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The women mostly wearing beautiful, brightly colored traditional gowns were seated quietly beneath white event tents festooned in bright colors surrounding a small plaza that would serve as a stage. An empty tent on a platform was waiting for the VIP guests, including the executives of All Across Africa, the company the women credit with changing their lives.
All Across Africa sources handicrafts from here in Rwanda and also from Uganda and Burundi. The women weave baskets. This model would not distinguish All Across Africa from dozens or perhaps hundreds of other social enterprises that buy handicrafts from marginalized communities in emerging markets, but the story doesn’t end there.
CEO Greg Stone and COO Alicia Wallace have developed an impressive customer base for their products, including Pro Flowers and Costco. Their portfolio of buyers includes hundreds of independent retailers, allowing them to buy in volumes that are unusual.
All Across Africa’s secret sauce is creating contemporary designs that are appealing to Americans that the weavers in Rwanda can produce, rather than simply taking what the women were making and trying to sell it in the U.S.
When the company landed Costco in 2009, they had to grow their phalanx of weavers who supply their products from 60 women to over 1,000 in about 90 days. It has continued to grow ever since. Today, about 2,000 of the women were invited from this part of Rwanda to participate in the celebration. At least half showed up.
The weavers, primarily women but including a few men, held their annual celebration of the year spent working themselves out of poverty. The event is part annual meeting and includes some ceremony, but is primarily a party to celebrate their shared success.
At last year’s event, the weavers presented Greg with a spear and shield as symbols of his battle with their poverty. They recognized that they needed each other to make the climb from the lowest economic rungs to a lifestyle that would include adequate food, shelter and clothing—and dignity. In his remarks, Greg recommitted himself and the company to the fight.
All Across Africa exists to fulfill that mission. Selling baskets is simply the vehicle the company uses to achieve that objective. Organized originally as a nonprofit, the company now uses a hybrid model with a for-profit and a nonprofit entity. The for-profit business, All Across Africa, sources and sells baskets and other handicrafts. Opportunity Across Africa, the nonprofit, provides training.
The company participated in the Global Social Benefit Institute program at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University in 2016. I wrote about the program here.
The company has helped the women form and manage co-ops. Technically, the company doesn’t buy products from the weavers; it buys from the co-ops. The co-ops are all independent. They can choose to sell products to other companies and there are several competing for the women’s handicrafts. But, the women say they earn twice as much selling to All Across Africa and so devote the majority of their time to its orders.
The income they make is life changing, they say. Typically, before joining the ranks of the All Across Africa weavers, they ate only two meals a day, including a bowl of porridge for breakfast that would have to last a full day of working outside on their farms. Now, they eat three meals a day, pay others to work on their farms and use their profits to acquire more land and animals. The women take pride in being fat, though few would qualify for that label in the U.S. None of the women appeared skinny or undernourished.
The income increases their status in the community and at home. The women not only earn greater respect from their neighbors but also from their husbands. They admitted that their husbands were dismissive of their work before All Across Africa but no longer. Many women earn more than their husbands and are now true partners in their marriages.
The income is also growing the local economy in unanticipated ways. In addition to using their new wealth to hire farm hands, they also buy sisal, the natural thread they use for weaving the baskets, rather than tediously harvest it themselves as they once did. Each week, the women gather for order days on Monday and Tuesday. A cottage industry of food purveyors has popped up so the woman don’t have to cook or bring lunch.
At today’s event, in a lengthy pageant-like sketch, the women portrayed the complete cycle of change that All Across Africa brings to their lives. They covered everything from how they were recruited and how skeptical they were about changing their lives by weaving to how to run a co-op, to avoid bad financial decisions—like spending their money on banana beer—and how to save for the future. The presentation ended with the women dancing and proudly holding up their bank books.
A local politician was invited to speak. His message, reminding the women to be thrifty and to buy health insurance was at least redundant and perhaps insulting. One of the women leaders, Irene Mujawayezu (her last name means servant of Jesus, one of the staff explained), took the microphone to explain in response that in her co-op, all of the women have their health insurance paid and to otherwise make clear that these women didn’t need a man to tell them how to spend their money.
In her remarks today, Alicia invoked a local blessing, “I wish you many cows and much success.” That was also redundant. The women do have many cows and plenty of success.