“I have bought a cow. I will start selling milk to my neighbors soon,” writes Daphrose, an artisan for Songa, a jewelry and lifestyle brand based in Kigali, Rwanda. “I think sometimes clients think weaving is a hobby or something we do for fun. I would tell them that weaving means life for women in my town of Nyamata.”
Songa, or “the path forward” in Swahili, is made by women, for women. Each piece of jewelry and basket in the Songa collection is handcrafted by skilled Rwandan artisans from local materials like banana leaf fiber, sisal plant, pewter, repurposed cow horn and paper beads. The women, who wouldn’t otherwise have access to viable markets, use the wages they negotiate themselves to afford health insurance, purchase land or send their children to school.
“We have nine different cooperatives and it works where each cooperative has their own area of expertise and materials,” explained Songa Designs International founder Sarah Sternberg, who is based out of San Diego, California and visits Rwanda annually. “Some women are experts in banana leafs and others in recycled paper or beads. When we first started in 2009, a lot of the cooperatives would not cross into other materials… That’s where we came up with our funky, cool designs—We were using different materials from different women’s groups.”
Songa works consistently with about 150 women across each of the cooperatives, and sometimes expands beyond the core cooperatives if there’s enough work to reach more women.
“Each of them makes a piece and then there’s a cooperative that puts it all together, sort of like an assembly cooperative,” she explained.
The business model makes sense: Already skilled artisans trained by hundreds of years of local tradition negotiate fair wages, work together to craft designs summoned by Songa’s own designer, Ellie Kates, and their work is sold online to consumers internationally. In turn, the women gain economic independence and hone their skills enough even branch out and start their own businesses.
But Sternberg wasn’t always a master of the jewelry business. She was working in the primarily male-dominated real estate industry, where she put in 10 years.
“When the recession hit in 2008, there were no longer any jobs or any work, so I got laid off. I just received my MBA and so I was at a crossroads—I had that degree and no one was hiring,” she said.
Sternberg earned her MBA in sustainable management and decided to use the recession as an opportunity to try something different, like volunteer work abroad. She assisted with safe water education while living in a remote village in Uganda for two months and, in 2009, she crossed over into Rwanda, where she began work with women’s cooperatives. She worked with a nonprofit for a year and a half before starting Songa.
“I remember it very clearly. My cofounder and designer, Ellie, and I were both volunteers for the same nonprofit and we were on this long winding road to one of the cooperatives after working together with the women for about a year,” Sternberg recalled. “We both loved the work we were doing, it was very fulfilling and we really wanted to try it from the business side of things instead of the nonprofit… We just kind of looked at each other and had no idea what we were getting into but were like, Let’s try and make a business out of it. We had a year to really get to know the country, the women, the skills and the materials, which was kind of like our due diligence period, so transitioning to our business was pretty smooth.”
It is not atypical for women in Rwanda to depend on their husbands for financial security, which can and often to an extent does impose power structures in domestic partnerships. Sternberg’s mission sought to change that dynamic by creating jobs and providing under-resourced women dignified, economic independence.
“They are up before 5 am. Cooking takes a lot longer out there, so they’re up early getting the kids ready, walking the kids to school and then they’ll walk even further to their cooperatives. They’ll meet with the other members and see what the orders are, sit and work there for however long, then go back home and pick the kids up once they’re out of school,” she painted a picture. “Not surprisingly, the kids are always taken care of—their school fees, their clothes and uniforms they have to pay for—and beyond that, usually the women invest in electricity for their homes or cows or goats for their livestock, and then, those with more disciplined savings go and buy plots of land and a new house to upgrade from where they’ve been living.”
Jacqueline, an artisan, wrote, “My biggest achievement is when I bought a sewing machine from the money I earned from my work. Another achievement is I have been able to put electricity in my house. I hope that in the future I will open a small shop that sells handcrafts in my village because there are many tourists who pass by my village going to Akagera Park, where the famous Rwanda gorillas are.”
Damaris added, “I feel happy when I am with other women that I share struggles and success. We talk and do things together. It makes me happy.”
While many of the women are not forthcoming with their incomes in front of their husbands, who aren’t always so supportive, many others feel much more valued in the family structure because the burden of earning money is not solely placed on the husband anymore.
“I used to feel used and vulnerable. My husband used to beat me up and treat me the way he wanted. He knew I was dependent on him and I couldn’t go anywhere,” wrote Thamar, another artisan. “But things have changed now that I’m earning my own money. He doesn’t beat me anymore. He respects me and he knows that I can take care of myself and my kids. I am happier and feel more valuable than before. I am happiest seeing my children healthy, being able to feed them and sending them to school.”
Songa designs are sold exclusively online ranging $16 to $60 for jewelry and baskets will be launching on July 25th.
“Our number one piece that’s been selling consistently is the Zaza necklace. I think people are attracted to the bold and bright colors. It’s just such a statement piece and it’s something you can throw on with just a white shirt and there’s your outfit right there,” Sternberg said. “The baskets are in their DNA so it’s just incumbent upon Ellie and I that we can design different enough baskets to make them unique from what’s out there.”
But Songa is already as unique as the stories behind each woman who works with the company, and so much more than a retail line. It’s the powerful product of a company led by women and empowering women despite language and geographic barriers.
“The women’s incomes are increasing and they are gaining financial independence, but one of the things that isn’t always talked about is the confidence that they gain, as well, from being financially independent and having choices in their lives that they weren’t always able to make before,” Sternberg explained. “Anywhere in the world you get in front of a confident woman, you better get out of the way.”