NOTES FROM THE FIELD: AFRICA
Notes from the Field is a new series that will follow our founder, Treana Peake, as she visits our Obakki artisan partners around the world. Today’s note follows her journey as she makes her way back to Africa after a long hiatus.
There was a time I used to clock hour after hour in the most magnificent ‘remote’ regions – places nobody had ever heard of. Amedichi. Alel Chok. Kusakusa. Experiencing new things. Building new friendships.
This past year (and more), I fell into a 9-5 routine – quickly adjusting to a new normal.
And while that was different for me, it enabled me to build up a new chapter of Obakki. To spend a few quiet moments rethinking my place in the world. Dream up creative ways to merge my desire for design and my passion for philanthropy.
I had met so many talented artisans in my travels, and I managed to keep my head down long enough to build a new platform to introduce them to you. With our new focus on sustainable, ethical homewares, we are proud to say we are working with partners in 11 different countries. It encompasses 65 different artisan groups and thousands of incredible individuals. Many in African countries.
I’m back out on the road to meet them again. And it feels amazing. The flight attendant on the way over said, “Is this your first trip to Africa?”, and I almost said yes. To be able to experience something again for the first time is such a gift. I can’t wait to get lost on the red dusty back roads. Eat some white ants. Smell shea nuts roasting. Have a cold bath from a bucket. Feel connected to people again.
Thank you 9-5. I got a lot done within your boundaries. But, well…as my daughter used to say as we drove away from elementary school (head out the rolled-down window), ‘See ya, I’m outta here!’
FIRST STOP: KENYA
Of course, I wanted to visit Sylvester, our artisan partner in Nairobi, Kenya. He and his team create amazing jewelry and other brass pieces from found objects – old coins, padlocks, taps. All items that have been thrown away.
Thanks to their success in the international market, he’s been able to hire and train four more artisans this year. And he’s going to start gold and silver plating his jewelry. We are committed to helping this capable team grow and to reach their business goals. They have the talent and the determination to make it. And you’ll be hearing more about their new creations soon.
While in Nairobi, I also checked in with Jack, our artisan partner in the Kibera neighbourhood. He and his team also collect discarded brass and use it to create sustainable jewelry. But they add another material – cow horn, a discarded by-product of the food industry. They are doing advanced design work and are dipping their stunning bracelets, necklaces and rings in 18K gold and silver. We can’t wait to see their new offerings.
NEXT STOP: UGANDA
It was such a long and beautiful drive to southern Uganda. We followed the DRC border (Democratic Republic of Congo). It was worth the journey. Such beauty! There were water buffalo and zebra on the way and something interesting at every turn.
Then we took a small plane, then drove as far as we could with a 4x4 vehicle, then we hiked over an hour straight up the mountain. Such a hard trek for the locals every single day to do the basic things – and an even harder trip when there is a medical emergency.
But what a day. I loved every minute of it. I’ll be giving you a snapshot of the time we spent together in a subsequent post. I just get so inspired to dig deep into these partnerships. These women are now able to put their kids through school using their own craft.
I committed to installing four water points here and emergency first aid supplies (they are so very remote). And I committed to many, many more basket orders. I’ll have some more news to share with you on that later.
ELEPHANT DUNG SHOPPING BAGS
In this part of Uganda, where villages back onto Queen Elizabeth Park on the DRC border, the human-wildlife conflict is great. Owing to dwindling herds and stronger conservation efforts, tribes that have traditionally hunted meat must plant sustainable gardens and forgo much meat in their diets to follow the laws of animal conservation. But poachers are still plentiful and daily animals like elephants enter the villages and decimate the gardens, and something is killed – either human or animal.
Many elephants are still poached every year. Conservation efforts are measured by how many human lives are lost. And what is left are widows and orphans, a by-product of this ongoing issue.
So, 50 widows got together to come up with a solution. Having lost their own husbands to this issue, some shot for poaching, some trampled or attacked by the animals, these women developed a plan. And now, they minimize the conflict by paying locals for the dung they collect when an elephant enters the village compound.
Rather than engaging in conflict – with either animal or human losing its life – the villagers are encouraged to wait to collect their bucket of dung, which will yield $5 - $10 when brought to these women. When the elephant becomes more valuable alive than dead, the hunting stops.
The women process the elephant dung they purchase into paper, which can then be sold. A quarter of the proceeds go to the artisan papermaker, 10% to educate the children who have been orphaned, 15% is used to expand their business and a full 50% is used for the community and conservation.
These are the types of groups I love to partner with. This plan is incredible in so many ways: it protects the community, creates livelihoods, educates children, invests in the future of this village. And it’s all about the conservation of these beautiful animals.
