International Development

Artisan to Enterprise

June 1, 2017  • Alisa Roadcup, Esha Chhabra & Megan MacDonald

When you step foot onto Heshima Kenya’s sun-soaked campus in Nairobi, it is difficult to recognize the trauma behind the giggles of the teenage girls on the lawn. You won’t understand the hours of counseling it has taken for that young girl kicking a soccer ball to smile again. You might guess at the challenge of mastering the technique behind the scarves hanging on the clothesline, but you wouldn’t see that the repetitive motion involved in dyeing that fabric is actually a form of therapy. Under the surface here, there is space for healing, sanctuary, growth, and leadership. This is the power of holistic programming at Heshima Kenya, a member of the Institute’s Alliance for Artisan Enterprise.

At Heshima Kenya, refugee women and children are offered an education, a secure place to live, and an opportunity to earn a living. The organization is devoted to protecting, nurturing, and empowering vulnerable refugee women and girls from East Africa. We provide a community to allow girls who have undergone unimaginable trauma to heal—and to become leaders. With comfortable shelter, specialized education programs, and social enterprise, Heshima Kenya provides long-term solutions for the myriad challenges refugee girls face. The young women here chart their own paths to independence: 70 percent are economically self-sufficient after completing a vocational-training program.

At Heshima Kenya there is space for healing, sanctuary, growth, and leadership.

Some girls need more time to heal, like Fartun (not her real name), who was very withdrawn when she initially arrived at Heshima Kenya. She came with an infant son, born from sexual assault. Fartun was having difficulty coming to terms with her new situation and accepting her newborn child. After months of counseling and living in our Safe House, she began to open up, joining the Girls’ Empowerment Project education program, taking a tailoring course, and later becoming a leader in the Maisha Collective, a social enterprise that fosters leadership and business management skills through the design and production of hand-dyed fabrics and textiles. Her son is now enrolled in the Early Childhood Development Center, where he is happy and thriving.

Other girls move forward quickly, like Mirelle, who worked her way through the education and vocational programs, eagerly taking in all that the Girls’ Empowerment Program had to offer. She began making and selling snacks to the other girls and to Heshima Kenya staff to supplement the income she received from the Maisha Collective. She eventually launched her own catering business and hotel.

Our work has affected thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors by offering many paths to healing. Every day, we see how this specialized environment makes a profound and positive impact on the people living in our community.

The Alliance provides a sounding board for challenges, new ideas, and insights into uncharted territory.

We see the same emphasis on community-driven support at the Institute’s Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. In 2015, we joined the Alliance, a community that understands the delicate balance between empowerment and entrepreneurship-a challenge when serving such a vulnerable population. Our membership in the Alliance connects us to like-minded artisan groups across the world who confront similar trials and who can share new opportunities for successes. The Alliance provides a much-needed sounding board for challenges, new ideas, and insights into the uncharted territory we sometimes encounter. Plus, the Alliance’s remarkable thought leadership and expertise in working with artisan groups from around the globe imparts a unique perspective.

The Alliance amplifies our outreach. We are able to share our model and impact other people who care about artisan talent, which has led to amazing projects, events, and partnerships. We were able to showcase our products at TEDWomen, collaborate on an artisan-focused project with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Livelihoods Program at the Kakuma refugee camp, and connect with numerous colleagues with key expertise for our creative partnerships and advisory board.

Every day, Heshima Kenya fights for vulnerable refugee girls to have an equal chance in this world, and every day we are supported by the beautiful tapestry of talent in the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. Because of our membership with the Institute’s Alliance, we can better economically empower young refugee women and give a voice to those whose voice has been silenced.

At the base of the Himalayas, in Kashmir, a group of women artisans are contemporizing zalakdozi, hook embroidery that resembles crochet and dates back to the 1400s. Whether it is scarves, bedding, or clothing , all forms of textiles are enhanced with this hook stitch, in patterns that sing of Kashmir: saffron, tulips, lotus, lilies. The embroidery is an art form passed down through the generations. Yet such a deeply entrenched heritage is struggling in the modern era. Artisans lack a constant supply of work. Payments dwindle in. It’s hard to make a living by simply stitching.

