By: A. Jeanene Medley, 2015 MBA Candidate
Ubuntu, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore, I am.” Professor Babarinde emphasized this Zulu word and its meaning in my Regional Business Environment: Sub-Saharan Africa course this past spring trimester. It describes the communal mindset found throughout African countries. I was able to experience this first hand during my internship at Amani ya Juu this summer while spending time at its headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and at one of its training centers in Kenya. This experience was extremely gratifying because I was able to combine my background in fashion merchandising with the knowledge I am gaining from my MBA studies at Thunderbird to empower women economically. This is one of my ultimate career goals.
Amani ya Juu (Amani), which means higher peace in Swahili, is a non-profit organization that employs women from diverse backgrounds whose lives have been disrupted by HIV/AIDS, poverty, and violent conflict in their home countries. Amani’s five training centers in Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, and Rwanda, have been providing these women with training in sewing to produce fair-trade products such as home goods, jewelry, apparel and textiles for nearly 20 years. They in turn, receive fair wages to support themselves as well as their dependents.
The products these women produce are made from local materials and are sold throughout the U.S. via home parties, two store fronts and primarily on Amani’s online store. There is also a store at their Kenyan center. As a market research intern, I was tasked with assisting in identifying Amani’s “it” product that could be potentially marketed to mainstream retailers. To do this, I conducted focus groups comprised of women from diverse demographic backgrounds to test consumers’ reactions to Amani products and gather data on their purchasing behaviors.
Prior to reviewing the products, I asked focus group participants, “What is your understanding of a fair-trade product?” More often than not, their responses would be blank stares and several I don’t knows. Occasionally, some would say that the producers of the products receive fair compensation and they most likely come from least developed countries. I had to explain that it goes beyond receiving livable wages and geographical location, but also when those who create the product have fair and safe working conditions, are able to assist in helping improve their communities, and have enough funds to invest in their health and that of their family members. It was gratifying to hear one focus group participant express that as a result of my focus group sessions, she now has a better understanding of what fair-trade products entail and would make a conscious effort to purchase more of these products.
When I arrived at Amani’s Kenya sewing center located in Nairobi, I discovered that I had much more to learn about the organization and the women. I spent time in various departments such as procurement, production, quality control, and many more. I was impressed by the leadership roles entrusted to the trainees who have demonstrated exceptional sewing skills and strong sense of responsibility over the years.
I was even more impressed by some of the executive staff’s responses about their vision for Amani. I expected them to say that increasing brand awareness and securing wholesale accounts with retailers were top priorities. Instead, they consistently mentioned their desire is to employ more women so they can help them heal and be transformed from their painful pasts. One executive staff member specifically mentioned that she would like to build two additional centers in Kenya so that the women would not have to travel so far to the existing center. Some women take up to three matatus, public transportation vehicles, and close to two hours to commute to work. The dedication and bond that these women have with each other and to Amani is evident in their morning and afternoon devotions during which they sing hymns, share their concerns and thankfulness, take lessons from their scripture reading, and pray together.
Some of the women said that their ultimate dream is to establish their own business one day. One woman, who is a refugee from Rwanda, bashfully shared that she dreams of going back to school to complete her education so that she could return to Rwanda and start an organization similar to Amani in her home village. She too, wants to spread the peace and reconciliation she has experienced over the years at Amani. However, for now she is satisfied that she earns enough income to send her children to school.
Although I enjoyed learning from the different departments of Amani Kenya, sourcing materials from local Kenyan vendors and artisans, and assisting in laying the foundation for a marketing strategy, none of these experiences can compare to what the women’s resilience taught me. These ladies taught me that in spite of trials, one can continue to walk with her head held high by holding on to her faith. In addition, they taught me that it is imperative to help others that you encounter along your journey, which makes you stronger. These lessons were especially reflected in the positive attitude of the Amani store host whose leg was permanently injured by a terrible car accident years ago. International customers have to come love her warm, lively personality over the years. When I told her how popular she was in the U.S., she quickly corrected me. She said it was not her they admire, but all the women of Amani. She further explained that when she sells products to the customers, all Amani women are benefiting. These ladies’ view of life captures the essence of Ubuntu.