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How Jewellery from Emali finds its way into luxury markets in the West

Weavers, beaders and carvers from Makueni county are making a killing out of selling their handicraft in the west. This has helped them withstand drought

Betty Muindi @PeopleDailyKe

In Emali, a fast-growing town in Makueni county, a group of women and men gather in a small container house doing what they know best. They are weavers, beaders and carvers from two dominant communities in the region, Maasai and Kamba.

The two adjacent communities have merged skills from their distinctive cultures to produce beautiful handicrafts with an aim of becoming self-sufficient and expanding the market for their wares by gaining access to global clients.

The project, Maka Emali Crafts, was initiated by Child Fund, a children’s organisation as an alternative means of survival after realising that farmers kept losing their animals and crops due to debilitating droughts in the region.

Grace Teyan Turasha creates a colourful beaded belt. Photo/BETTY MUINDI

“Providing an opportunity for the two communities to explore their cultural diversity while at the same cushioning them from persistent droughts that plague them, was a great way to draw on traditional methods from their rich cultural heritage to create amazing handcrafts,” says Anselm Gituma, Child Fund’s Lower Eastern Region Programme Manager.

The Maasai women make beautiful beaded Maasai jewellery, clothes and traditional Maasai sandals made of hide and skin while their Kamba counterparts do basket weaving known as kiondo using sisal fibre.

The group, which has over 100 members, also comprises  14 Kamba men artisans who do wood carvings of different kinds of animals and other figures.

But it is the passion, purpose and joy that goes into making the baskets and jewellery that shines out for anyone who visits their workshop.

The men barely talk as they sit under a shade outside the curio shop busy carving and sculpting while the women, armed with scissors, glue, threads, beads and needles keep themselves busy weaving and beading with striking expertise inside the workshop.

And as the group founded in 2014 continues to grow, the women and men have been trained in quality control and marketing as orders of their huge range of hand-made work roll in. Child Fund helps them find a market for their products in New Zealand, Korea, USA, UK and Australia.

The buyers deal with them directly, meaning there are no middlemen and out of the total sales made, each member gets 90 per cent of the sale of every single item sold. The remaining 10 per cent is used to cater for overhead and administration costs.

“We were all trained on how to finish our items in a way that the products meet the required international market standards and the items are now moving like hot cake,” says Anne Ramaita, the group chairperson.

They have also opened a curio shop within the compound where locals as well as visitors come to purchase items, which cost between Sh200 and Sh15,000. In just three years of operation, they have made Sh3 million worth of sales.

Inside the shop, dubbed Maka Emali Curio Shop, each craft has a photo tag of the artisan who made the item and a brief introducing you to the weaver, beader or artisan who did the work as well as the purpose of proceeds made from the sale of items.

“Members have an equal say in how the profits from their enterprise are re-invested for the benefit of the community.  Apart from supporting themselves and their children who are our main focus as a fund, they are also sponsoring a little girl to get through with her education,” says Child Fund’s Business and Marketing Advisor, Peter Aburi.

“We were going about our business of looking for a shop for our product when we came across a dirty and hungry little girl. Members of the group asked her to tell us about herself and all she could say was she needed clothes, food and an education,” says Ramaita.

The group talked to her parents who allowed them to take care of her.  “We bought her clothes, fed her and enrolled her to school and now we are proud that the eight-year-old girl is now in Class One, fully sponsored by us,” she says.

The group leaders have been taught basic computer skills in order to ensure that they are in a position to do proper documentation and market their products online. Child Fund sponsors them to attend exhibitions that help in showcasing as well as marketing their products.

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