Entrepreneur markets condoms to black community State AIDS agency is major customer

November 30, 1991|By Sandra Crockett

A photograph caption in yesterday's editions incorrectlyidentified the two partners in the Umoja Sasa condom company.The founder of the firm, Edwin Avent was actually standing tothe right of his brother, Alphonso, in the photograph.

Edwin Avent had a dream -- to be a successful entrepreneur and help the African-American community.

About a year ago he thought: condoms. Not just any old condoms but ones packaged to appeal specifically to blacks. A business was born, one that already has recorded sales to state-funded agencies.

Mr. Avent, 29, quit his job, cashed in his 401K retirement plan and with about $7,000 began Umoja Sasa, a company that operates out of his home in the 900 block of St. Paul Street.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"I knew a couple of people personally who died from AIDS," Mr. Avent said, adding that he was not aware of "other condom companies [that] put us [black people] on their packages. Yet we are all on billboards for alcohol and cigarettes. Those are things that destroy lives, not save lives."

Medical experts and AIDS activists say the use of condoms in sexual intercourse is one way to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The company's employees are Mr. Avent and his brother Alphonso. With the financial backing from a local businessman who wants to remain anonymous, they purchased condoms wholesale from a North Carolina supplier and repackaged them in brightly colored red, green and black oversized matchbook covers.

The likenesses of an African-American man and woman are featured on the cover along with the words "Umoja Sasa condoms" and "Protect the Blood."

"Umoja Sasa" is Swahili for "unity now," Mr. Avent explained. On the back of the package is a drawing of the map of Africa. Words inside the map include "African People around the world are dying from the deadly AIDS virus, and we need Unity Now to Protect Our Blood."

For bulk orders, Mr. Avent charges 30 cents per condom for amounts over 2,500, 40 cents for orders of 501 to 2,500 and 50 cents for up to 500. "It's not just any old condom but a whole educational tool," Mr. Avent said.

About two months ago, the Maryland State AIDS Administration bought 140,000 of the Umoja Sasa condoms for $42,000.

"We knew the value of doing target marketing," said Gary Wunderlich, coordinator for the division of public education for the administration, which is part of the Maryland health department.

The state has distributed the condoms to local health departments and drug treatment centers with black clients.

"We have received a positive response to this type of packaging. The feedback we're getting is good," Mr. Wunderlich said.

Mr. Avent first introduced his condoms during the 1990 Labor Day weekend. It was at a time when black college students were boycotting Virginia Beach -- the traditional site for African-American students' Labor Day celebrations -- because of riots there the year before.

As part of his promotional effort, Mr. Avent handed out his repackaged condoms free at an alternative Labor Day gathering of college students in Druid Hill Park -- leading to the first of his sales to a state-funded agency.

R. Dena Green, project director for the healthy teens and young adults program of the Young People's Health Connection in Mondawmin Mall, became Mr. Avent's first customer when she purchased 1,000 of the condoms in the fall of 1990 for the state-funded clinic, which has five locations in Baltimore. She has since ordered 350 more.

"Young people come in, see them and want to carry them. The kids love them," Ms. Green said.

Mr. Avent, who said he dropped out of Cornell University six years ago a few courses shy of his bachelor of science degree, plans to expand the Umoja Sasa business to include a "Protect The Blood" HIV/AIDS prevention campaign.

Besides the condoms, he said, there will be "Protect The Blood" posters, bumper stickers, T-shirts, buttons and brochures. His idea is to sell a package of materials to non-profit organizations or anyone wanting to aim an AIDS protection campaign at the black community.

"Non-profits who want to target the black community but may not know how, now have a way to do it," he said.

Meanwhile, he is trying to interest retail stores, barber shops, beauty shops and supermarkets in his specially packaged condoms.

"We're small today," the entrepreneur said. "But our goal is to build a much larger company."

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