This eco-friendly product is already used to make unique, handcrafted gift and stationery products like photo frames, visitor books, postcards, shopping bags and event cards. We sat together to discuss challenges and find a way to move forward. Obakki needs shopping bags for all our customers. And I think we may have found our supplier.
KEEPERS OF THE BEES
My first beekeeping class had 40 students, but nine of them stood out from the start. I found these individuals on the northern border of Uganda. None of them had any experience with commercial beekeeping, but that wasn’t important. What mattered was their intense curiosity, desire to grow, and determination to fulfill their potential.
These students are now the experts. After three years of training, they will begin to train others as apiary extension workers. And within a matter of months, our program will reach hundreds of farmers.
I buy all the honey the beekeepers produce at above market price. I package it and sell it – and the local market is very strong. I reinvest 100% of the profits into teaching more beekeepers with this program. And I’m using it as a livelihood initiative to expand across the entire country. This is a program close to my heart. Not only is it a great livelihood initiative, but it also supports a healthy bee population which supports a healthy environment. And I love that it’s a food, and one with many reported health benefits.
In three to four months, we’ll have 550 fives (approximately 22 million bees), and we will produce 18,000 kg of honey annually. And this may lead to big news. We are considering bringing our Obakki honey to North American markets. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this as we continue to work through the program this year!
SMELL THE COFFEE
In the mountains of Uganda, I found my coffee. I’m a big coffee fan. But I want real coffee. Believe me, this is the real thing. Shade-grown. Single origin. Great balance and body with chocolate overtones with citrus and floral notes - I think you’re going to agree with me.
It’s all hand-grown and harvested, and hand-roasted in a single location (where it was grown, unlike many coffees today). And these are coffee artisans. They love what they do, and they know what they’re doing. They do it sustainably and they do it small batch. Grown at 4,100 – 5,600 feet with an average size farm of 1-2 acres, this coffee is certified as “Slow Food Presida”, which sustains quality production at risk of extinction, protects unique regions and ecosystems, recovers traditional processing methods, and safeguards native breeds and local plant varieties. Stay tuned for more news on our new Obakki specialty coffee. Personally, I can’t wait.
OUR POTTER PARTNERS IN AKILIBA
Visiting these artisan partners was the day I was waiting for. We did some special design collaborations – these women are simply incredible. Our foundation works to establish a local market for them to sell their creations so that they are sustainable without us or our international market. And it’s working – they only lacked access. In addition, the Obakki online store purchases and sells pieces internationally while reinvesting our profits back into development in the community (as well as many others).
New designs are coming to Obakki from the Potters of Akiliba in northern Uganda. I can’t wait to share. I celebrated how far we have come together with these women on this day – and we took a moment to appreciate our success.
HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN
We are blessed to be living the lives we live. And I would be remiss to gloss over the differences between the lives of those we help and our own fortunate places in the world.
As you know, we continue to help empower thousands of women in Bidi Bidi, Uganda – one of the largest refugee settlement areas on the planet. Women who have been displaced from South Sudan by a brutal civil war. Having survived unspeakable trauma as well as the loss of their homes and families, these brave women are starting over from nothing. It is our privilege to be able to assist them on their journey.
Bidi Bidi is home to over a quarter-million people. Almost 90% of them are women and children. And there are no vaccines. It will take years for vaccines to reach them. Meanwhile, they are dying from lack of access. As of mid-October, 2021 less than 1% of Uganda had been fully vaccinated – and places like Bidi Bidi will be the last to get vaccines.
It is a luxury to be able to make a choice as to whether you want a vaccine or not. On any given day, we can walk down to our local pharmacy or community centre to get one. We can never forget how privileged we really are.
But you, our customers, never do forget. Thank you to all of you. We could not do this without you. With your support, we help people write their own success stories. Your purchases help these artists feed their families and put their children through school. Your purchases help them grow their businesses. Which leads to sustainable incomes. Perhaps the largest gift of all.
Until next time. See ya! I’m outta here.
SHOP THE STORY
The Making of: Akiliba Pots
The rural village of Akiliba, in Northern Uganda, is well off the beaten path. And it is home to a determined group of craftswomen who are using pottery as a way to sustain their whole community. These are the Potters of Akiliba.
Notes from the Field: Chiapas, Mexico
The southernmost state of Chiapas was calling – rich with textiles and pottery and indigenous craftwork true to the ancestors. The further from major urban centres, the less likely these talents will be advanced, as it is extremely difficult for these artisans to survive without access to markets. But that’s what we’re here for. So off I went.
DESIGNER INTERVIEW SERIES: Suzanne Dimma
A great design sense can be developed and nurtured. It isn’t something you’re necessarily born with. Many talented architects and designers, including my husband, are the sole designers in their families, so clearly it isn’t only genetic. It’s more about having a deep interest and passion and great powers of observation and then building on experience.