Creating Jobs for Women in Africa with Luxury Home Goods
Amsha began when Laura Walker traveled to East Africa in the summer of 2008 after graduating college. It ended up leaving a huge impression on her, as she witnessed extreme poverty first-hand and misguided aid organizations doing more harm than good. She returned to the U.S. to work in the design field, but really felt driven to make a larger impact to create jobs in Kenya. Believing that everyone should have access to education, Laura knew that through job creation, future generations could finish their education and become self-sufficient. Shortly after she returned home, Laura quit her job and packed her bags to return to Africa. She researched artisanal work in East Africa and worked in micro-enterprise development in South Africa, before returning to Kenya at the end of 2012 to start Amsha.
Now based in Portland, Oregon, Amsha works directly with artisans across Africa. They focus on driving social change in underserved communities by bringing quality, ethically made goods to the marketplace.
S: Amsha’s goods are absolutely gorgeous. Handwoven baskets have become very popular lately, did you anticipate that trend or how did you decide that would be your feature product?
L: I sort of fell into it. I was open to different product ideas when I was trying to design and source products with artisans in Africa. While living in Kenya, I traveled to Rwanda for two weeks and met some basket weavers there. The rest is history!
S: What a lucky find! Sounds kismet. I imagine there’s a lot to juggle with an international company now that you’re back in the states. What are some of your biggest challenges with running Amsha?
L: We run a business that relies on imports and exports. We’re involved in all aspects of product development from design to production, and we are working across cultures. Just factoring in one of these elements is a challenge and we juggle all three simultaneously!
It’s taken a lot of time to iron out kinks over the years. I spent my first four years in business figuring out logistics and quality control, hiring staff to manage our on-the-ground operations, and figuring out our product mix. And even now when it seems like we've "figured it out," things are always changing, and we learn to adapt.
Sourcing raw materials can be a challenge... one day they are available, the next day they are not. In the rainy season, it's very difficult to dye fibers for our baskets (we need sun for them to dry), so we have to expect slower production times. There are always new challenges but it keeps it interesting!
S: So true. Entrepreneurship is never boring. Do you have an example of how these challenges manifest themselves?
L: So many! One of the funniest is regarding one of my early pieces that we made, which was a little brass ring that said ‘XO’ on it. It was to be part of a Valentine's Collection. After the sample was approved, our jewelry artisan started making them for the order. What I ended up with was a bunch of rings with random initials: ‘AC’, ‘GF’, ‘ZP’... (you get the idea).
I also learned not to tell anyone that a design is drawn to scale. It will inevitably get printed jumbo-sized and you get larger than life products. Communication is very critical to the success of our business.
S: Oh wow! I’m imagining all these giant products and how alarming that had to be at first. I think it’s almost impossible for our customers to know just how much goes into their products.
L: Customers really appreciate the quality of our goods and the fact that with each purchase, they are supporting job creation for women in Africa. The time and technique that goes into our goods is extraordinary and to see how a product is made from start to finish really allows people to appreciate these items that much more.
S: Talk about purchasing power! It’s amazing to see how our economy is waking up to the truth that we can purchase things that not only benefit ourselves, but others too. What is encouraging you right now?
L: I'm encouraged by how many people have shown up to support small businesses during these times. While some retail shops have closed, I love seeing how customers are making an extra effort to support them and keep them afloat.
S: Amen! How are you getting through this new normal?
L: We’re approaching each day as just another challenge! It's forcing us to market our products in new ways and adapt to the situation. I miss seeing my U.S. coworker, as we alternate days in the studio, but I'm also trying to enjoy life at a slower pace for the moment.
S: That’s such a good outlook. Still, it takes a lot of dedication to run a business under the best of circumstances. What keeps you passionate and determined to succeed with Amsha?
L: I love helping people and I love to travel and learn about new cultures. In college, I taught "the economics of staying in school" at a juvenile detention center. That was eye-opening. I worked in microenterprise development in South Africa and at an organization in the U.S. to help refugees find their first job. I loved those experiences which all revolved around empowering others to increase self-sufficiency, so I feel like Amsha is a dream job for me. Of course, I couldn't do it without my staff. I am so lucky to be surrounded by really smart and talented people.
Fred heads up our operations in Kenya. We met in front of a supermarket in Kenya nine years ago. He wanted to finish a bachelor's degree but was unable to continue his studies due to a lack of funds. I promised to pay for his university if he helped me in the beginning stages of Amsha, and he's been with us ever since (and he completed his degree in project management).
Devotha heads up our work in Rwanda. She is a member of one of our weaving groups. After graduating from university, she was unable to find a job, so her neighbor taught her how to weave. When we hired her, I was really looking for a translator, but it quickly became apparent that she could so much more. We are so lucky to work with her, and she is dearly loved by all of our artisan groups in Rwanda.
After seven years in business, I have seen the impact that we are making on the lives of our artisans. I've seen some move into better housing situations and seen improvements in their family's wellbeing. I feel personally responsible to each of them to provide work and that gives me the determination to weather any storm. I never see failure as an option.
We’re incredibly impressed and encouraged by Laura’s positivity and perseverance. When you can offer something beautiful that also creates good in the world, that is something to celebrate! We hope you’ll support social enterprises like Amsha. You can find more of their goods here.