A Model that Truly Changes Lives

A few months ago, former staff member Danielle (now hiking the Pacific Crest Trail!) was in Kenya and visited three of our partners there. Below is her story.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting three of Serrv’s long-term partners in Kenya to gather photos, learn more about the work they do, and listen to the artisans speak about their lives. It was my first overseas trip for Serrv but not my first time in East Africa—just a few years ago I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania—and excited as I was to visit a new country and learn first-hand about the impact Serrv makes, I wasn’t expecting to see much I hadn’t already seen before.

Philip, member of Nyabigena Soapstone Carvers

Philip, member of Nyabigena Soapstone Carvers

In some ways that was true: I visited Serrv partner Nyabigena Soapstone Carvers, based in a small village in western Kenya which looked not unlike the village I once served in. I saw families who made a living farming or raising livestock, some of them successful in their efforts, others struggling to make ends meet. I saw children eager to attend school and parents doing everything they can to ensure their children succeed, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. For many people living in that small village, the money they had left in their pocket every month depended on factors outside of their control: weather, sudden illness, family or friends needing support. Through my time in East Africa, I’ve seen this story again and again. But the story that I hadn’t seen first hand was the myriad ways in which fair trade has an impact on these lives. Take Philip, for example. Happily married with six children, Philip has been working with Nyabigena Soapstone Carvers for 18 years. Philip says he is easily able to support his family these days, though with a large family things used to be difficult. Because of the income he earned carving soapstone, Philip saved money and purchased a cow which now provides he and his family with a daily supply of milk. In addition to that, he is able to sell the surplus of milk to generate additional income. This extra amount, made possible through his work, has given Philip and his family the security that they’ll have enough when unexpected expenses arise.

In Nairobi, life is vastly different from rural western Kenya. Thousands of people reside in informal settlements or “slums” with extremely high population density, leaving few opportunities for formal work available. Serrv partner Trinity Jewellery Crafts employs people from the slums and teaches them jewelry-making skills that enable them to find their way out of these poor living conditions. Every artisan I met at Trinity spoke highly of their work, particularly John, whose happiness is evident in his smile. John has been with Trinity since 1985, and in addition to making jewelry he oversees the production line as Workshop Manager. He also designs many of the pieces. “Over these 30 years I’ve seen myself growing,” he says, “and I’ve raised a family and been able to take care of their needs."

Artisan Joachim working on Serrv bracelets at Trinity Jewellery Crafts

Artisan Joachim working on Serrv bracelets at Trinity Jewellery Crafts

My last stop in Kenya was to Bombolulu Workshops in coastal Mombasa. Bombolulu employs artisans with physical disabilities, providing vital income to people who need it so urgently. Shumi, who has worked with Bombolulu for nine years, suffers from polio and cannot use pedal-operated sewing machines. Instead she works by cutting, ironing, and finishing textile pieces. “It’s important for us to find work we are able to do, because we face challenges every day,” she says. “Fetching water is difficult and I pay someone to help me. I must take public transport to the market or pay someone to help me buy goods when I need them. Without work, life with a physical disability can be very difficult.” In her nine years working in fair trade,
Shumi says she’s been able to lead a good life, sending her daughter to school and supporting her mother. These are just three of the many inspiring stories I heard during my trip. The artisans in each place I visited lead such different lives and face such difficult challenges,
yet the thread that connects each is the positive changes and better life that they have been able to achieve. These and other stories would not be possible without generous and dedicated support from the fair trade community.

Watch an interview with Shumi below