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September 07, 2017

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Swahili Backstory: Tom And His Ostrich Army

Swahili Modern Blog and News

Heads in the sand

See what's at the end of that big green arrow? Yes, tucked back there behind the big weird-looking red and blue rooster. Those are Tom's ostrich planters. "So what?" you may think. Well, this image was taken in 2012, over five years ago, and we wouldn't bring these little lovelies to our collection for another couple of years! What is now our wildest bestseller was once just an overlooked opportunity. While we were intently mulling the marketability of weird-looking roosters, a future star sat there mutely awaiting a glance.

We can't blame Tom

He probably tried to show us, or expected us to see the potential in his charmingly clever creation. In our defense, we were meeting up at Friday market, where thousands of handmade products blend together in a sea of cloying creativity. If exposed to a Kenyan market too long, one can suffer from what we call, "craft blindness", a shocking inability to see great new products and a tendency to grasp anything nearby that's gaudy or gauche.

Staging an intervention

In this picture, I'm pretty sure that John and Tom are trying to stage an intervention over the red & blue rooster, but to no avail. Our overpainting and rooster years with Tom were just beginning. Many months would pass before we finally saw some exquisite little silvery ostrich planters through the fog.

Keeping it simple

Welding nuts, washers and metal rods, Tom and his small team of craftsmen keep their design refreshingly simple. Their little ostriches are sturdy, stable and suited to a variety of uses from holding small plants and succulents to billowing clusters of grapes over a buffet table. We love seeing such an iconic Kenyan animal reimagined with such thoughtful invention. Even more, we admire the restraint employed to keep the piece tasteful, chic and universally appealing.

An honest day's work

Just south of Nairobi, Tom and his team of five work from an old brick building constructed as one of the first British barracks outside the city. From within their small compound, the men celebrate the success of their ostrich design through stable daily work. While the struggle to make ends meet selling to a dwindling tourist market can defeat one's spirit, consistent work and distant customers' admiration for their creativity builds up the team.

One day at a time

Sometimes, success takes us by surprise and we have to scramble to build production capacity. Tom and his team give realistic timelines for the number of ostrich planters they can create, but lacking any other mode of transport, the men are forced to stockpile their ostriches in Nairobi one load at a time in the back of John's trusty Subaru. With thousands of their creations being requested, we may need to figure out a more efficient way to convey.

A joyful jackpot

We're never happier than when fortune shines on one of our African partners. While Tom and his mates now work steadily to meet their demand, we know that we'll find the fruit of their success flourishing in their homes and community upon our return to Kenya. Seeing kind-hearted Tom stepping proudly into the spotlight reminds us to remain hopeful and enthusiastic about who may be next to join him. Among our partners, there are so many creative and deserving souls we're hoping to help feel the joy of success.

Swahili Backstory: Zimbabwe

Swahili Modern Blog and News

We always learn so much when we launch into work with artisans in a new country. With our first container from Zimbabwe finally landed, we're looking back at ups and downs over the first nine months of this budding partnership.

How do we get ourselves into these things?

This time, we blame Chila. She's our long-time Mozambican agent and friend. She's an invaluable type who handles quality control with a fine-toothed comb, yet sends home each of our talented-but-maverick carving partners with their pride intact. She has the touch, and she can also dance like nobody's business. Chila's kind of like a cool older sister.

For a long time, we've been thinking Chila should take on a bigger role with Swahili. While planning Leslie's September 2016 trip to Mozambique, we broached the topic with Chila of branching out into more of southern Africa for us. It just makes sense to extend our network with regional talent and know-how instead of relying fully on our US-based crew.

Enter Jane.

We like serendipitous introductions, so when Chila mentioned that her textile artist friend Jane lived in Zimbabwe, we saw the stars aligning. Never mind that the country was reeling from serious turmoil, rioting and a truly mind-boggling absence of money in its banks at the time. After 22 years, we feel that if the road to find and work with new partners is full of crocodiles, we're probably heading the right direction.

Our main man Denny.

Being intrepid is one thing, but we know that if we don't have solid agents representing Swahili in-country, our network & accountability quickly fall apart. After many emails to and from Denny, we were relieved to finally meet face-to-face and find a competent, heartfelt and motivated new Zimbabwean agent. We set off together to plant a few seeds of prosperity in Zimbabwe.

Seek, and ye shall find.

Trucking around the countryside with Leslie and Chila to meet stone sculptors, metal workers and recycled art visionaries, Denny revealed a a wide and varied new world of skilled artisans challenged by their political climate yet undaunted in their need to create and provide for their families. Leslie leaned on Jenna (back home in our Oregon office) to wire funds daily so we could purchase samples. We met many new partners and were able to provide much needed cash-in-hand.

The fine art of importing.

