I had the pleasure of speaking with an ethically-minded company, Songa Designs and it’s owner, SarahDunigan, and was so impressed with her passion and drive to promote a viable market for small rural artisans in developing countries, I had to share. Sara is the real-deal, and her company has proven to be an empowering support system for women. Read on to learn about her story.
How did Songa Designs get started?
I was introduced to advanced handicraft skills throughout Rwanda during my initial year of working with women’s cooperatives four years ago. Impressed by the breadth of untapped talent in far off villages throughout the country, I also realized that these artisans had little to no access to a viable market to sell their wares and make a livable wage. My first project aimed to address this challenge; along with my Songa business partner, Ellie, and another expat co-founded the Rwanda Nziza store (“Beautiful Rwanda”). This was the country’s first all-Rwandan handicraft store where artisans earn 100% of profits from sales of their products, instead of paying a large profit percentage to middlemen. We helped spearhead the formation of the Rwanda Fair Trade Artisans Association (RFTAA), a group of over 23 cooperatives with more than 2,000 members. A year after the store opened RFTAA’s Executive Committee transitioned fully into managing the store. I’m proud to note that Rwanda Nziza has now signed an exclusive agreement with a gift store at a popular national parks tourist destination.
Coming off the heels of this project, my business partner Ellie and I wanted to start something that benefitted all of us. We had gotten to assess the market strengths of many cooperatives and the quality of their materials. Careful to build upon existing skills, Ellie designed prototypes of different accessories and we tested the local market. The response exceeded expectations and we sold much of our inventory. We believed that we had something special with Songa so we decided to combine our expertise in design and business with local artisan talent.
What is the mission of the company?
The dual mission of Songa is to design high quality fashion accessories and provide dignified employment to artisans in rural communities. We focus on development – not dependence - by developing the skills necessary to compete successfully and independently in both local and global economies among Songa management staff and partner artisans.
What’s special about Songa Designs?
We have intentionally created a multi-culturally integrated business. The artisans have been part of building Songa, from idea through conception and execution. It is well understood among us that this is a committed partnership; the artisans bring the talent and expertise in the local materials and we bring the design and business knowledge.
Master weaver, Daphrose, said “I really appreciate working with Songa because they want us to grow well and become proud businesswomen. The business has a good process of developing our skills through gradual stages and this will help us improve our skills in business and make better products.”
We have also invested in the local business talent by building an exclusive Rwandan team. Jadot, our Director of Operations, has recently taken the leadership role of managing our staff and cooperatives, freeing Ellie and me to concentrate on other areas of the business. This team model enables us to efficiently create unique products.
Songa means “summit” in Kinyarwanda and “continue forward” in Swahili. We not only believe but have also seen, that business does create opportunities for people to continue forward to reach their own personal summits.
How do you come up with your designs? Are you guiding the design process for the women?
Ellie is the creative engine behind our designs. She is a trained visual artist and self- taught designer who is “inspired by the beautiful country of Rwanda, full of color and life. Every color, shape and texture holds potential.” The women are encouraged to design their own products as they are exposed to more contemporary styles. One of our most popular products is the Madeline belt – designed by our partner banana leaf cooperative. We co-brand the accessory with the artisan or cooperative that designed it in these instances.
How did you build your company overseas?
Both Ellie and I worked together in Rwanda for a year prior to our business inception. Our time together was spent developing relationships with artisans, cooperatives and staff members, that led us to a better understanding of the local culture. It is so critical to build trust in these relationships and we also benefitted from working with artisans as we opened Rwanda Nziza with them. We explained our long-term vision for Songa and set expectations from the beginning. Ellie’s residence in Rwanda is key to the stabilization of our business. We split up management responsibilities (I am a frequent Skype caller). I also made business trips in the past year for infrastructure development. The investment in the team has paid off and operations will largely be operated by our Rwandan team.
What materials do you use for your designs?
All of our accessories are made from locally sourced, natural materials. We use sisal and banana leaf, re-purposed cow horn, recycled steel and paper beads from recycled paper, and local fabric. Using local materials keeps costs low and expands the skill sets of the artisans as they learn to make new products. It remains our goal to build upon traditional skills to make accessories that have a wider appeal. We hope to see artisans compete more effectively in the marketplace even if they do not have a relationship with Songa.
You can view our collection at Songa Designs.