I’ve been in touch with Tom from Azizi Life for quite awhile. I’ve seen their beautiful crafts on display at Heaven Restaurant and have heard great things about their Azizi Experience days. They do great work and I wanted to feature them on my site. You can find out more about them on the Azizi Life website or on their Facebook page.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Tom and in August 2007 I left my life as a Chartered Commercial Insurance Broker in the UK and moved to Rwanda to help out with a program that was training non-agricultural business skills to people in the rural communities of Southern Rwanda. On arrival in Rwanda the leader of the project asked me to find out how many of the businesses that had already received training were still operating. He feared that many of them were simply not surviving due to lack of disposable income in the areas where these businesses were based and they did not have a good way to access the wider markets. So I spent 6 months travelling around, gathering data and talking to the people who we had trained. Some of the businesses were doing well, the bee keepers for example could sell everything they produced and the tailors who had contracts to produced school uniforms had a regular flow of work, but many others were struggling, particularly those who were producing traditional arts and crafts.
So we began to ponder, how we could find a sustainable solution to this problem? We needed to create a structure that would be able to act as a vehicle to not only connect the artisans to a market, but do it in such a way that the artisans would then become customers to the other rural businesses creating an economic cycle that had the potential to multiply the effect of each franc spent exponentially – for example the artisan’s wage may go to buy bread in their village, which supports the shop owner; the shop owner buys the bread from the baker, who buys from the miller, who buys from the farmer, who purchases a farm animal in the market which provides manure for the field, which increases the crop… and the impact continues.
And what we came up with was Azizi Life.
What is Azizi Life?
Azizi is a Swahilli word that means excellent, treasured, and precious, and it is our firm belief that behind every product and purchase there is an azizi life.
Azizi Life is a social enterprise that has partnerships with over 25 independent artisan groups in southern Rwanda. Each artisans group has its own governing board, and is equipped with skills, vision, and a plan for the future. The artisans work in their own homes and workshops in their villages, managing their own work loads, and are key decision makers in fixing a fair price for each product.
Our small team in Rwanda has the privilege of coaching and encouraging these artisans with resources to continue to grow in their art, business, and faith. Azizi Life purchases the products straight away from the artists, and then coordinates all the logistics to connect the artisans and their products to the customers.
All the money generated by Azizi Life goes back into the project, helping us to grow in effectiveness, reach, and self-sufficiency.
Who are the beneficiaries?
The 25 artisan groups are made up of 326 individual artisans. As the average family size in Rwanda is about 5 people, we estimate that we have a direct impact on around 1,500 people. Of course our hope is that because of the economic cycle effect I described earlier, that we have even more beneficiaries than this.
What sorts of things has Azizi Life accomplished so far?
As well as supporting the artisans and their families; Azizi Life now directly employs nine Rwandan staff full time and six temporary staff. This year we have exported and sold Rwanda handmade crafts to customers in the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Australia and the UK. Azizi Life now has two shops in Rwanda – one based at the head office in Muhanga and the other is the Azizi Life Boutique at Heaven Restaurant. We have worked with the artisans to develop new products using traditional methods and partnered with the Red Cross to provide first aid training to around 100 artisans.
For me personally however, the main accomplishment so far is that Azizi Life is self-sustaining. We have built a foundation that means that Azizi Life is now generating enough income to be able to cover its costs and have enough money left over to reinvest in growth and community development. Therefore if things progress the way they have there is no reason why the Azizi Life cannot continue to make a difference in the rural communities for many, many years to come.
What is Azizi Experiences?
Just under two years ago we started our second social enterprise called Azizi Life Experiences. This came about because we realised just how much fun it was to spend time with our artisan partners. Often when you are travelling to (or even living in) a different country it is tricky to really get a feel for what life is like and many of the activities for tourists simply involve looking at things, when all you really want to do is have a go yourself.
A few of years ago I had some friends from the UK who had come out to visit me and to be honest I was struggling for things to do with them. So I asked one of the groups of artisans that we worked with if they would look after them for the day. The only guidelines I gave to the artisans was that they were not to treat the visitors as honoured guests, but instead treat them like children, get them to work on the family chores and teach them how to weave something out of sisal. My friends enjoyed the day so much Azizi Life Experiences was born.
Describe a typical outing on the Azizi Experience day.
In 2014 we will be introducing other Experiences but for now the standard day allows you a glimpse of what life is really like for the ladies of one of our Artisan cooperative. The day starts at 8am at the Azizi Life office. You are introduced to your translator, learn some Rwandan greetings and find out a little bit about the ladies and the village where you will be spending the day. You are then driven out to the village and met by the ladies of the cooperative. You then take part in the usual daily chores that people are involved in such as collecting water and different agricultural activities (these vary depending on the time of year). You then have lunch and in the afternoon learn how to prepare sisal and weave either a pair of earrings or bracelet. Throughout the day the guests are encouraged to ask questions to learn about life in the village and likewise the ladies of the cooperative take the opportunity to find out about what life is like where the guests live. It’s a great exchange.
Who are the ladies running the Experience day?
We work with three different cooperatives (about 40 different households) who take turns in hosting guests. The ladies are a real mixture from old to young, but each one is lovely, engaging and fun to be with. Although Azizi Life provides a translator, it is the ladies of the cooperative that are the experts and lead the day. The guests are there to learn and experience from the artisans expertise.
Why does it make a good trip for visitors to Rwanda?
It is a unique and natural way to get a little glimpse of what life is really like in a large part of Rwanda. It gives you deeper and better understanding of the culture and you make some new friends. But do not just take our word for it, check out some of the reviews the Experience day has received on Tripadvisor.
What other fun things does Azizi Life have on offer?
As well as the Kigali Boutique and Muhanga store, where you can get some awesome Rwandan handicrafts, we also hold Kids crafts experiences on the third Saturday of every month. You can find more details here http://azizilife.com/get-involved/boutique.
Although they will be officially launched in 2014, if you are interested in doing alternative Experience days we can organise them for you now. We currently can do:
- Construction Day – Learn how to make mud bricks and banana twine rope.
- Juice Day – Learn how to make banana juice and/or sorghum beer.
- Cooking Day –Learn how to prepare a Rwandan classic dish – from grinding right through to eating.
- Craft Day – An entire day focused on crafts, use different materials and make different products.
What’s in the future for Azizi Life?
There is a lot planned for 2014, particularly in respect to our community development program and expanding the range of Experience days. We have also improved our product development system and so over the next few months we should be introducing some new and exciting products to the Azizi Life line.
Long term the vision is to see Azizi Life (both crafts and experiences) continue to grow as social enterprises, becoming self-sustaining and self-managing and generating enough income to also invest in more grass roots community development projects around Rwanda.