Did you know that Swahili Coast was founded by a husband-and-wife duo? Our founders, Caroline and Tony, are out to show the world that business can be done better. We sat down with them to chat about all things Swahili Coast – from the challenges they’ve faced, to the advice they’d offer to other folks wanting to make a positive difference in the world!
When did the idea for Swahili Coast first come to you?
Caroline: We were living in Tanzania as Tony worked on his Fulbright Fellowship in Economics with the University of Dar es Salaam. As we got more engrossed in life in Tanzania, we met artisans doing beautiful work, but who had no way of marketing their goods outside of the local market, and no insights into the buying habits of consumers outside of East Africa. We were in the market buying beaded leather sandals as a gift for my mom when we had the idea to start with beaded leather sandals. Beadwork is a traditional woman’s craft in Tanzania, and many women take pride in this skill. I have done beadwork since I was a kid, so I had an understanding of the medium, and an idea of the sorts of styles American women would gravitate toward.
Why did you choose a worker-owned cooperative model for the business?
Tony: As a social entrepreneur, I’m really interested in building a business that ensures the concept of fairness and dignity along the entire production process. We focused on the worker-owned model for two reasons. First, we want to ensure that our artisan partners have a fair standing to negotiate their needs themselves, rather than having managers (or factory owners) speak for them. Hearing directly from workers gives us the confidence that we are supporting our artisan partners, and gives our partners the right of refusal to make our orders. That gives them real leverage in negotiations, and ensures their needs are met. The second reason we chose a worker-owned model is to ensure that our work is lasting and replicable. In my previous work experience studying development economics, there are countless failed development projects — empty schools, dried wells, fallow
fields — so I was motivated to create a structure that could last longer than my own business. To do so, we have funded local marketing — The Cooperative sells sandals in regional export markets to Mozambique, Zambia and the DRC. We also are doing outreach to find distribution outlets in Australia and Europe. We also hope to reach other groups operating in similar sectors and hope they can learn and replicate our successes.
"As a social entrepreneur, I'm really interested in building a business that ensures the concept of fairness and dignity along the entire production process."
How has your relationship with your artisan partners grown over time?
Tony: Our relationships began as personal relationships on the factory floor of a mid-sized sandal factory in Tanzania. I was consulting a family-owned sandal factory on export promotion and working with them to jump start their export business. I built a relationship with beadworkers and that was the start of our first run of sandals – Seeded Hand Sown. That project worked well, and at the time we had a bonus structure of cash payments to beadworkers that was paid on top of their typical wage. The factory management was hesitantly OK with the relationship at first, but the added wages created conflict between the workers and the management, and we lost confidence that we could ensure our bonuses paid to the factory would be passed to the workers.
At the time, we had just done a big run of sandals through our distribution partners, and for the first time had a significant amount of capital saved. Instead of cashing out and moving on, we reinvested the money into a new sandal workshop, and invited the beadworkers we had built relationships with to form a worker-owned cooperative. We funded the legal incorporation and the building. We didn’t ask for anything in exchange — just that we let the newly formed cooperative know that we intend to be their partner for the future. Two years later, the cooperative has tripled in size, and is growing and flourishing. The cooperative now operates its own credit and lending bureau which is available to members. We have seen individuals like Esther come into the cooperative, save, and fund her access to college. We have seen women achieve financial independence from partners and leave abusive relationships. Today, the sandal making industry in Tanzania is stressed and in decline due to cheap Chinese imports. Sandal workshops are closing and wages are stagnant. But our partners at Ushirika are thriving, and that is a testament to the benefits of cooperative and long lasting relationships.
"Our partners at Ushirika are thriving, and that is a testament to the benefits of cooperatives and long lasting relationships."
What has been the most rewarding part of your journey with Swahili Coast?
Caroline: The most rewarding part of this journey is that the co-op is growing and flourishing without “hand-holding” on our end. Tony worked really hard to set up a system that would work for the team in Tanzania, and allow them to be independent and self-governing. It’s wonderful knowing that the artisans we work with are making more money than they ever have before, and have mechanisms and processes to negotiate and settle disputes.
What challenges have you faced? How did you overcome them?
Caroline: We faced the same issues that many self-funded entrepreneurs have faced. When we moved back to the US and poured our savings into starting this company, we were living in a basement and bartending on the weekends to pay rent. We faced a lot of obstacles in production as we worked to create an export-quality product with folks who had never exported anything before. Overcoming just came with time and persistence. We are a very different company with a very different product than we were when we started five years ago. We’ve focused on being nimble and adaptable.
"We've focused on being nimble and adaptable."
What advice do you have for folks who want to make a positive difference in the world?
Caroline: The biggest advice I have about making a difference is to leave your ego out of it. Think about what you can bring to the table, and seek out others who have different and better skills. Learn from each other. Making a difference isn’t about getting personal acclaim and pats on the back for what a good person you are. It’s about collaboration, and connection, and genuine appreciation for others and their core humanity.
We’re not out to save anyone–and no one asked us to. We’re here to leverage our privilege and talents in a way that can create a more inclusive and equitable world. What we do is still work–hard work. But it is work worth doing, and there’s plenty of work worth doing in this world. It’s our job as people to find it, and do it.