Today we’d like to introduce you to Anne Drane.
Hi Anne, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Sawa Sawa collection is a sustainable, nonprofit fashion brand in Austin, Texas handmade by women in Kenya. It started as an accident. I had moved to Texas from Kenya to pursue higher education. I missed home. Being away from home allowed me to see the people and the culture from a new perspective. I asked my mother to go into the villages and buy me a few things. Some shoes, jewelry, bags, etc. Soon, the women were seeking her out to see if she could ask me to buy more because they had a sick child, needed food, school fees, etc. At the time, I bought whatever they had to help out and gave some to my friends or sold on eBay, Etsy among others. The craftsmanship was exquisite, the products were unique, elegant, high quality and had soul. It was baffling to see these women with such talent dealing with avid poverty.
My mother was diagnosed with Cancer and could no longer travel to the women. As fate would have it, I reconnected with Catherine on Facebook. We were classmates in an all girls boarding school. She was passionate about helping women and promoting domestic appreciation for the traditional craft. We joined forces and registered as a non-profit in 2019. She handles operations in Kenya while I handle the American side.
We started with a few Maasai villages and the readily available accessories. We have since grown to other villages, added more products and create custom design fashion that is marketable to the American global changing woman while maintaining the authenticity and soul of the ancient techniques. We are especially excited about our bags. They are handwoven from fiber sustainably harvested from the agave plant. They are organic, plant-based, eco-friendly, bio degradable, conscious and fair. They have a rich, textural, rustic feel. They have been woven the same way for hundreds of years. It has been very interesting to learn about this ancient bag that is the future of bags. We incorporate leather straps and closure for an elegant, high-end design.
While Catherine was out in the field creating rapport with the women, she saw girls cast away from everyone else and teenage girls not going to school. She found that girls do not attend school during their period and are cast away from the village. Most girls end up dropping out of school entirely. Their fathers marry them off in exchange of dowry. Every village we talked to expressed a desire to help them keep their daughters in school. We learnt *ed that they do not have the resources to deal with menstruation. It is a taboo to talk about it. They use feathers, leather, soil, etc. The girls were ashamed and traumatized. It was a no brainer, we had to do something about it. The #endperiodpoverty initiative was born. We believe there is nothing more important than raising a generation of empowered women. Menstrual kits and reproductive health education help the girls stay in school and have better life choices.
I accidentally found myself in slow fashion, design, and activism. It has been empowering, inspiring, humbling and such fun! I am very optimistic about the future for our brand, us as women and the daughters we are raising.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It has not been easy. It was like shooting a dart in the dark. Starting a brand is hard work. Starting a non-profit is even harder. Our biggest hurdle was funding. It is hard to acquire funding as a woman in business and even harder to be funded as a social enterprise or non-profit. There was a lot to learn and breakthrough. Every penny we could get from savings, family and friends went to help the women in Kenya. We did everything else ourselves. e.g. the website, accounting, grant applications, admin, fieldwork and more. We are looking into venture philanthropy and how to get social enterprises funded and hope to share the lessons we learn with others who wish to combine money with mission.
Branding and marketing have been a challenge. One expects that if I come up with a great product that is sustainable, eco-friendly, fair, conscious, gracefully elegant and empowers women, the market will jump at it and become a success. That is not how it worked for us, competing with fast fashion and aligning ourselves with high budget brands has been a steep learning curve. We have persisted and hope to carve out our place in mainstream retail and sustainable slow fashion. We are in ten boutiques and growing. The more we buy from the women, the more we fulfill our mission to give them an income. They in turn have the purchasing power to grow other businesses in their home economies. Meaningful female entrepreneurship solves most problems facing women in Africa.
Working with women in Kenya has been an interesting challenge. Every village brings something unique to the table. They welcome our partnership and share the vision yet we have to dance around their place in society. The Maasai for example are owned by their husbands and need their permission to work with us. We have learned to listen to them and take their lead on how to navigate the cultural hurdles.
Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
Sawa Sawa means ‘it will be okay’ in Swahili. Our primary mission is to empower artisan women in Kenya make a sustainable, dignified income using skills handed down through generations in weaving, beading, basketry, art and more. Our products are intricately handcrafted by the women in designs that preserve the authenticity and history of the techniques and also appeal to the west.
They create fashion accessories, dog accessories, sandals, bags, and art using beads and locally sourced materials. There are endless possibilities on what they can create. Our brand is a platform for the women to share their history and craftsmanship with the world.
We believe that fashion can change the world. How we spend our money is a vote for the world we want to see. Our goal is to believe in the women and instill value in their craft. By harnessing their skills, we create meaningful employment through female entrepreneurship. We make an impact in equity, cultural appreciation and preservation, poverty eradication, economic independence, reproductive health, girl child education and overall quality of life.
We empower the women with resources to create. We buy the products from them to give them a sustainable income. We use the revenue from sales to fund empowerment programs and provide girls with menstrual kits to help them stay in school and have a consistent education.
We are a social enterprise that gives American women a choice in a brand that allows them to look good while doing good.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank or give credit to?
Catherine Wambui deserves credit for her work in Kenya. My husband Walter Drane has funded most of the start up and applies his business knowledge in an advisory role. Our wonderful board of directors includes Angelica Reyes Johnsen, Chelsea Faerber, Lillian Katumba, Alice Kimani. My Score mentor, Pamela Kaur. Our volunteers, especially our volunteer strategist Chandal King. The sisterhood of women doing the same thing in their respective home countries, Tesoros Maya – Guatemala, Zuri Styles – Uganda, Origin Mexico and Hecho a Mano – Mexico. Our talented photographer Summer Miles.Our Austin model, Margaret Mitchel. Boutiques carrying our brand. Our customers are the reason we grow. Anyone who has supported us in any way, we appreciate you.
- Bags 60 – 125
- Earrings 15-32
- Bracelets 15-32
- Dog Collars 29
- Email: email@example.com
- Website: https://sawasawausa.com
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sawasawausa
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sawasawausa
July 23, 2021 at 8:21 pm
This is a great article. Thank you!