Celebrating 13 Years as a Social Enterprise: 5 Lessons Learned Along the Way
Azizi Life began thirteen years ago as a social enterprise focused on connecting highly skilled weavers and woodcarvers in rural Rwanda to markets across the globe. The beauty of being a social enterprise is that Azizi Life’s priority could always be people first. How does it work? Artisans sell their goods to Azizi Life at an agreed-upon fair price, Azizi Life packages and ships those products, our socially-conscious customers with beautiful taste buy the products, and Azizi Life invests profits into purchasing more of the artisans’ goods and into community development projects in Rwanda (like teaching communities how to read and write and providing financing for cleaner-burning stoves!)
social enterprise : an organization that addresses a basic unmet need or solves a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approachSocial Enterprise Alliance
Though we will always be in the process of learning and relearning, thirteen years officially makes us “experts” by industry standards (Wow!) We love that there are more and more people and brands around the globe wanting to join the social enterprise movement – we want to share with you our experience. Tom MacGregor, Azizi Life Co-Founder and business/finance/all boring desk job things expert, compiled a few of the things we’ve learned along the way about operating a thriving social enterprise.
1. It’s all about connections.
Not only do you need a strong relationship with the artisans or production team, but you also need connections for logistics, warehousing, and sales. It was only when we connected with people who could help in all these areas that things really started to grow. No matter what you do, make people and the relationships the center of all you do – from production to market.
2. Price is the hardest thing.
Setting prices for products has always been the hardest thing for us to do. In your heart, you want to give huge amounts to artisan friends, but then this can push the price so high that no one will buy their products. The key to sustainability is getting the balance right of paying a fair wage but keeping your products at the right price to attract the most customers. Be open to a process of trial and error to get the right balance.
3. Quality is king.
The story behind the social enterprise will only get you so far with customers. You need to also provide something of real, beautiful quality to keep them coming back. This means you must be real with artisan partners and uphold a very high standard. It can be difficult, but if you buckle and buy low quality products, artisans may be tempted to rush and deliver low quality the next time too. At Azizi Life we have a training period for new artisans or new designs where we do sometimes purchase even those lower quality items. As time goes by, we become stricter and stricter, until the artisans are only selling us the highest quality work and receive a pay worthy of this high quality.
4. Choose your own social enterprise mix.
Get creative with what is available locally. Look at the assets of your location and skills of your team and partners, then try and test what works for you. Azizi Life is actually a family of social enterprises. Back in 2008, we started with exporting crafts. Along the way, we loved spending time visiting the artisans and realized that visitors to Rwanda would probably feel the same. We added a sister social enterprise for artisans to host cultural experience days, then we opened some local shops, and then we created a studio to provide crafting classes. This mix works for us and has unintentionally protected our business during the pandemic. When travel restrictions meant no tourists, we still had export sales. Plus, each part feeds the other part – Experience Day guests became export customers and customers from overseas come to do tourist activities with the artisans.
5. You must be seen.
In the age of social media and online sales, you must tell your story and showcase the beauty of your work. Social media is a hungry beast and it cannot be ignored or put on the back burner. We have found it is worth the investment of time and money to increase our online presence. Whether it is in videos, photos, or the written word, showing and telling your story will make all the difference.
Thank you for being a part of the Azizi Life story. We count the last thirteen years as pure joy as we continue to catch glimpses of how God might be using baskets and the global market to bring his love and transformation around the world. It is humbling, and we look forward to many more years of connecting beautiful souls across oceans!
LET’S CHAT: Do you run a social enterprise? Or have a brand that does similar work that you appreciate? We would love to know what you have learned or love about other social enterprises! Comment below or send us an email at email@example.com.
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