Can Making Artwork Empower Women in Kenya? A Dispatch from Three Organizations

“No one is too poor to give away something, and I want to help poor women,” said an educator who has been working on empowering women by teaching them how to make handicraft for eight years in Kenya. Low educational attainment and social status keep many women at the bottom cadres of the labor force and marginal roles of the economy in many African countries. Many organizations in Kenya have been trying to change the situation by encouraging women to manufacture handicrafts to provide necessary support for their lives. Euphrasia Women’s Center, Kazuri, and Amani ya Juu are three exemplary organizations of this practice and mission.

Euphrasia Women’s Center:Big school, small shop

 “I can do accounting somewhere else, but [what] I enjoyed most is bringing some effects to someone,” said Susan, an accountant working in the Euphrasia Women’s Center (EWC). She wished to help the disadvantaged population. The EWC is a community-based organization (CBO) and was founded in Nairobi in 1992 by two sisters, who originally trained people in need to produce bags, clothing, and kitchenware to sell. The organization now has two roles: it is an income-generating program (IGP) shop and, more importantly, a vocational training center for education purposes.

The focus of the EWC training center is on teaching disadvantaged children and women from the slum. It provides different courses for students like dressmaking, cooking, hairdressing, and computer skills. The students who are learning dressmaking account for the most considerable proportion in the training center. Students have to pay the equivalent of $10-30 USD for the tuition. For those who cannot afford the fee, the social worker from EWC will do home visiting to confirm her status and mitigate the price charged.

Every year, EWC will have 80-90 students in its training center. Sixty percent of the graduates can directly acquire jobs in other companies or start their own businesses. One graduate student Evelyn, the current production supervisor of EWC’s IGP, told us her classmates employed by other companies always have lower salaries than workers in EWC, but students who were starting their own businesses could get higher salaries. Thus, this training center gives women great opportunities to gain professional skills which help them find jobs and maintain their livelihoods in the future.

As for the EWC’s challenges, finance is the biggest issue: it cannot support itself. The income supporting the organization originates mainly from training fees, IGP income, and donations. Among these three, donations account for 60 percent of the organization’s income, but it is very unstable. The direct consequences affect IGP workers, and the training center can also be affected. Despite the instability, the EWC still provides disadvantaged children and women with vocational skills, allowing them access to jobs after graduation and the acquisition of independent financial sources.

Kazuri:Helping women through a for-profit business model

You can find the words, “This is the life of mine; I’m going to let it shine” in Kazuri, a business company that sells bead works. One evening, factory workers shook hands, danced, and sang as a Spanish band performed. The atmosphere was harmonious like a huge family. Smiles were on everyone’s faces. In 1975, Susan Wood founded Kazuri with two single mothers for the social mission of doing work for a few impoverished women. Initially, less than ten women were employed making beads in her garden shed. As word of the beauty and uniqueness of the Kazuri beads spread, sales increased, as did the facility.

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A Kazuri employee dances with a band member

Kazuri is a little business company which focuses on making and selling ceramic beads as well as pieces of jewelry. It provides free training for the disadvantaged female members and employs them with salaries higher than the country’s average wage. Kazuri has nearly 350 workers in its factory, and all of them have seen a considerable increase in their salaries compared with their former jobs (see the table below).

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Products sold at Kazuri are divided into two categories: 60 percent of the products are exports sent to countries such as the USA, UK, The Netherlands, etc. Kazuri produces their goods differently according to the order it receives from different companies in different countries. Apart from them, the remaining 40 percent are domestically sold products for mainly foreign tourists, who purchase Kazuri’s wares in a shop in Nairobi. Kazuri may therefore experience a massive challenge if tourism ever slows in Kazuri. “We rely on the tourists,” the manager explained, “It’s not only the local market [that] can get satisfied.” However, in general, Kazuri is still a stable company which can support itself due to its model as a for-profit company. It can help workers maintain their livelihoods with independent income sources.

Amani ya Juu (AYJ): Succoring refugees way beyond fair trade

In 1996, after surviving the war in Liberia, Becky came to Kenya as a refugee. This experience prompted her to set up Amani ya Juu with her husband, with the goal of  helping marginalized women in Africa by providing them with training workshops and employment in their shop. Amani ya Juu means “Peace from Above” in Swahili, so basically Becky and her husband wanted to build a peaceful environment for the women around to work and live. The organizational structure of AYJ is similar to that of the Euphrasia Women’s Center: it has a shop to sell products and a workshop for training. Besides, the main products they make and sell are pieces of jewelry, fabrics, and commodities.

AYJ’s model is different from the other two organizations as well. “Our practice of ‘Beyond Fair Trade’ empowers and equips women to live with dignity, purpose, and peace,” reads AYJ’s official website. According to AYJ’s definition, fair trade is a mode of financial independence that lets women have sufficient income for health care, education, and a safe living environment for their families. This distinctive model permits AYJ to create significant amelioration on female workers’ lives. “The salaries we give to workers are twice as much as minimum value,” she said.

AYJ has conducted a free three-year training workshop for the female workers, who are all war refugees from countries such as Uganda, Sudan, and Congo, and jobless or abandoned by their husbands. These trainees can get the equivalent of $5 USD by selling one piece of work to the organization if it meets the quality requirement of AYJ. Those products will be put into AYJ’s shop and sold to customers. AYJ recruits three to five women every three months. As a result, there are approximately 12 to 20 women that could be empowered and helped every year.

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Article authors interview the founder of Amani ya Juu

AYJ always maintains 200-300 trainees in their three-year workshop. After the training, more than half of them leave AYJ. They may work in other companies or go back to their own countries to establish small businesses themselves. A Ugandan woman named Simprosa Okot trained with AYJ then ascended to a leadership position at AYJ which lasted for eight years (alongside her husband) before returning to Uganda with their children in 2008. In 2011, Simprosa decided to start a program in her hometown. So, she established Amani ya Juu Uganda with support from AYJ.

Apart from the trainees who choose to leave, almost 100 people work in AYJ’s shop. Among these people, 30 percent of them become employees, such as cooks, waiters, and seamstresses. AYJ primarily relies on the local market, which consists of Kenyan buyers and international tourists from the US who go to the shop in Nairobi. AYJ also exports 30 percent of their in-house items overseas. When Berry talked about people producing crafts for the shop, she said: “We don’t employ them; they are self-employed.” This helps the shop maintain the quality criteria when they purchase goods from artisans. “Customers buy but not because they sympathize the women. They buy because they want to buy,” she explained. That might be the reason why Amani ya Juu can sustainably support itself.

According to our research of these three different organizations and their respective models as well as characteristics, we can identify two groups: the first one is business-oriented, including Kazuri. It helps disadvantaged people by training them to be workers who produce high-quality products completely as a business company. On the other hand, Euphrasia Women’s Center is individual-oriented because this organization mainly focuses on teaching targeted population vocational skills for more job opportunities so that they can have wider choices in the future, Amani ya Juu is somewhere in the middle between the two. It provides workers with workshops and gives them employment, but they can also leave for other opportunities if they want.

By Tianyuan He, Kangle Yuan, Yuting Song and Yunan Liu

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