That’s why Navroze Mehta and his daughter, Sonali Mehta Rao, decided to build a brand to celebrate the beauty of Indian craftsmanship and make artisan products more accessible. Mela Artisans combines traditional handcrafting techniques and the functionality of contemporary design, working with artisan groups around the world to preserve their age-old traditions and help them access new markets. The company launched over five years ago and has placed crafts in more than 300 boutiques and retailers, such as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. It also has an online shop.

It’s hard to make a living by simply stitching.

Three years ago, Mela Artisans joined the Institute’s Alliance for Artisan Enterprise to learn from other brands and gain access to resources tailored to its needs. In the past two years, Mela has been able to get small loans for its artisan groups, which enable them to buy materials up front and place orders for upcoming product lines.

One artisan Mela has helped is Tasleema Akhter, who at the age of eight was learning to perfect her hook stitches in Kulgam, an agrarian community in Kashmir. The transition from a hobby to a serious source of income started when she was 16 and began working as an individual artisan for local traders. “There was no financial security, as the work used to be irregular,” Akhter says. “Most of my time, I was sitting idle.”

After five years of going solo, she decided to join a local artisan group, Hunarmand. Today, she is regarded as a master artisan. Operating in a group was the answer, she says, and not only for the higher wages: she also improved her skills and discovered new templates and patterns.

Akhter has been instrumental in educating other young women about new designs. In 2011, when an opportunity came to take on a managerial role, Akhter became a production coordinator for India’s National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, INTACH. Mela Artisans’ Mehta and Mehta Rao met Akhter on one of their routine visits and were captivated by her passion for the craft.

That is the power of the Alliance and brands devoted to the handmade. And it is the power of strong, young female leaders who, thanks to the Alliance, now have allies in rethinking manufacturing for the modern era.

In rural Kenya, deafness is frequently misunderstood—or assumed to be a mental disorder. But with respectable jobs, deaf people have the opportunity to show their communities that they are valuable and can take care of themselves.

One of our guiding philosophies has been to ensure full-time work and wages to our artisans.

Sasa Designs was started in 2011 to provide dignified work to deaf women in Kenya. Since its inception, Sasa has empowered the deaf through skills training, leadership development, and a path toward independent business ownership. Sasa’s membership in the Institute’s Alliance for Artisan Enterprise has provided exposure and access to resources that have helped it transform from a small project under the umbrella of a larger nonprofit into a wholesale brand that partners with artisans in five countries: Kenya, Haiti, Mexico, Zambia, and El Salvador. Our work at Sasa centers on our now-independent deaf partners in Kenya, who are learning how to manage their businesses and balance thriving local markets in Kenya while continuing to distribute globally through Sasa Designs.

One of our guiding philosophies has been to ensure full-time work and wages to our artisans. Paydays are always a good thing, but when they are inconsistent, they can limit a family’s ability to climb the economic ladder. The community impact of Sasa Designs’ work is felt far beyond our workshop and primary staff—the impact goes deep into the community, where we source thousands of dollars’ worth of brass, glass, horn, and bone each month from other independent artisans. We also keep corporate accounts with three of America’s top component suppliers in the jewelry arena—which demonstrates the value of artisan business models to the global economy. Small- and mid-sized US businesses now sell Sasa Designs’ final products.

In 2015, Sasa Designs was honored to share our work at the State Department as the winner of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise’s multimedia competition, “I Am Artisan.” Our video gave our deaf team in Kenya the opportunity to share their personal and professional lives. The recognition we received by the Alliance and from US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 at the launch of the Global Campaign for the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise affirmed the voices we are committed to bringing to the table as this initiative grows. While our deaf partners cannot “speak” in a way that many understand, their continued production, energy, and thriving confidence has created a platform for growth that is now having an impact on artisans and buyers across the globe.