The model of the worker-owned cooperative is used all over the world, but is less familiar to many Americans. We fund cooperative development through our sales and we prioritize working with co-ops whenever possible–our main partners in Kenya and Tanzania are worker-owned co-operatives.
While co-ops can vary widely in structure, size, and industry, the basic definition of a cooperative is a business in which the workers are all part-owners. This means that they get to share in the profit and risk of doing business, as well as have a say in management, negotiations, and business operations. As a group, our artisan partners are able to gain clients and orders that they would not be able to service as individuals.
When we were working on Seeded Sandals, some of our artisan partners in beadwork approached us about starting a cooperative in 2016, so we partnered with them to launch the workshop! We assisted through funding, organizational advising, and accounting training. At Swahili Coast, we don’t maintain any ownership stake in the co-op; our artisan partners are 100% owners of the workshop, so they elect a board of directors that hires management, negotiates contracts, and serves as oversight. We are always around to lend an ear and offer advice, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the artisans to make the decisions about the direction they would like to take their business.
We believe in the co-op model as a way to financially empower artisans as a collective and see it as a crucial example of business-led grassroots development. We also founded the East Africa Cooperative Development Group, a 501(c)(3) registered non-profit to assist cooperative projects in the East Africa region. You can learn more at www.EACDG.org!