After 27 hours non-stop travel, two 6-hour stopovers and 3 different planes, I finally arrived to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. As always the interminable journey had been worth it to be back on African soil. And anyway, I had met up with Rachel Ngondo, our African Regional Development Executive, at Nairobi so I’d had some company for the final leg of the journey. As always, it was great to see her.
From the window of the third plane, the huge, open plains and the incredibly long coastline of Tanzania were both very much in evidence. Unfortunately so too was the fact that it has been very dry here of late; rainfall is desperately needed. Some areas haven’t had rains for two years now so not only is the livestock wasting away but the way of life of certain life groups may also be at risk unless some assistance is forthcoming.
Tanzania is apparently much less well developed than Kenya in a commercial sense but the country is fortunate to enjoy many more natural resources than its neighbour. Another difference between the two which was also very obvious from the air is that in Dar those living in affluent homes and those in shacks live side-by-side. In Nairobi on the other hand the very affluent areas and the slums are very separate.
Having fought our way out of Dar’s airport – literally! – we were hit by a wall of 32 degree heat combined with very high humidity. On leaving the airport, we popped in to say hello to one of our existing customers in order to discuss their facility before making our way to what can only be described as a ‘haven’. Being very slightly out of town, our hotel was serenely quiet and very beautiful with trailing bougainvillea stretching ceiling to floor around the internal courtyard. After a very long day, I was only too happy to crawl into bed at the equivalent of 6.30pm my time!
We spent the majority of our time in Dar visiting with handicraft producers in and around the city. As always with these trips, there is the odd hairy moment when we discover that, despite assurances from the taxi driver that he knows where we want to go (as he obviously needs the fare), he is in fact as lost as we are! Still, a quick call to the customer and all is well once again. I guess it’s one way of seeing a new location!
Everyone we met could not have been more friendly and welcoming: introducing us to all their workers and offering us some much-needed, cold, liquid refreshment; inviting us into their premises and giving us our own personal guided tour (whilst periodically dodging the rains that we obviously had to “let come”); and of course ensuring that we were not allowed to depart until we had signed the ubiquitous Visitors’ Book.
Most of our meetings were with new potential customers so they tended to follow a similar pattern. We explained who we are, what we do, where our all-important funds come from, how we may be able to help them and what they should expect. They reciprocated by explaining when they established their businesses, their structure, their history and of course their current requirements.
Obviously they all differed but what came across loud and clear was the desire to ‘give something back’. Many of the ladies we met (and yes, every organisation we visited bar one was headed up by a woman) had come from the streets to become entrepreneurs. One had even won Tanzania’s equivalent of Business Woman of the Year last year. Now their overriding desire was to help people such as themselves; to give them some activity thereby keeping them off the streets. One of the groups was focussing specifically on helping widows and grandmothers but with the same intention of helping to fill some of the lonely hours.
As already alluded to, these producers were primarily making handicrafts and textiles. We saw numerous rugs, table cloths and kikoys (woven fabric) but most interestingly for me, we actually saw these products being woven on good, old-fashioned looms. The purchasing opportunities were simply too numerous to mention and both Rachel and I indulged. Needless to say, I was beginning to wonder from where the extra space required in my luggage was going to magic itself and this was only the first couple of days of a 3-week trip! That said, it’s just simply not possible to say ‘no’ to these ladies and their groups of workers, especially as all the products we have seen without exception have been of such excellent quality. It will be so special to dine off my new table mats having seen how and where they were made.
Some of the current issues affecting these particular producers include the fact that no design courses exist in the schools and colleges in Tanzania so young designers are limited in their ability to hone their skills. Some courses are now just starting to be offered but it has always been too costly for the producers to employ the services of a consultant from overseas which has definitely slowed their output of new designs and products.
One of the groups with whom we visited told us that with the help of the local fair trade network, they are hoping to get handicrafts classified as ‘crops’. In the same way that people tilling the land are able to live off the crops that they produce, these pioneers believe that people live off handicraft production in a similar way and this should be officially recognised.
I would say the overriding issue that all these producers seemed to be coming up against (and we come across this the world over) is how expensive it is to borrow funds locally. We were told that official rates are currently approximately 24% but that this rate tends to mask further underlying fees making the final cost of borrowing even higher. Some firms are therefore forced to shelve any plans they may have for expansion until a company like Shared Interest comes along and is able to help. Suddenly their vision becomes a realistic possibility once more.
Without the pre-finance that Shared Interest offers, producers are not always able to consider accessing new markets and developing relationships with further buyers. Indeed, for one of the ladies with whom we spoke, our visit was perfectly timed as far as her plans are concerned and she even referred to us as ‘angels sent from God’. It is always very humbling to realise just how much benefit we are able to bring some of these groups, often with what might be considered quite small amounts of money.