NOTES FROM THE FIELD: KENYA
Notes from the Field is a series that follows our founder, Treana Peake, as she visits our Obakki artisan partners around the world. This is part two of Notes from the Field: Africa. We follow Treana to Kenya, where she visits with existing artisan partners and, as always, discovers something new.
My worlds have finally collided in the most perfect way. My 30 years of development work have now come full circle to meet my passion for design. I can travel the world and meet incredible people who are designing remarkable pieces. And I’m able to help them develop a sustainable income from their art, their craft, their passion. I feel like I’ve found the path that will help create real, lasting change for real human beings.
With Obakki’s new focus on sustainable, ethical homewares we work with partners in 11 different countries. We collaborate with 65 different artisan groups and thousands of incredible individuals. Many of our artisans are in African countries.
It was a time of great reflection and planning in 2020 when the world shut down. And we planned our way forward. Before we knew it, it was the autumn of 2021. And time to get back into the field. After 24 hours of travel (including a layover in Amsterdam and a snack of bitterballen), we landed in Nairobi, Kenya. And just like that, I was back in Africa.
Naomi is my eyes and ears on the ground in Kenya. She is the face of Obakki, and she makes sure our artisans are being treated fairly and that our beliefs and values are upheld. We believe in slow design and sustainable production. We believe the artisans and their communities should benefit from the sale, not middlemen. We believe in people. In Kenya, Naomi is the guardian of those beliefs.
She is a powerhouse – strong, resilient, independent. And kind. Oh, so kind. She is the very best ingredients woven into one magnificent woman. But not just beauty and brawn, she’s also a talented jewelry designer. She’s the gal beside Sylvester, as he cranks out his new jewelry designs. We love her and are grateful for her work on behalf of our Kenyan artists.
After my recent (necessary but sometimes frustrating) “staycation”, I realized (once again) how incredibly important it is to be out in the field. To see old friends and make new ones. To keep moving forward with new livelihood initiatives. To connect with people. It reinforces everything I believe.
SYLVESTER EXPANDS HIS BUSINESS
Our customers all know about Sylvester – the blacksmith from Nairobi who, along with his team, creates the most incredible jewelry and flatware from brass. Sylvester buys his brass from locals, who collect discarded items and melt them down. Brass items that would otherwise end up in landfills. Old padlocks and other bits of metal the locals find on the streets of Nairobi. We love the concept of taking abandoned items – and turning them into something beautiful and new. And so do you, apparently.
Sylvester asked me to thank everyone who has purchased his jewelry – and this gratitude is from the bottom of his heart. Because of your support for his designs and craftsmanship, he has been able to hire four young men this year to help him. As you know, one of his goals is to be able to help young people in Nairobi create a sustainable living for themselves. Thanks to all of you, this dream is coming true.
When I visited him, we celebrated his growth and discussed his plans for the future. I think you’re going to love his new pieces.
Three of Sylvester’s new artisans (left to right): Victor, Michael, Brian
When I met three of his four new helpers, they shared their thoughts about their new paths in life:
Victor: “I am dreaming without limits. Hoping people all around the world will see us, and love what we do.”
Michael: “In this world, it’s important to take care of each other.”
Brian: “I love this job. It’s my passion. And I want people around the world to feel happy when they wear our jewelry.”
And that should be easy to do. When you wear this modern, sustainable jewelry, feel happy. Happy about the source, happy about the environment and happy about how great it looks.
Pieces from our artisan partners always make great gifts – the enclosed artisan story cards tell the recipient how your purchase has helped create a sustainable living for our partners around the world.
LAMPSHADES WITH LUSTRE
In Nairobi, we met a new artisan, Michael – who creates robust lampshades in vibrant oranges and yellows. His main sales are local—always a good sign – and he has sold his products in China through an agent. But his business does not depend on tourism or export, it is localized and that is important.
