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December 12, 2017


#BeThePlus - Swahili African Modern

Swahili Modern Blog and News

handmade african basketsSwahili has been creating a positive impact across Africa for 22 years, with artisans from: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Uganda, South Sudan, Mali, Ghana, Burkina Fasso, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. The list is long and the results beyond great! Swahili African Modern has been providing steady incomes to their focus communities for over two decades, enabling them to grow on different levels.

To achieve such results, this social enterprise creates long term relationships with artisans while facilitating their exposure by using their export resources and selling their products via Swahili’s online wholesale catalog.

handmade unique african holiday giftsSwahili African Modern, believes in “adaptation as a strong asset for traditional African craft forms to thrive”. This philosophy explains Swahili’s absolute support for rural women livelihoods, for instance if women in a rural area want to work at home and maintain that tradition, Swahili respects artisans and works to adapt their enterprise to the needs of its artisans.

Since they are part of the Fair-Trade Federation, they ensure all parties get fairly paid – including artisans and export agents – promote artisan education and encourage sustainable product development practices.


This article was just recently published on TRADE+IMPACT website.

November 13, 2017


Swahili Backstory: Trashy Bags

Swahili Modern Blog and News

Clean it up!

In West Africa, "sachet water" is big business. With significantly less packaging than bottled water, these cool little pouches seemed to be an environmental coup, until discarded sachets started clogging the streets, beaches and waterways. One creative company in Accra, Ghana, is transforming an environmental and health menace into a recycling and education movement.

Meet Trashy Bags

Smart Shoppers are reusable shopping totes made from discarded water sachets. Designed to zip into a packet when not in use, these sturdy tote bags utilize abundant waste material while giving an alternative to disposable plastic shopping bags, another source of the massive amount of plastic dropped onto Ghana's streets each day. The creative minds of Trashy Bags have devised a system that makes urban clean-up both fun and sustainable.

The Trashy Bags concept works so well because it generates income, opportunity and attention while addressing the pollution problem. Individuals who collect discarded pouches are paid enough to earn well above the annual average wage. New workers at the workshop wash bags until they learn how to do other production tasks and earn a promotion. An annual design competition inspires employees to put their creative acumen to work for Ghana.

The Trashy Bags team works together diligently to transform plastic trash into stylish bags, wallets & cases. Each bag is cut open, washed thoroughly and dried in the sun. The company's guiding mission is to encourage Ghanaians to harness their own ideas and energy to create positive change in their nation and the world at large, and the commitment each employee feels to their quality of work and their goal of cleaning up Ghana shows.

Cleaned pouches that pass inspection are stitched together to create a thick plastic sheet, and templates ensure each part of a product is cut to a standard size and shape. Once the pieces are cut out and ready for assembly, they pass to the Trashy Bag seam team, now working at powerful industrial sewing machines--an upgrade from the company's original foot-powered machines.

The Trashy Bags team has also found fantastic potential in discarded billboard material. This durable plastic offers the added benefit of colorful printed graphics that can be creatively cut to fashion one-of-a-kind backpacks, duffels and handbags. Since little goes to waste at the Trashy Bags workshop, the offcuts are stitched together to create a more colorful Smart Shopper option.

You know how much we love our babies at Swahili, and Trashy Bags is no different. "Trashy Babies" too young for school join their mothers and fathers at work. In-house childcare is a shared communal privilege among workers that adds even more joy to each workday.
While recycling discarded plastic serves as a timely response to the overwhelming amount of waste in Accra, the Trashy Bags team strives to educate the public about the long-term benefits of recycling and the potential in repurposing waste products for newly invented usage.
The company hopes to eventually see Smart Shoppers replacing disposable plastic bags in grocery stores, thus expanding employment opportunities and increasing recycling education while inspiring Ghanaians to creatively and cooperatively tackle widespread national issues. Through engaging appearances in films, fashion shows and shopping centers, the Trashy Bags team is presenting problem solving as both fashionable and fun.

We believe strongly in the people and mission of Trashy Bags. We love being able to now offer Smart Shoppers for sale at Swahili!
November 02, 2017


Swahili Backstory: Sanctuary Artists

Swahili Modern Blog and News

Kindness is everything.

Many Kenyan children born with a disability experience life from the sidelines. With few resources available for individuals with disability, these precious little people live in near constant discomfort and rarely feel included or meaningful.

You have granted me life and loving kindness; Your care has preserved my spirit. Job 10:12

Adjusting the view

Since 2007, the Metropolitan Sanctuary for Children with Disability has given a new view to many children in and around the town of Nyeri, located in Kenya's central highlands. Established as a mission from Northern Ireland, the Sanctuary provides an array of free services for children with disabilities and their families. Sanctuary is changing so many lives by approaching this under-served population with creative solutions carried out with local expertise and materials.

Instead of disabled children lying on an old mattress or floor, they are sitting upright, looking around them, postures supported to minimise deformity, feeding better, breathing better, using their hands better...above all, sitting with their families for the first time, which is so important to their quality of life.
-Annabelle Hulbert-Murray, co-founder of Sanctuary Artists

Founded in 2010 by Jolene Allen and Annabelle Hulbert-Murray, Sanctuary Artists operates the innovative ACE (Assistive Cardboard Equipment) workshop. The work at ACE is two-fold. In addition to building rehabilitation equipment using reinforced cardboard, mothers of children with disabilities create handmade paper and small craft items to further fund the project. Sanctuary Artists pulp readily available local vegetation like sugar cane, eucalyptus, banana tree and maize, flowers grown on site, off-cuts of cardboard and old cotton rags to create their beautiful handmade paper.

To date, more than 1250 items have been crafted at the ACE workshop and given for free to children with special physical needs. This improvement in the children's quality of life is immeasurable. Outreach events and fundraisers in Nyeri encourage the community to accept and embrace children with disabilities as valuable members of the community. Their smiles say it all!

While Pastor Jason Allen ministers to the Nyeri community through the Metropolitan Tabernacle Church and oversees construction projects, his wife Jolene manages the Sanctuary and serves as an on-site occupational therapist, fitting each child individually according to their unique need for support. Committed to further expanding rehabilitative opportunities in Kenya, the Allens and their growing family have made Nyeri their second home.

In addition to free personalized equipment, Sanctuary also provides a free walk-in medical clinic three days a week, home visits to children with disabilities, physical and occupational therapy, a free day care center for children who would otherwise be locked at home all day and a rescue center where abused, abandoned or orphaned children with disabilities receive a second chance at life.

Sanctuary's services are funded in part by the UK-based non-profit Befrienders for Disability, as well as Kenyan-based fundraising organization Smile Dispatch and sales of Sanctuary Artists products. When we were introduced to Sanctuary Arts holiday ornaments last year, we knew we had to help bring energy and resources from the United States to Sanctuary.

Sanctuary Artists and Befrienders for Disability encourage creatives from around the world to visit the center, share ideas and help ensure a brighter future for thousands of Kenyans with disabilities still waiting to be served. By pouring all their love onto a forgotten population, the beautiful souls of Sanctuary are showing children with disabilities how much they truly matter.

See Sanctuary Artists Handmade Cards & Ornaments
Photo Credit: All Kenyan photographs are the property of Sanctuary Artists.
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

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