“When I look at this product, I think of perseverance. It reminds me that you can achieve, whatever the struggle”. Sheila Uwimana, Chief Operating Officer of Azizi Life and mother of two young girls, draws my attention to a couple of humble little lions, hewn from sand coloured Musave wood, fringed with red, white, green and black starbusts of kitenge mane, and chiselled with simple features, leaving just enough detail to allow a child’s imagination to carve in the rest.
These hand-carved wooden toys encapsulate the hard work of the Inganzo Woodcarving Cooperative, who featured in last month’s ‘artisan focus’ piece. They are just one of the many artisan groups that partner with Azizi Life. Sheila worked with Inganzo from the beginning of their partnership, giving them samples for them to go away and work on.
It took a while to get the desired quality, but now Inganzo are the only artisan group working with Azizi Life that make these products, which gives them another source of income. “They were so willing to learn, and we all had to have lots of patience with each other”, Sheila said. A chorus of children clamoured on the road behind us, no doubt making the most of a brief hiatus in the rain. Sheila forms the bridge between the artisans and the high-level custom orders that come from customers near and far, as well as overseeing the Azizi Life boutique in Kigali. She exudes calm like a scented candle, which comes in handy when a hefty customer order is placed from the US, such as 7,000 miniature baskets.
When Sheila was growing up in Kigali, there wasn’t much going on in the craft scene. People were peddling various wares, “but there wasn’t much variety, and what there was, was poor quality”, she told me. As time went on, the art and craft scene exploded, with a rich variety of products tailored for the high-end tourist market. Sheila, along with others in the leadership team, have steered Azizi Life in exactly this direction, all while staying true to their fair trade, social enterprise ethos.
Over her years of working with Azizi Life, these are her ‘in-a-nutshell’ insights when it comes to working with artisans in the craft business:
- Everyone has a particular skill or talent. “Get to know each of your artisans’ strengths and specialisms, and develop them.”
- Together, you can achieve more. “It’s so important to share knowledge and skills. When you really work as a team, you can achieve more”.
- Patience and balance. “Working with our artisans requires patience, and there is a balance to be struck with fulfilling customer orders. We need [to give realistic time frames to our customers], and we need to have patience with our artisans so that they do not rush their craft. They need to produce high-quality products”.
- Plan well. “When you have an order, you need to choose your artisan or group of artisans well. This links to the first point – you need to know who is specialised in what, and that means spending time with the artisans. Of course, it takes times, but you cannot take short-cuts on this. You will then be more efficient and meet targets more quickly”.
- Be disciplined. You need to be disciplined to get quality products to customers in a timely manner. Part of this means expecting honesty from the artisans about their capacity to deliver on an order. Again, this takes time, but if you persevere you will get there.
Thank you, Sheila!