Weaving is part of the culture Seraphine Mukandamage inherited as a child growing up in Rwanda. About 10 years ago, she started working with All Across Africa, a San Diego-based organization which works with women artisans in sub-Saharan Africa to bring their products to the global marketplace, negotiate fair prices and help create social and economic impact in their communities.
She’s leveraged that relationship well, putting electricity in her house, becoming a leader in a local cooperative and paying for her children’s education. Two of her children have graduated from college and another is going to Europe to study veterinary science.
“As a mother of seven children, I want them to live a good life in this challenging world,” she said. “To help them to make it, I have to pay for their education to the (highest) possible level. The second goal is to acquire more land so that my children would inherit enough plots for their future homes. For these two goals, I am on (a) good way to achieve them.”
Mukandamage is one of the women behind a new collection of Starbucks handwoven merchandise, available while supplies last at select Starbucks Reserve locations, including Starbucks Reserve Roasteries in Chicago, New York and Seattle, and the SoDo Starbucks Reserve Store in Seattle.
The seven-piece collection – vases, bowls, keychains and pom boxes (baskets with lids traditionally used to carry gifts to special occasions like weddings) – was designed and made by the women who work with All Across Africa. Their stories and photos will be featured on hanging tags attached to each item.
“We believe our customers will be drawn into the collection because it’s different, colorful and pretty, and when they learn more about it, we hope the story and women behind the collection is what speaks to them,” said Gretchen Kulesza, senior product manager for Starbucks Reserve merchandise.
All the handwoven products are made from natural fibers and inspired by the art cards that accompany bags of Starbucks Reserve Rwanda Hingakawa coffee, one of the featured coffees at Starbucks Reserve locations and select Starbucks stores this summer.
Starbucks has long sold single-origin whole bean coffee from Rwanda. The group of farmers who produce it belong to a women-run cooperative called Hingakawa, a mantra which means “let’s grow coffee.” Coffee became a livelihood for more than 500 Rwandan women who joined together to form the cooperative following the genocide against the Tutsi people in 1994, which killed more than 800,000 people.
Starbucks believes specialty coffee is a profoundly human endeavor, and it’s nowhere more evident than in Rwanda, where the Hingakawa farmers had to piece their community back together with resiliency and reconciliation. Starbucks is proud to share a coffee that is a product of patience, care and love.
For Alicia Wallace, chief operating officer of All Across Africa, the collaboration with Starbucks is a natural one that makes “good business and social-impact sense.” Both organizations are committed to community, sustainability and empowering women in leadership. The collection will also carry the Nest Seal designation, a symbol of assurance that the items have been ethically made, fair wages are paid and children are not employed.
“What these jobs create is dignity, that energy and the confidence in the woman, that she is capable, that the world needs her,” Wallace said. “They walk around with their head up, their heads held high.”
All Across Africa grew out of a desire to create local jobs in rural areas with extreme poverty. The organization employs more than 6,300 artisans in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana – organized into cooperative structures with elections. Business and leadership decisions are made at the local level.
For Mukandamage, “weaving and creativity is my passion.” She considers herself a skilled and experienced weaver but pay was low and inconsistent in the local markets. Working with All Across Africa became an opportunity to fulfill bigger orders and work on more challenging projects. She learned new techniques and incorporated new colors, materials and designs. She became a mentor and trainer to about 100 young women in her community.
“To (be a) Rwandan woman today, it means a lot to me. I have to spread love to everyone, speak the truth to power…"
The opportunity to earn a living for herself and her family through weaving alone became a matter of “serious business,” she said, “a golden chance I couldn’t lose.”
“To (be a) Rwandan woman today, it means a lot to me. I have to spread love to everyone, speak the truth to power… I have to work hard to help everyone live a better life.”
To learn more about the Hingakawa Cooperative, visit Starbucks Stories: Hingakawa.