Interview: Talking Dignity + Autonomy with Songa Designs

Let’s be honest: interviews with ethical brands can sometimes feel a bit repetitive.

Person concerned with social justice starts a business to provide fair wage jobs to disenfranchised people. Lovely? Yes. Original? Not exactly.

But I have had the very good fortune of interviewing people who are not afraid to get into the nitty gritty details of what this work entails, to be honest about the internal and external issues of working in an industry that wants to do good but doesn’t always have the resources to make the most effective business decisions.

Today’s interview with Sarah Sternberg of Rwanda-based Songa Designs provides the kind of detailed, anecdotal information I can add to my mental library to form a clearer picture of the industry and its challenges as a whole. Thanks for your time, Sarah.

StyleWise: How did you get into this business?

Sarah: I was doing volunteer work. [The plan was to volunteer in Rwanda for] 2 weeks in 2008. The recession hit and I had been laid off from my job. I had gotten my MBA but no one was hiring. A friend of mine had recommended an organization in Rwanda. So I did that, but it snowballed, and I ended up running a nonprofit for 15 months from the time I landed.

SW: Why start a social enterprise instead of continuing to work in the nonprofit sector?

SS: One of the reasons [my business partner and designer] Ellie and I started Songa was because, in the nonprofit world we worked in, the women did not have a seat at the table, so to speak. We thought there should be more independence for these women. It meant a lot for me to give these women an opportunity to be true businesswomen.

I also didn’t want to stay in the nonprofit side of things, because the products are sold with a lot of stories that tend to be dehumanizing. Because the women don’t have access to the stories being published, they can’t own their own stories. I’ve developed relationships with these women and I would never want to exploit them. It’s just not what I stand for. The pain of the genocide will always be there, but they don’t always want to be reminded of it. They want to build a new life.

Really, what you’re looking at is a craft, and she’s insanely talented, and she’s able to sell her work to the world. It’s not a pity purchase!

We want our messaging to artisans to be: “We’re working with you because you guys are good weavers. The work we put out there should be showing the craft.” They like working with us because we work with them as talented weavers.

I’m not bashing nonprofits, of course – there’s a role for sure – but our area of expertise is not in building wells. Our mission is empowering women with their existing talents.

SW: How do you handle marketing sensitively since you’re working with what many would consider to be a marginalized population?

SS: I want the women to be proud of what they’re making, and they are. This is passed down from generation to generation. They want to share that with the world, but in a dignified way. We don’t share sob stories. We don’t feel that those are valuable or respectful.

SW: You work with a co-op model. How do you select co-ops? What values do you look for first?

SS: When I was heading the nonprofit, I was introduced to a number of cooperatives. Each co-op has their own area of expertise (for example, banana leaf or cow horn). During my time running the nonprofit, I was able to work with these women. So it was a perfect, smooth transition when I went to start Songa, because we already knew each other.

The way we chose which cooperatives to work with? They had to be registered with the Rwandan government, have a certain level of expertise, and be able to provide the type of materials we wanted to specialize in.

(The Rwandan government has laid out the way businesses may work with cooperatives. It’s in the cooperative’s favor, because they’re independent. They can only take on so much business from an individual business, in order to ensure that if that business folds, they aren’t completely dependent on it for their own success.)

SW: Is it difficult for you and your artisans to set a fair wage? I know that wages set by the country are often inadequate, but how do you decide what’s fair?

SS: There’s no complication really, because the best economists in the world are at the bottom of the pyramid. Women budget for their families, so they know what a living wage is. We have data around what artisans ask for in the city versus rural area, and we can gather information to make sure both sides are being fair.

If the designs are difficult, we pay more. If the designs aren’t in season or not readily available, we pay more. But because there is mutual trust, the negotiations are very quick.

SW: In this post, I’m wearing a limited edition Unity Sarong designed in collaboration with another social enterprise, Mrembo Africa. How did the collaboration with Mrembo Africa come about?

SS: We did a photoshoot with Modeliste Magazine in January. We flew out to Rwanda together and I got to know the editor in chief. Her mom lives in Africa and is one of the founders of Mrembo, which is based in Kenya. Their speciality is hand dying fabric.

I would love to do more collaborations moving forward, particularly because we don’t have fabric makers in our network right now. They do a lot of work for hotels and Airbnbs in Kenya. This is one of their introductions to the international market, so that was one way we could bring value to them.

TL;DR: Social enterprise models have the potential to offer greater autonomy for artisans, as long as the messaging is non-exploitative and the terms are fair. Songa Designs works with artisans who have a seat at the table and protection from the Rwandan government, making items that speak to their heritage and skill. 

About the Unity Sarong: “Hand-dyed by skilled Kenyan artisans over the course of two hours, each detailed sarong showcases the beauty of artisan groups from different backgrounds combining their talents. Each sarong comes with a beautifully woven sisal leaf sarong buckle woven by Songa artisans. The limited edition artisan sarongs will be available for purchase through August 31, 2017.” Sarongs cost $38 and are available in two sizes and two colors: Fuschia and Cobalt (I’m wearing the small Cobalt sarong as a scarf in these images).

Purchase the Unity Sarong here. 

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