After the birth of her second child, Idah Gakii was forced to let go of her daytime nanny and invest in a full-time babysitter. Realising that her decision would leave the mother of eight unemployed, sharing a similar fate of so many other women in Kenya, Idah decided to use creativity as a driving force for employment. Kwetu Décor & Designs is a collective formed to not only empower women but to showcase the characteristics of African women through art. This project is rooted in ‘Ubuntu’ – to help and serve those around us. Kwetu strives to empower and bestow livelihood to those who might be unemployed otherwise.
How did the high unemployment rate amongst women bring fruition to this project?
I decided to use arts and crafts because it is something a lot of women can relate to. African women have always expressed themselves well within art. I designed a few pieces and advertised them on Facebook and as they say, ‘the rest is history’.
Describe the production process – from concept to sale.
We buy used tyres from workshops, bring them to our studio and wash them thoroughly. After the tyres are clean, we wrap them in coloured sisal and attach wooden pegs for legs. If we make a table, we add a glass tabletop. The craft is now ready to be sold.
How do environmental responsibilities factor into production?
We only use sisal products, which are eco-friendly. Our crafts are made from used tyres, so we recycle a rather harsh element in nature to make something beautiful. This also teaches the concept of recycling. We use what is already there to create something new.
Take us through the design choices – both the cultural significance of materials and final patterns that dictate the look.
In Kenya especially, sisal has been used to weave baskets for a very long time. It’s a product women know and can work with. It was also used to tie firewood and is thus a very practical and efficient material that can handle wear and tear. We are using this traditionally raw material to make modern home décor pieces that stand the test of time.
Women have a very important part to play in creative arts. Define the role African women play in this discipline and how you make your mark.
Women pay attention to detail. They see patterns and shapes more holistically. They will always give great focus and attention to whatever project they work on to deliver creative and beautiful art. Women are also the backbone of society and they will always give it their best to whatever project they’re working on. I try and pay it forward by changing the chain of unemployment. If I can employ women and give them a goal, ultimately my craft becomes their craft, and those who buy our crafts share in our creative collective. We impact those around us.
Can you describe some of the challenges that women face and what your biggest challenges in this venture are?
In Kenya and Africa at large, men are twice as likely to receive formal employment. Women are left in large scale to face the challenges of unemployment and are forced to make ends meet with almost nothing. My biggest challenge is access to financial resources to train more women. Accessing bigger formal markets is also a challenge. Bigger companies have more revenue to spend on marketing and brand awareness. Another logistical challenge is shipping, especially for export purposes. It is very difficult to maintain a small business and be able to ship to multiple locations.
Paying it forward to the community is something you strive towards. How do you see this initiative benefit the community and also your business?
We currently employ seven permanent staff members and four casual workers. This venture helps women support their families. Paying it forward means we will eventually have more women employed and happier families. Children will be able to access education through this initiative. Through franchising my business will grow and Kwetu will become global.
What would you like to see happen for African women in the future?
I would like to see more African women empowered and uplifting their communities. Our art is a reflection of us as women – beautiful, sophisticated and modern. The more women we get to train and see them hone their skills and making beautiful crafts, the happier I will be. I see the future, and it pivots around African women. Idah believes that collectives like Kwetu have the power to transform communities. When asked what we can do to change the lives of those around us, Idah answers optimistically, “Only if we as Africans come together and work in unison, creating together and helping each other, will we alleviate poverty on this continent.
Article originally published in African Independent November 2018 issue.