The power of listening: beads of love

The weather was humid and hot and the streets full of matatus, the small colorful minibuses that inundate the streets of Nairobi. We were looking forward for what would be the first official training session with the Karioko artisans. The sun was high and the car drove fast.

A table full of food was ready, bowls of chips and meat on top of the typical maasai shuka, a piece of striped colored fabric. Food to share, ideas to share, a project to build together. Everyone had high expectations on the day. Ruth was the first to break the ice, with JJ and Janet smiling and Francisca trying her best English to communicate – Swahili is the main language spoken in Kenya and not everyone is comfortable with English.

A large package of M&Ms bought at the airport was the ice-breaker, each M&M would be used to let each person slowly start sharing stories, live expectations and challenges. Each color was the representation of a dream, a hidden talent or a life story. The main purpose of the day was to listen. We had time to sing and to dance at the sound of Kenyan hits. Life as an artisan and bead weaver was always at the center. Every day, each artisan has to understand which beads are left, which ones to buy and which are the most promising color combinations and designs for the tourists that pass by to purchase. Competition is fierce, numerous artisans and a lot of intermediaries in the process try to capture the demand from foreigners and tourist shop owners. Often artisans have the talent but not the business skills and end up with large stock of inventories of beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Beads of love left in a dusty shelf waiting to be picked. This was what we saw, what we listened, what we understood. All the potential uncovered in that colorful messy place – a local market in the center of Nairobi.

Away from the market, in the quiet, green garden surrounding the house of one of Karioko’s volunteers – Kui -  we heard all the stories, we tried to understand. We took note of three issues for the future:

  1. Planning & Stock: planning involves understanding the past and projecting the future, it involves record-keeping, managing stock, sales and beads supply. Often local artisans lack education, tools and discipline to see the value of planning.
  2. Investment & Financing: beadwork requires investment - investment in initial stock, in better quality beads to differentiate products. However, credit markets in Africa are undeveloped and artisans live counting the money for the day.
  3. Access & Networks: to be able to sell products, access to potential demand is essential. Local artisans, often informal, lack access to the international market. Moreover, local networks are complex and opaque, often with several intermediaries who take commissions or never pay back the products.

When we look around us, there is so much untapped potential, so many people with skills and will to thrive and develop communities, that are held back by the surroundings, the lack of business education, the weak financial markets, the trade barriers. We were once again reminded of the reason behind this project - the power of the invisible informal artisans in developing markets as a force for good.

The workshop was only the beginning of a long journey.

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