community, a group of young social entrepreneurs passionate about MEDA’s work around the world.