Monday, January 5, 2015

Interview with MamAfrica Designs: Pioneers Empowering Women in the DRC through Fair Trade Fashion

Fair Trade African Fashion Sustainable Women's
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MamAfrica Clutch DRC
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Burgundy Foldable Leather Ballet Flats || Tieks
Artisan made, Italian Leather, they stretch to fit my super wide feet; Gavrielli foundation partners with Kiva and had donated +$1M to marginalized women entrepreneurs.
Padded iPad Patterned Clutch || c/o MamAfrica Designs
The first fair trade fashion company in Eastern Congo. Employing marginalized women, full time.

I was so excited to connect with MamAfrica! I first learned of them from my friend Nadia who wrote an amazing piece on MamAfrica and how this job opportunity system is helping women in conflict regions. My interview today looks into the business side of MamAfrica. I love how this brand is sustainable, fair trade, and their prints are beautifully African inspired with a look that caters to the American market too. Super fun!

Without further adieu...

Hello there, please introduce yourself! When did you start working with Mamafrica?
My name is Ryan and I started working with Mamafrica about three months ago. I am a Global Studies and Public Policy double major at UNC Chapel Hill, and I am so glad to have gotten the chance to work for this great organization during my time at school.

Why the name Mamafrica?
Mothers in Congo call themselves “Mamas” and distinguish themselves with their children’s names. If your first born is named Isabella, many will call you Mama Isabella. Mamafrica is representative of these women being the mothers, the strength, and the roots of Congo.

Why the DRC?
Simply stated Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), especially the eastern region has been deemed unsafe, broken, and hopeless. For these reasons, Ashley was drawn to the region and discovered that beauty exists everywhere. One of our goals is to show the western world that DRC is a country filled with innovators, leaders, and beautiful artists. 

Can you tell me what short term and long term impacts Mamafrica is making?
 In a region of the DRC where 85% of women are unemployed, we foster a positive work environment, enabling women to excel. By working full-time as part of Mamafrica’s sewing program, our artisans not only develop marketable skills but develop a sense of empowerment that only comes from observing the value in one’s work and successfully providing for oneself and one’s family. 

We also invest in the next generation: in addition to a full-day nursery program, Mamafrica matches school fee payments for all of the families served by our center. This practice reflects ethical business conduct in the DRC. 318 children currently attend school with direct support from our center.

 MamAfrica Congo Fashion Fair Trade

How does women's empowerment, education, and equality play a role in this business?

The Mamafrica model promotes personal growth among women who are especially vulnerable in eastern Congolese culture. At Mamafrica’s Center, artisans grow and learn practically through our education based learning curriculum THRIVE, which expands the work we do through our skills based employment program. The main goal of the education program is to build strong bodies and strong minds. 

How many women are currently employed? What were they doing before working with MamAfrica?

As of now, we are serving 53 women in total. Forced to leave behind their land, homes, and families, many of our female artisans working at Mamafrica learned to survive by selling fruit or clothing in Bukavu’s markets or by engaging in other petty informal trades. In the face of minimal social support and economic hardship-the formal employment rate in Bukavu for adult women is at 15%, leaving many women with no option but to live in extreme poverty.

Tell me about the workspace? What is a typical workday like for the women who make the beautiful Mamafrica products?
Our office is based in the heart of Bukavu, we have a modest space off the main road where the artisans come five days a week. Our workspace is filled with sewing machines, fabric, smiling children, and lots of movement. We have a main area where the sewing takes place, a nursery, a classroom, and an office in the back. The women arrive at Mamafrica with their young children and they start the day off by meeting with our sewing teachers. From there they discuss the plan for the day and work begins. At noon , they attend a one hour course from our THRIVE curriculum and eat lunch as a group. Its lovely how the women work as a collective and exhibit a strong community at the center. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about your founder? Why choose to create clutches?

Ashley Nemiro started traveling to Congo to conduct mental health research and recognized a large problem, the extremely high rate of unemployment among females living in Bukavu. Ashley believes in being part of the solution. Seeing the impact over time and witnessing these women move from a place of merely surviving to thriving in their community as mothers, artists, and as leaders, is what she envisioned when she started the company. 

The clutch was designs as a piece, must like many of our pieces,  that seeks to bridge African fashion and American style. We love this piece because its funky and glamourous. 

MamAfrica Dominican Republic Congo Fair Trade Fashion

What is it like being a social enterprise among many other social enterprises, many of which are beginning to sell similar products? What places your product above others?
It is good to see people working towards worthy causes throughout the world. We really believe in the work we are doing, and we strive to make products that are unique and set us apart from similar social enterprises.

We believe that our products are unique because of the area of the world that we are working in. We are the first fair trade federation clothing and accessories line based out of DRC, that alone sets us apart! 

I loved that my package came in all recycled packaging. Tell me about the sustainability of your production.

Thank you! We truly believe in running our business ethically and sustainably. We face a lot of barriers sourcing material and supplies in Congo, which forces us to be very creative with product production. We have been able to source most of our materials locally which furthers our mission to support and boost the local economy.

Where do you see Mamafrica in 5 years? 10 years?
As of now, we are serving 53 women in total. I would love for that to be 300+ in five years and doubled in 10. As a grassroots organization, we see the impact we have made thus far and want to see that continue to grow. we also aspire to have a storefront in Bukavu, DRC for locals and expats to shop and support the local economy and celebrate Congolese artists.

How do you define beauty?

I think of beauty as a feeling that we experience in our interactions with our surroundings. Our capacity to experience beauty increases as our stresses and worries grow smaller. Here at Mamafrica, we strive to help our women build empowered lives where they don't have to spend much of their time stressed and worried, and instead they are able to feel and experience the beauty around them.
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  1. Looking beautiful! I'm loving this unique clutch and your dress is so pretty!

  2. I love the shade of blue of your dress and it is such a cute style on you... have a wonderful day Christine ♡

  3. This is amazing Christine! keep it up my friend <3

    Cassie Thriftier

  4. What a great project! I love how these type of things really make such a huge difference. <3
    That clutch is absolutely beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing. Love your blog!

  5. Beautiful feature Christine! :) x

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