Michael had a workshop, but the pandemic and a period of low orders made him realize he could no longer afford the rent. So, until he can get back on his feet, he is working from his home. His goal is to get enough capital to be able to revive his workshop – and hire local artists with talent and passion.
Michael is proactive, diving into the world of online marketing to enable client awareness. His future has no limits with this kind of determination and talent, and he has plans for the product range to grow into other lifestyle products once he has more artisans onboard.
We have ordered lampshades from Michael for our wholesale customer, Simons. We will also be offering them on the Obakki website soon. As I’m sure you know, many deliveries are delayed due to the pandemic and supply chain issues around the world. Stay tuned for more info – it won’t be long until we have Michael’s magnificent lampshades in the store!
RECOVERED, REIMAGINED, REPURPOSED.
In Nairobi, there is a neighbourhood called Kibera, just half a mile wide by two miles long. Yet it houses over a million people. It’s one of the world’s densest – and most impoverished – communities and its residents suffer crushing hardships. Despite this (and possibly because of this), Kibera is a creative hub. It has a thriving community of artists, dancers, craftsmen, and thousands of other talented residents. The Economist declared, in 2012: “Kiberia may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet.”
While in Nairobi, I spent a day in the Kibera slums with our artisan partners. This is where you will find Jack and his inspiring group of artisans. Under Jack’s creative direction, they create beautiful pieces from the scraps they find outside the tiny shack where they work.
Listening to them bounce ideas off one another in an environment where everyone has a place to be creative was priceless to me. But then they spoke to me about needing to put food on their table and to pay their children’s school fees. Every piece they create is not only an expression of art, but a tool for survival.
I would love to help remove that constant stress for them. So that the nervousness of creating (and selling) pieces for food security is replaced with the calm confidence of knowing that “everything is going to be okay today”. So that their creative ideas can grow without constant fear.
This is a tiny shop that creates stunning jewelry from discarded objects. Old brass pieces: keys, padlocks, nuts & bolts – but they take it further. They add recycled cow horn, a by-product of the food industry in Kenya.
From these humble beginnings and discarded material, modern, sleek jewelry emerges from Jack’s workshop. And some news for fans of his designs – this year he is offering pieces dipped in 18K gold or silver for an even more elevated look.
I’m determined to help them grow their business. Talent and determination in this place run deep and helping them establish a sustainable business is the sustainable path forward. As Victor, one of the Kibera artisans said to me, “The world needs to stop thinking we need handouts. Look at what we are capable of here. We need access to an international market. That’s it. We aren’t standing here with our hands out.”
These are the people we work with. They don’t want charity and that isn’t how we operate. Obakki is about helping our artisan partners create sustainable incomes. We always ask for a business plan when we find new artisans who we think we would like to work with. And they always have one. We work through their plan with them for opportunities where we can contribute, not just with the artisans but with their communities also. Our involvement must mean that everyone wins.
We open international markets for these artisans with orders for our online store, sure. But we always consider helping to establish local markets for our artisans our top priority. They must have local markets because the international markets are fickle. We pay our artisans promptly and fairly and often advance material costs and sample budgets. We work to help them reach their goals, not ours. Our goal is to help them be independent of us. Our goal is to become just one of hundreds of buyers.
Many of our customers got to know Obakki as an online store (and indeed, we are). But more than that – behind our store, we run an artisan incubator. Our goal, first and foremost, is to help talented artisans around the world earn a sustainable income from their craft. To brainstorm with them, to mentor them, to assist them where and when they need help. And that’s why it’s so important to be out in the field with them. You can’t affect real change from behind a desk thousands of miles away. And behind a desk is not in my blood, anyway.
I’m grateful my worlds have collided this way. And I am grateful for our Obakki customers – and our Obakki foundation donors. With your support, we are making a difference. Every. Single. Day.
And with that, it was time to leave for Uganda. That’s the next post.
Until next time. See ya! I’m outta here.
SHOP THE STORY
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