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Empowering Tanzania’s rural women through their hand-woven craft: How a company changed their lives

Each basket told a tale, a story of tradition and skill passed down from mother to daughter. Initially, it was more of a leisure activity than an income strategy. However, with the training they received from us, these women can now demand fair compensation for their craft.

  • 10 months ago
  • September 2, 2023
5 min read
Catherine Shembile and her dynamic group of women proudly showcase their diverse range of innovative products. Their company, Vikapu Bomba, is a testament to their hard work and devotion to their craft. Catherine Shembile and her dynamic group of women proudly showcase their diverse range of innovative products. Their company, Vikapu Bomba, is a testament to their hard work and devotion to their craft. | Photo courtesy of Catherine Shembile
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Catherine Richard Shembilu is the Founder and Managing Director of Vikapu Bomba (VB), a social enterprise company. She leads a team that employs close to 280 rural women artisans in Southern Tanzania who were previously unemployed, and trains them in the design and production of stylish, practical baskets that are of superior quality and in high demand in local, regional, and international home goods markets.
With over a decade of experience in community development and economic empowerment projects tailored to women and girls, Catherine has spent more than seven years implementing multiple U.S. National Institute of Health-funded research projects, specifically focusing on vulnerable women.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Social capital enterprises that empower rural women artisans in Africa have shown promising results in uplifting communities and fostering economic growth. These enterprises focus on leveraging social connections, trust, and cooperation to create opportunities and improve the well-being of women engaged in traditional crafts.
These enterprises contribute to the local and regional economies, leading to increased revenue streams for the communities. With stable employment and an improved income, rural women artisans can afford better healthcare services and educational opportunities for their families.

IRINGA, Tanzania — Thirteen years ago, my Dutch friend asked me to find handmade products from Africa to give to her friends and associates as a legacy of craftsmanship by African women. One day, I walked outside the market in the sun and stumbled upon Iringa baskets, a staple of Tanzanian culture.

They stood out from the other objects like rare jewels – their appearance beautifully intricate. I showed my friend what I had found, and she quickly fell in love with them. The first time I held one in my hands, I felt a connection to the hands of the woman who wove it and to the stories whispered into its fibers. I loved the craftsmanship behind it but after purchasing several baskets, felt the materials could be improved. 

Not one to sit idly by, I set out on a mission to find these skilled women. After much searching and inquiry, I came across one weaver with whom I shared the idea. To my delight, she rallied six other women, their hands eager to shape their destinies. Together, we embarked on a journey not just to enhance their weaving skills, but to weave a tapestry of change. We discussed a potential venture to create high-quality products for international markets and together, we set out to make our vision a reality.

Read more stories from artisans all over the world at Orato World Media 

Showcasing the rich background and story of each weaver behind the baskets 

During our journey building the company, I discovered these women had been selling their beautiful baskets at such cheap prices it barely sustained them. It broke my heart to see so much hard work go unnoticed. I felt determined to ensure they received fair compensation for their efforts. We founded Vikapu Bomba, which translates to Beautiful Baskets.

Each female artisan now earns between 65 and 35 percent of the total revenue, depending on the product they craft. Each basket carries a unique story, carefully handcrafted by a rural woman of Tanzania. We decided to make the baskets more personal by attaching a small tag featuring a photo of the artisan, along with a short bio and how long it took her to make it. 

This humanized the initiative, capturing the attention of our clients, who became more interested in the lives of these talented weavers. It bridged the gap between creator and consumer. With time, the initiative grew and now supports hundreds of rural women who work full-time for Vikapu Bomba. Every day, going to work feels incredibly rewarding. I get to meet such incredible people and share my vision with them.

My goal has always been to empower rural women financially and ensure they have a say in the decision-making process of our business. This awareness allows them to broaden their investments into other ventures, such as farming and livestock keeping, resulting in exponential growth for many. 

These women empowered themselves and their communities for generations to come

Each basket told a tale, a story of tradition and skill passed down from mother to daughter. Initially, it was more of a leisure activity than an income strategy. However, with the training they received from us, these women can now demand fair compensation for their craft, earning three to four times what they did before. I met a disabled woman in 2013 who lived with her five children in a small, windowless room. Her story touched me deeply, and I knew she was the right fit for our project. We brought her along, and her life changed drastically. 

With her new income, she purchased a plot of land and built a two-bedroom house. She managed to educate her children and supplement her farming income. Our oldest employee, who was instrumental in helping me find the first group of women to work with, has been able to send her child to university and her grandchildren to school, all while investing in herself. These stories of transformation apply to all the women working with us. As their financial independence grows, they can confidently participate in decision-making processes at home and in their communities. This fills me with so much joy.

Today, as I reflect on that fateful encounter, I am humbled by the journey we undertook together, from the moment I stumbled upon those baskets, to meeting these wonderful, strong women. I witnessed their empowerment first-hand. Once confined by poor circumstances, the rural women of Tanzania emerged as leaders of their own narratives.

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