Business is Key for the Sustainability of Community Conservancies; and the Women of BeadWORKS are Leading the Way

When cultural norms hinder your opportunity to get an education, own property, or even make decisions about your own body, the chances of you starting a business are slim. For women in northern Kenya, this is a reality that perpetuates the poverty cycle, and often prevents them from becoming decision-makers, entrepreneurs and agents of change. This gender-based cultural suppression isn’t just bad for women, it’s bad for men and the economy too. As community conservancies look for ways to reduce reliance on donor funding, strong governance and business development are key, and that means increasing entrepreneurial opportunities for women.

The BeadWORKS artisans of Kalama Conservancy present their conservation  contribution check for 2018 to their chairperson during a ceremony in  late May.

That is why NRT Trading’s BeadWORKS business aims to provide women’s groups in community conservancies with the means to commercialise their traditional bead craft skills, learn finance and business management, and access loans and savings schemes. 

More than 1,000 women in nine conservancies eared over Ksh. 4.7 million (US$ 47,000) in direct income in 2018 from selling beaded jewellery, belts, bags, and decorations to international markets through NRT Trading. This branch of NRT focuses solely on growing sustainable businesses within the conservancies. Many of the BeadWORKS artisans have never had a paying job, many have no secondary education, and some are completely illiterate. 

The majority of the women involved in the business also faced initial resistance from men in their community. “The men thought us women were shunning our traditional responsibilities,” says Seki Lakango, a BeadWORKS member from Westgate Community Conservancy. “But as soon as they saw us go into town and buy nice clothes and food for our families, they asked how their own wives could get involved in what we were doing.”

The momentum from this economic empowerment means women are now increasingly represented on the conservancy boards, and women’s enterprise groups are now enjoying a new legitimacy, giving them, often for the first time, a voice in their community.

While it empowers women, BeadWORKS also plays a critical role in reducing reliance on a volatile livestock market - the main livelihood of north Kenya’s communities. It also aims to provide an alternative to selling charcoal, an illegal but default business for many families in desperate times. Both of these have clear links to the conservation goals of the conservancies to which the women belong, and this is a strong selling point for the beadwork, particularly for international markets. 

That is why women’s groups now pay 5% of their total annual business revenue to their respective conservancies. 

In the last two years (2017 and 2018) a total of Ksh. 2.5 million (USD 25,000) in proceeds from women’s group annual sales have been disbursed to the community conservancies.

40% of the funds received are directed to support conservancy operations, such as fuelling conservancy vehicles for increased security and wildlife patrols and running conservancy headquarters. The remaining 60% is used to help fund local projects such as bursaries for needy students and the construction of water projects among others.

“We are very happy that through our own hands, using a needle and beads, we have helped improve operations at our conservancy” says Nabiki Lesuper, a beader from Kalama Community Conservancy in Samburu County. “We used to sell illicit brew and burn charcoal for sale which damages the environment in order to fend for our families, educate our children and purchase livestock, but now we have beads.”

This contribution enhances the women’s sense of involvement in conservancies. It strengthens the link to conservation too, which makes their products more attractive to customers (many of whom are Zoos in the US, Australia and Europe). But it’s also crucial to the conservancies sustainability model. 

At present, conservancies are heavily reliant on donor funds, raised and disbursed by NRT. In 2018, 86% of the funding for conservancy operations came from donors. As they start looking for long-term solutions, business is at the top of the list. Tourism products for example provide significant income to those conservancies that have them - 2018 tourism revenue in NRT conservancies was the highest on record, with Ksh. 86 million (US$ 860,000) paid to conservancies in conservation and bednight fees.

By comparison, the BeadWORKS contribution of Ksh. 2.5 million (USD 25,000) over two years is a drop in the ocean; but for conservancies that lack the infrastructure or attractions for tourism, it’s an important one. As NRT Trading looks to expand the customer base, it will have the capacity to include more women in the business. 

The BeadWORKS business model is predicated on a grass-roots production chain that is wholly owned by the women’s groups themselves. They work together and help identify Star Beaders within their group, women with leadership and entrepreneurial skills who then oversee production, perform quality control and collect finished products. There is one Superstar Beader appointed to coordinate all the Star Beaders of a particular region.

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