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President and Certified Business Coach
Potential Quest, Inc.
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Sempra Energy
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Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Dept.
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Safeway Inc.


MASAI WOMEN put their craft talents together in this beadwork cooperative venture near Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.


Women Turn Craft Skills into
Business Enterprises in East Africa

Carol Caley Visits African Women’s Work Cooperatives

September 29, 2015


I slept in a tent while leopards and hyenas sang me to sleep.


ON A THREE-WEEK TRIP TO EAST AFRICA, on a photo safari in four countries, I witnessed the majestic spectacle of wild animals in their native habitat. I slept in a tent while leopards and hyenas sang me to sleep. I looked out my window to see the snows of Kilimanjaro. I tasted the wonders of exotic and colorful foods of the region. I had a wonderful opportunity to meet the diverse people of these faraway lands: Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya.

I ALSO FOLLOWED UP ON MY SPECIAL INTEREST in women at work. I met prosperous women tourists who brought their children to explore the natural wonders of their own country. I met women who work for safari companies, bush tent camps, bush air taxis and national parks, whose livelihood depends on tourism. I also met women who work with their hands in traditional folk crafts, who sustain their families by working in a sisterhood of cooperative effort.

“Gorillas in the Mist” Support her Business Co-Op

NADINE NYIRANEZA PICKED UP THE CALL JUST BEFORE OPENING TIME. Tourists—gorilla trekkers specifically— were waiting, asking for her to open her shop. She arrived minutes later, perfectly coiffed and dressed in a chic long skirt, ruffled blouse and smart black business jacket, and paid the driver of the motorbike—she’d ridden side-saddle on the back seat of it, as many Africans do when they shop or do errands. She produced a key, opened the heavy wooden door, and quickly readied her shop for a day of sales from her women’s craft collective, Cooperative de Productaire Artisanal de Kinigi.

A steady stream of trekkers come to the mountain, and Nadine is here to make sure that the women artisans of Kinigi and surrounding villages will send some of their wares home with them.


HERE IN KINIGI, IN THE HIGH MOUNTAINS OF RWANDA, it's not far from the tomb of Dian Fossey and the gorilla research center she established. “Gorillas in the mist” still dwell here, in the cool green forest on the slopes of an extinct volcano. There are few gorillas left in Africa, only around 350 here in Volcanoes National Park. But those few bring a steady stream of trekkers to the mountain, and Nadine is here to make sure that the women artisans of Kinigi and surrounding villages will send some of their wares home with them. She’s part of a craft cooperative composed of 40 women.

THE CRAFTERS MEET IN THE OPEN AIR, on the grounds of a church. They gather every other day to work together on their beadwork and jewelry making, basket weaving and sewing projects. They assist one another on their designs and collaborate to develop wares that will sell better. They share information on suppliers and ideas on how to better market their work. Their small shop is a testament to the power of the collective, with Nadine as its personable proprietor, to bring the colorful, practical and memorable craftwork of East Africa to a larger world.




Nadine Nyiraneza minds the cooperative store where forty women market their crafts near Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.


Masai Womens' Beading Skills Support Families

IN TARANGIRE NATIONAL PARK IN TANZANIA, WHERE LEOPARDS SLEEP IN BAOBAB TREES, and zebras and elephants roam, you won’t leave without watching lions, ostriches, wildebeest, giraffes, warthogs and baboons in action. And when you do leave the park, you’ll drive on a rough road past a Masai women’s craft cooperative, the Mgungani Women’s Group, where expert bead workers sell their wares of bracelets, necklaces and ornaments.


I thought of the many hours it must have taken to create even one of those bead baskets.


THESE BAUBLES HANG FROM CLOTHESLINES in a dusty yard in front of a corrugated tin shed. That’s their shop, and its concrete floor is completely covered with two hundred small baskets in bright colors, completely made of beads that have been laboriously wired together in bold combinations and patterns. The walls are covered with circular collars, necklaces, and beaded mats. I thought of the many hours it must have taken to create even one of those bead baskets. But for Masai women, this is their specialty. They, and their families—their husbands and sons particularly—daily wear beautiful, elaborate beadwork necklaces and cuffs on wrists and ankles, often with their name woven into the design.

IT DIDN'T LOOK LIKE MANY CUSTOMERS HAD STOPPED BY THAT DAY—I suspected that we might have been the first, and perhaps the last. The women dressed me in a plate-like collar, much like the ones they were wearing, and posed with me for photos. We couldn’t communicate, except with gestures. I bought some handmade treasures, bead baskets and mats, then headed back to the truck. The women ululated as we drove off, celebrating not the sale, I later learned. They were sharing the joy of the new owner in possessing something new. The women in our group ululated in return as we drove off. I admired their hard work and their skill in designing these striking crafts, and their entrepreneurial spirit shone through the dust of this remote place.




Workers glaze ceramic beads at the Kazuri factory in Nairobi, Kenya.


“Small and Beautiful” becomes a Global Business

NAIROBI, KENYA IS HOME TO THE KAZURI BEAD FACTORY, located in what used to be part of the Karen Blixen estate of “Out of Africa” fame. The company was started in 1975 by two Kenyan women, and soon grew to include women workers from surrounding villages, most of them single mothers, who needed jobs to support their children. Kazuri, which means “small and beautiful” in Swahili, started as a tiny workshop making hand-crafted ceramic beads. Each bead and each piece of Kazuri jewelry, now sold worldwide, is unique.

WE TOURED KAZURI AND VISITED WORKSHOPS where women sat together at long tables, rolling the damp clay into bead shapes, painting on glazes, stacking kilns, and finally sorting and stringing the finished beads into bracelets and necklaces. The company still employs mostly women, and maintains the mission of providing and sustaining employment opportunities for single mothers and disadvantaged members of Kenyan society.




Women pilots have found a niche flying  tourists on safari in East Africa to destinations in the bush. Many of the 12-seater planes are piloted by women.


A Thread Runs Through It

BEING PRODUCTIVE; MAKING SOMETHING USEFUL valuable and worthwhile; sustaining ourselves and our families in the community—that’s the thread that runs through these women’s endeavors in East Africa, and the same is true for all of us as women at work, wherever we are in the world.



Women rangers are now joining the ranks of workers in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Rangers risk their lives to protect the rare and endangered gorillas from poachers, and also work to prevent habitat destruction by domestic animals that wander into the park.



  Carol Caley is the director of marketing and communications for Leadership California, where she is chief storyteller, responsible for conveying the organization's values and mission across channels including web, video, print and social media, to express Leadership California's character, heart and goals. She is a consulting communications professional for other nonprofit organizations, a writer and a graphic designer.
Carol Caley    






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