Making orders with artisans and even finding a way to pay on time in a country with no money in its banks pales in comparison to successfully moving our first container out of Zimbabwe. We made the error of hiring a shipping agent who charged a lower fee but really mucked up our container's transit. Jenna, Betty and our Portland, OR, brokers have moved mountains to reconcile the issues so we can finally receive the shipment, but there have been no shortage of, "I have some bad news..." phone calls and emails.

At last!!

When the big doors opened, we breathed a sigh of relief that we've made one big step in the right direction. Backorders from NY Now are heading out, and we can safely say we've learned valuable lessons about doing our beautiful and bizarre kind of business in Zimbabwe.

Even as I write this, Chila and Denny are finishing up exploring a crafts festival from the past weekend, meeting new partners and sending about 300 pictures a day on WhatsApp. Here we go again!

July 16, 2017


Leslie's Travel Notes from Visiting the ATAG in Ghana

Swahili Modern Blog and News

The ATAG ( Aid to Artisans Ghana) community has been responsible for a large part of Swahili’s business for the past 18 years. It was the center and heart of the artisan sector. The computer design lab, administrative offices, showroom, and shop were all a part of the compound that exploded in a freak accident late last year. I was hesitant to return but did so yesterday. Since Bridget’s death the organization has struggled to find a leader and the funds to replace the building. They rented a small office nearby to accommodate buyers and producers until a solution was found.

Leslie in Ghana

Godwin was Bridget’s assistant and has persevered since the accident. His arms and hands are completely scarred from the injuries he sustained. All the ATAG staff is determined to continue. Godwin had set up a small meeting on Tuesday morning. He and Elaine wanted me to meet with a handful of new producers. I arrived before Godwin and found a few producers waiting outside the burnt out building.

Artisans in Ghana

They didn’t have the key to the makeshift office nearby. We decided to enter the burnt out buildings and search for usable tables. We dragged the few remaining tables/desks outside. Another person found a cloth to wipe them off. I was digging around the shop and found a few pieces of unscathed cloth. We used these to cover the tables. In 15 minutes the group had set up a temporary exhibit outside of the destroyed buildings. It was a moving experience. They weren’t deterred by the disaster and understood the importance of moving forward without Bridget and their once so inspiring center.

Travel to Ghana for Fair Trade Imports

There is no measurement for how many buyers and producers met at the center, nor creative minds influenced, or lives impacted, or how many long term relationships that started there. The day turned out to be completely positive, a tribute to Bridget and all she had achieved for the handmade sector over the years.

Note that in the USA any destroyed buildings would be off limits. There were no "keep out" tapes present. We walked right in ( in flip flops ) amongst the glass and charred wood rubble, dangling wood, to see what remained. I look back and wonder what I was thinking?

June 12, 2017


Joining Forces with The Leakey Collection

Swahili Modern Blog and News

We are pleased to announce that, starting in July 2017, we will be selling The Leakey Collection products on Swahili Modern. We have been closely acquainted with the Leakeys for years and will be exclusively distributing their famous, fair trade product line in North America as the Leakeys pursue other goals, including expansion of their product designs and organic farming in Kenya. Wholesale distribution will take place on our wholesale website.

Leakey Collection Jewelry

The Leakey Collection has focused on zulugrass bracelets and jewelry in Kenya since 2002. Their iconic grass beads are dyed with low-impact dyes and strung on durable elastic. The sale of their products contributes to wonderful work in East Africa, including creating employment for thousands of women, promoting health and hygiene, bringing clean water into homes, and mentoring young girls through school. 

 Leakey Collection from Kenay

March 15, 2017


Stocking Up on Ostrich Plant Holders

Swahili Modern Blog and News

We began carrying small plant holders earlier this year and have not been able to keep up with demand! This week we are in Kenya picking up a new shipment of these beautiful birds.

Ostrich Plant HoldersAfrican Metal OstrichesAfrican Metal Ostrich Plant Holder Sculptures

February 21, 2017

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2017 › Fair Trade ›

The Use (and Misuse) of the Term "Fair Trade"

Swahili Modern Blog and News

The FTF published an excellent article about the term "fair trade." Please check it out at:

Fair Trade

In the past few months, the term "fair trade" has been grossly misused by politicians for their own gains. The misuse of this term, which fair trade organizations have been long dedicated to defining, is deeply concerning to the global handmade community.

What is fair trade? According to the FTF, "fair trade is an approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system." Fair trade supports farmers and craftspeople in developing countries who are socially and economically marginalized. These producers often face steep hurdles in finding markets and customers for their goods." 

Swahili Modern is proud to be a fair trade company and part of the Fair Trade Federation. We support the FTF's message of strength and unity during this time of marginalization and political upset.


January 31, 2017


2017 › Baskets ›

Featured on DecorPad

Swahili Modern Blog and News

We love Alyssa Rosenheck's display of our White African Knitting Basket on DecorPad, especially the color palette and use of baskets within furniture.


These versatile, solid-white baskets just arrived in a container from Senegal and are available for purchase. They do sell out quickly!

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