What started as a simple idea has grown into something truly remarkable.
Story by Azizi Life Co-Founder Tom MacGregor
On 7th August 2007, I stepped off a Brussels airlines flight and into Rwanda, to begin my work with the NGO Food for the Hungry and their Small Business Development team. I was to join the team to help teach basic business skills in the rural communities. Little did I know then that this was not what was going to happen at all. Instead, I was about to start on something that would one day become Azizi Life.
In those first few months, as we met with the different trainees, it became abundantly clear that the Rwandan artisans we met all had skills, organization, and leadership. They had vision for their future. Yes, they were from impoverished communities, but they had a means to rise up.
The problem was this: although the artisans could sell some of their crafts locally, the income they earned was insufficient to support their families. In some cases, the sale price didn’t even cover the cost of the raw materials. We figured that if we could become a bridge for the artisans to access the wider global market, they would get a fair price for their work, which they could then use to support their families.
Azizi Life began with just three people (none of us with a background in development or handicraft sales), working from a single table in the office of Food for the Hungry International. Our desire was to serve God and participate in his extension of love and wellbeing to people living in poverty. Our little team had a fund of $3,000 and a cupboard to store a small stock of crafts we had purchased during visits to 12 artisan cooperatives we met through Food for the Hungry.
From this base, we worked with the artisans to improve quality and design, we connected with customers, and we started to slowly grow. But even in these early days, we had a vision to build something that was about more than just buying and distributing handcrafted goods. Our desire was to create something that would help alleviate all types of poverty – economic, social and spiritual. We thought if we could create multiple social enterprises, they would be beneficial not only in and of themselves, but also contribute towards wider poverty alleviation and community development.
Fast forward to 2023, and our commitment to fair trade and sustainable economic development has made a significant impact in the lives of thousands in Rwanda. God has worked in amazing ways! Our team now consists of over 39 passionate individuals. Together, we serve 745 artisans in 52 groups.
In line with our founding vision, Azizi Life is locally-led, and one of the three co-founders, Jeannine Umutoniwase, leads us as CEO. Key parts of our work are led by our first two members of staff, Sheila Uwimana (the COO) and Venantie Musigirende (the Director of Azizi Life Impact and President of our local non-profit organization, Ubuzima Bwiza Iwacu).
Countless visitors and customers have been inspired by the talent and creativity of our artisan partners. But our impact doesn’t stop at handcrafted goods. We’ve also launched two other social enterprises, Azizi Life Experiences and Beeutiful Creations, to create income opportunities through cultural tourism and beekeeping.
As those social enterprises have grown, we have continued in our long-term commitment to contribute a portion of our profits towards wider community impact projects. In 2016, we launched an independent local charity which runs all of the impact projects. These projects contribute to alleviating poverty beyond just fair wage income.
We have a number of projects to help not only our artisan partners and their families but the wider community as well. Azizi Life Impact oversees projects offering access to renewable resources like water filters and fuel efficient stoves, and provides access to Bibles and Bible study.
Through our Adult Literacy Program, we’ve already taught over 3,500 people how to read and write in six village learning centers and one prison. Our aim (which we are on target for) is to teach over 1,000 more people by the end of 2023.
We’re constantly seeking innovative ways to make a difference, and we invite you to join us on this journey. Your donation can help us multiply our impact and uplift communities in need. Together, we can continue to create lasting change.